10 Defining Moments from the 2014 World Cup Round of 16

After eight exciting games in the round of 16 that featured two penalty shootouts and three extra-time contests, we are now officially into the quarterfinal stage of the 2014 World Cup.

Over Friday and Saturday, we have plenty of mouthwatering action to look forward to. Hosts Brazil welcome impressive dark horses Colombia and France take on Germany in two continental clashes on July 4. July 5 sees the Netherlands come up against surprise package Costa Rica, while Argentina play Belgium.

As we look forward to the next round in one of the most scintillating and unpredictable World Cups in recent memory, let’s look back in chronological order at 10 key moments from the round of 16 that defined how the ties were settled.

 

Mauricio Pinilla Hits the Bar

Mauricio Pinilla Hits the Bar

Martin Meissner/Associated Press

Brazil coach Luiz Felipe Scolari has since attributed his team’s struggles in the World Cup to pressure, but we didn’t need his confirmation to know just how hesitant they have appeared this summer.

Their performance against Chile at the Estadio Mineirao in Belo Horizonte on June 28, when Jorge Sampaoli’s men looked the home side with their dominance of possession, showed just how big of a challenge winning a sixth World Cup on home soil would be.

They would ultimately prevail in the penalty shootout, thanks to Neymar’s coolness under unimaginable pressure and Gonzalo Jara’s miss, but they only escaped the jaws of defeat in the final minute of extra time, when Chile’s Mauricio Pinilla hit the crossbar with Brazil goalkeeper Julio Cesar already beaten.

Pinilla has since gotten a tattoo of the miss on his back, according to Charlie Scott of the Daily Mail, with the inscription, “One centimeter from glory.” A cruel but defining end to an impressive tournament for Chile.

 

James Rodriguez Scores a Screamer

James Rodriguez Scores a Screamer

Clive Rose/Getty Images

Luis Suarez’s biting incident with Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini in their final group-stage match and the former’s subsequent ban threatened to overshadow the entire buildup to the round-of-16 clash between Colombia and Uruguay on June 28.

Suarez’s replacement in attack, Diego Forlan, showed just how much Oscar Tabarez’s side would miss the Liverpool striker, but perhaps not even Suarez would have been able to save them against an irrepressible Colombia side in top form.

James Rodriguez had stepped up to become his country’s talisman in the absence of star striker Radamel Falcao by scoring in every group-stage game, and he didn’t disappoint in the round of 16.

A scintillating moment of magic on 28 minutes saw him unleash an exquisite left-footed volley that cannoned off the crossbar and into the back of the net to send Colombia into a lead they never looked like conceding. He followed up with another goal 22 minutes later.

 

Arjen Robben Hits the Deck

Arjen Robben Hits the Deck

Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

Perennial underachievers in the World Cup, the Netherlands stormed into the round of 16 with a series of excellent performances in the group stage. Then they met Mexico in Fortaleza, where they were given a tough challenge in a game that had all the drama associated with the knockout stages of the World Cup.

Mexico even looked on course to knock out the Oranje, as Giovani dos Santos’ volley on 48 minutes gave them a one-goal lead for 40 minutes before Wesley Sneijder managed to equalize for Louis van Gaal’s side.

And right at the death, Arjen Robben, who has been a revelation in Brazil this summer, attracted controversy by going to ground following a Rafael Marquez challenge, winning an injury-time penalty.

Klaas-Jan Huntelaar showed composure in reserve to score the winning goal, but Robben, who has since admitted he dived in the first half, stole all the headlines with his theatrics.

 

Keylor Navas Saves Costa Rica

Keylor Navas Saves Costa Rica

Quinn Rooney/Getty Images

The Arena Pernambuco in Recife probably didn’t expect to play host to Costa Rica and Greece when the group-stage fixtures were announced, but on June 29 the crowd witnessed a historic moment as Costa Rica reached the last eight for the first time ever.

They had Navas to thank, as his stellar saves from shots by Kostas Mitroglou, Theofanis Gekas, Kostas Katsouranis and Lazaros Christodoulopoulos kept the Central Americans in the tie after extra time. By the end of a heroic 120 minutes, Navas had saved seven of the eight shots he faced in the game.

And he wasn’t done yet: After his normal- and extra-time heroics, Navas stepped up to the plate and faced off the Greeks in what surely had to be one of the most accurate penalty shootouts in recent World Cup history.

Costa Rica scored from their first four attempts, which meant that a Gekas miss on Greece’s fourth penalty would take the shootout to match point. Navas pulled off the defining save before Michael Umana notched past Orestis Karnezis to send his side into rapture.

 

Emmanuel Emenike Is Offside

Emmanuel Emenike Is Offside

Ian Walton/Getty Images

In the end, France’s win seemed to be routine, as Nigeria finally relented to Paul Pogba’s header and Joseph Yobo’s own goal to let France through to the quarterfinals.

But the June 30 tie in Brasilia wasn’t without controversy: On 20 minutes, Nigeria’s Emmanuel Emenike latched onto Ahmed Musa’s cross and poked past Hugo Lloris to hand the Africans a shock lead.

Or so they thought.

A raised flag from the linesman cut short the Super Eagles’ celebrations. It was a tight but seemingly correct decision in hindsight, one that might have greatly affected the outcome.

 

Andre Schurrle Conjures Backheel Magic

Andre Schurrle Conjures Backheel Magic

Sergei Grits/Associated Press

It’s been a difficult World Cup campaign for Andre Schurrle—so impressive and reliable as a goalscorer at club level for Chelsea but overshadowed by the supreme Thomas Mueller and evergreen Miroslav Klose in Brazil, despite wearing No. 9 for Germany.

So he was due a moment to breathe life back into his personal tournament and did just that after coming on as a half-time substitute for Mario Gotze against Algeria on June 30.

With two attackers spearheading the German offense in Mueller and Schurrle, Joachim Low’s side finally broke the deadlock, and it was Schurrle who delivered with an outrageous backheeled goal in the second minute of extra time past Algeria keeper Rais M’Bolhi.

It proved to be the decisive moment in Porto Alegre. It took the Germans another 18 minutes to score through Mesut Ozil, which rendered Abdelmoumene Djabou’s goal in injury time mere consolation.

 

Angel Di Maria Finally Produces

Angel Di Maria Finally Produces

Manu Fernandez/Associated Press

On July 1, Angel Di Maria spent 118 minutes twisting and turning, running and dribbling, shooting and missing, threatening but failing.

Some argued that his performance was worthy of a Man of the Match award due to his constant threat to Ottmar Hitzfeld’s Switzerland, while some insisted he was the most wasteful player in Sao Paulo that afternoon.

No matter: At 118 minutes, Di Maria finally produced the goods.

To be sure, it was Lionel Messi who capitalized on a mistake to run at the Swiss defence and lay off the ball to his El Clasico rival. But the Real Madrid man still needed composure in abundance to finish past the impressive Diego Benaglio, and Di Maria answered Argentina’s call when his country most needed him.

 

Blerim Dzemaili Misses Two Sitters

Blerim Dzemaili Misses Two Sitters

Sergei Grits/Associated Press

It could’ve been so different, though: Switzerland were literally inches away from taking the tie to a penalty shootout.

But instead of scoring an equalizer in injury time, Blerim Dzemaili managed to hit the post from a few yards and then prod the rebound wide, turning Switzerland’s golden chance into a “coulda-woulda-shoulda” moment to rival Pinilla’s for Chile.

Dzemaili’s miss wasn’t quite as picturesque as Pinilla’s to merit a commemorative tattoo, but it almost provided the cherry on the top of what was an intense final few minutes of extra time on the back of 110 minutes of testy football.

Argentina survived to fight another day.

 

Chris Wondolowski Misses from a Few Yards

Chris Wondolowski Misses from a Few Yards

Michael Steele/Getty Images

The United States’ Chris Wondolowski rounds off our pick of close shaves in the round of 16 and joins Pinilla and Dzemaili as those who will regret their crucial misses for some time to come.

Wondolowski’s chance came against the run of play against a technically superior Belgium side, but it was a simple piece of Route 1 football that almost undid the Belgians in injury time, as he was sent clear after Jermaine Jones headed on a Geoff Cameron long ball.

With the goal—and Thibaut Courtois—at his mercy, Wondolowski contrived to blaze over the bar, letting the game stand at 0-0 and taking it into extra time.

The Americans may offer the defence that the assistant referee had put up his flag to indicate offside, which would’ve ruled the goal out anyway, but we’ll never truly know what could’ve happened if Wondolowski had completed his task first.

 

Romelu Lukaku Comes off the Bench

Romelu Lukaku Comes off the Bench

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Funny how some things work out.

For Belgium’s three group-stage games, Romelu Lukaku failed provided the thrust and attacking threat he was asked to and instead was outshone by teenage striker Divock Origi, who took Lukaku’s place in Marc Wilmot’s starting XI on July 1 against the United States.

So who better to turn the game in Belgium’s favor than Lukaku himself? The Chelsea striker came off the bench to replace Origi for the extra-time period and finally announced his arrival in Brazil with a barnstorming performance that led to Kevin De Bruyne’s opening goal.

Lukaku scored Belgium’s second goal to render Julian Green’s 107th-minute effort futile, as he provided exactly the presence that Jurgen Klinsmann lacked after Jozy Altidore’s injury.

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report.

World Cup: Confident USA Will Prove Tough Opponents for Stuttering Belgium

Stand-in captain Jan Vertonghen scored a 77th-minute winner as Belgium secured top spot in Group H with a 1-0 win over South Korea on Thursday, who crashed out of the 2014 World Cup with just a single point.

It was a poacher’s finish from Tottenham Hotspur defender Vertonghen, who got himself into the box after a Belgium attack to finish past South Korean goalkeeper Kim Seung-gyu, after DivockOrigi, again impressing as a substitute, drew an unconvincing parry from his shot.

Midfielder Steven Defour had been sent off just before half-time after a nasty challenge, leaving Marc Wilmots’ side with 10 men for the entirety of the second half, but Hung Myung-bo’s men will have been disappointed with yet another uninspiring showing.

The Belgians completed their group-stage campaign with three wins out of three and will take on the United States in the round of 16, after their 0-1 loss to Germany on the same day saw them finish second in Group G.

But Wilmots will know that his side still needs to improve on a surprising general lack of fluidity given the midfield and attacking talent across his star-studded squad, especially against a USA side high in confidence after qualifying from the tournament’s “Group of Death.”

 

 

Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

 

Belgium Taking Time to Gel and Impress

For all the pre-tournament talk about Belgium being dark horses and having a young and talented squad, despite winning Group H with a 100 per cent record, they have yet to really impose themselves on the World Cup.

Against a relatively easy group—especially compared to the USA’s—with Algeria, South Korea and Russia, it’s been a surprise to see Belgium winning all three games by just a single-goal margin: They ended the group with nine points and a goal difference of just three.

Perhaps a misfiring Romelu Lukaku (more on him later) has been the main reason, and that a fit Christian Benteke would’ve given them the attacking impetus and thrust that they needed. But it’s not just been Lukaku that has failed to impress: Even the likes of Eden Hazard and Nacer Chadli have disappointed, the latter losing his place to Dries Mertens after an unconvincing first game against Algeria.

A strong midfield provides an excellent base for the Belgian attack, but the fact that Wilmots’ first-choice defence doesn’t feature a single out-and-out full-back may be a factor in their disjointed performances, despite Vertonghen scoring his winner on Thursday.

Curiously, Vertonghen became Belgium’s first starting player to score a goal in the World Cup since Wilmots himself in 2002. Ultimately, it may not be a problem in Wilmots’ selections, but there are no two ways about it: Belgium should be doing much better than they are.

 

Matthew Lewis/Getty Images

 

 

A Change in Approach for Wilmots?

Such is the depth and strength of the Belgian World Cup squad, thatWilmots could afford to make some changes to his starting XI on Thursday and still emerge from the tunnel with a team oozing excitement and class.

But while it could’ve been purely a plan to give some of his bench players a good run-out against a South Korea squad weak on paper, Wilmots’ decision to drop misfiring Lukaku, who has disappointed with a couple of pedestrian displays this summer, for a more dynamic and interchanging forward line of Kevin Mirallas, DriesMertens and Adnan Januzaj was a bold choice.

They didn’t get on the scoresheet, but Mertens’ direct style continued to shine, while Mirallas mirrored his contributions up front andJanuzaj offered creativity and a close control that is arguably unique in a midfield more known for its power and physicality.

Could this be how Wilmots approaches his round of 16 tie with the USA next Tuesday? Even taking into consideration Hazard’s likely return to the starting lineup, this style, without a recognizable and traditional center forward, could be the key to unlocking a more coherent attacking performance from the Belgians.

With Marouane Fellaini and Axel Witsel in top form so far this tournament—Defour’s suspension wasn’t going to impact proceedings on Tuesday anyway, since Belgium’s starting midfield picks itself—and Kevin de Bruyne motoring down the middle of the park, this is a plan that, on paper, could finally unleash the multitude of goals that Belgium promised before the World Cup started.

 

 

Michael Steele/Getty Images

 

USA Enter the Round of 16 on a High

In a round of 16 featuring runners-up participants like Chile, Uruguay, Mexico and Switzerland, Belgium may feel that it has enjoyed better luck, pairing with the United States. Yet judging from the Americans’ performances over the course of three games in Group G, they will provide a stern threat on Tuesday.

With a thrilling win over Ghana and only the last minute of stoppage time preventing a remarkable comeback against Portugal, the USA will be riding high in confidence after securing qualification from the group stages, where they have gained many a neutral supporter with their energetic and passionate performances.

And while Jozy Altidore may still not be fit for the Belgium tie, JurgenKlinsmann has conversely strengthened his midfield by playing captain and all-rounder Clint Dempsey up front, packing in pace and power behind him to allow his full-backs to support the American attack.

This allows for an intriguing battle in the middle of park at the Arena Fonte Nova in Salvador on Tuesday, with the impressive Kyle Beckerman and the powerful Jermaine Jones taking on the physical Fellaini-Witsel Belgian midfield axis.

Plus, Belgium aren’t exactly the most convincing team out of all group winners taking part in the round of 16: Only Costa Rica are the true surprise package—all others have been hugely impressive, unlike Wilmots’ side. The USA’s team ethic and spirit will ask huge questions of Belgium.

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report.

The Business of World Cup Branding and Sponsorship

After the 32 participating nations announced their World Cup squads and most domestic football leagues around the world wrapped up their seasons, the attention has turned firmly to the action that has now begun in stadia across Brazil this summer.

Cue the spectacular advertising campaigns put on by brands and companies the world over, in a bid to cash in on the World Cup. Traditional sportswear powerhouses like Nike and Adidas have gone head to head in the production of high-budget commercials and promotional projects featuring footballing superstars, while companies that by nature don’t have anything to do with football—take Pepsi and Samsung, for example—have built a roster of star players to feature in their campaigns.

From official “FIFA Partners” to “National Supporters,” from “FIFA World Cup Sponsors” to unrelated companies targeting the football-fan demographic, the World Cup this summer features a multitude of brands competing for their ideal target market—FIFA has even designed and implemented a three-tier sponsorship structure to amplify and increase the profitability of the marketing frenzy in their flagship tournament.

Even the footballing action is and will be dominated by sponsors: the flashing billboards adorning each stadium, the official live broadcast coverage partners, the athletic gear worn by the players—given the frenetic advertising environment, perhaps international football should receive some credit for not yet caving into the lucrative practice of featuring official sponsors of national team kits.

The nature of the World Cup, and the reverence with which its fans and participants treat its ultimate prize, mean that football will be the main star in Brazil this summer. But that hasn’t stopped—and won’t stop—the considerable momentum that the branding and sponsorship activities have built over the years in their evolution into a prominent sideshow to the tournament.

How It All Began

It wasn’t always this way. There was a time when the World Cup—even professional football altogether—was just about the sport. But the phenomenon of television changed things forever.

The impact of television on the World Cup’s worldwide commercial boom cannot be understated: According to TIME, the number of TV sets worldwide “increased more than twentyfold” from 1954 to 1986, “from a little more than 30 million to more than 650 million,” laying the foundations for a truly groundbreaking moment in football history.

While the first live World Cup games, broadcast in Europe for the 1954 tournament held in Switzerland, reached only a handful of audiences due to the low number of matches shown, the potential of television and TV advertising was already apparent. In 1974, new FIFA president Joao Havelange turned his organization into a modern international NGO upon taking office, as he put in place the infrastructure, people and income-drive of a corporation to conquer the world of football and reap the ensuing economic benefits.

After the rapid expansion of the World Cup tournaments under Havelange’s watch—he added eight participant slots to the tournament, while also introducing other versions of the World Cup, including the U-17 and U-20 iterations, as well as the Confederations Cup—came the idea of corporate sponsorship to help bear the costs of hosting a global tournament in one country.

Thus came money-spinning deals with Adidas and other big-name corporations like Coca-Cola to finance the tournament, while television advertising, which had grown to become a huge cash cow with the boom of TV, led to increased premiums for marketers to get their spots and campaigns onto World Cup TV screens.

The Golden Era of World Cup Sponsorship

The sponsorship boom that began under Havelange has been taken to unprecedented new levels during the tenure of current FIFA president Sepp Blatter. According to a UPenn study, the stellar lineup of corporate FIFA sponsors (otherwise known as their “partners”) for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa included Adidas, Coca-Cola, Emirates Airlines, Hyundai-Kia Motors, Sony and Visa—who were “guaranteed exposure in the tournament stadium” and would receive “direct advertising and promotional opportunities and preferential access to TV advertising.”

The cost involved in partner-level sponsorship of the 2010 tournament was a commitment of a minimum of between 100 and 200 million euros through 2014, while “FIFA World Cup Sponsors” would collectively invest around 50 million euros through 2014.

As a result, FIFA’s revenues from the South Africa tournament reached a staggering $1.022 billion, and FIFA was to provide $420 million to all participating national teams and the football league teams providing players to those national teams. $30 million would go to the World Cup-winning team (Spain), while first-round teams automatically qualified for $8 million each. $1 million in preparation costs were provided to each participating football association.

So, yes, it’s a sporting achievement and an indication of a country’s footballing proficiency to qualify for a World Cup—but it’s also a great way for national football associations to make money. Football—and the World Cup—can no longer be considered as its own entity, separate from the clutches of money. After a period of explosive growth and the influence of a few key players, the World Cup and money have become intimately intertwined.

FIFA has ridden on this wave to further corporatise and globalise itself. Since introducing the World Cup in the United States in 1994, a move that proved to be a stunning success (USA 1994 still holds the total attendance record and average all-time attendance record), the World Cup has since traveled to Asia (2002), Africa (2010), and will go to Russia in 2018 and the Middle East in 2022. According to the Telegraph, Blatter has even entertained the idea of hosting the 2022 tournament across several countries in the Gulf region, which would multiply the brand and advertising exposure for FIFA’s partners across geographies.

To Sponsor or Not to Sponsor?

It’s not only the football that wins, however—after all, there has to be an inherent attraction to becoming a World Cup sponsor in the first place. Otherwise, brands wouldn’t be tripping over themselves to secure eye-watering contracts with national teams, players and the tournament itself.

So grand is the World Cup stage, that even smaller brands and smaller teams involve big sums of sponsorship money. Spain’s Joma sponsored Honduras in 2010 for $2 million a year, while China’s Hongxing Erke Group paid $7 million a year for the North Korean team.

But the battle is always at its most intense at the top of the footballing hierarchy, simply because a brand’s association with a team’s success will do wonders for its own brand performance, not least in terms of direct revenues. The UPenn study cites forecasts that the Adidas’ sales in the domestic Spanish market would grow by 8% if Spain won the World Cup in 2010 (they did), which would mean an overall 50% increase in Adidas’ sales from previous forecasts for 2010.

A continued association with success is also the driving force behind Nike’s contract with high-profile teams like Brazil, Portgual and the Netherlands, which guarantees a high level of visibility for the million-strong World Cup audiences around the globe. As the apparel hits stores worldwide ahead of, during and after the tournament, money will flow into the coffers of these high-profile brands, and even more so if their sponsored national teams perform well.

This explains the recent trend of new national team kit designs almost once a year: Brazil, England, Germany, Spain, Argentina and France are all examples of world-famous teams who have launched high-profile events and flashy marketing campaigns in conjunction with big-name sportswear companies and top international stars. And there are still those companies outside the sports arena that have allocated major funds and expensive campaigns to up their branding and advertising ante with the World Cup on the horizon.

Without doubt, the growth in sponsorship opportunities have provided many an ambitious brand to take advantage of World Cup to reach out to bigger audiences and rake in the ensuing benefits. But this path must be treaded properly.

The danger is that new kit launch events and over-the-top advertising campaigns have become hype machines that serve no purpose, and the risk is that the ever-expensive replica kits—one of the many inevitable products of the evolution of branding and sponsorship into World Cup sideshows—have become out of reach financially for that most important demographic when it comes to the most famous football tournament on earth.

For what is the World Cup without the common football fan?

 

This article first appeared on Outlook India, as “The Branding Business: How branding and sponsorship have evolved into a prominent sideshow to the World Cup.”

Power Ranking the 2014 FIFA World Cup Stadiums

With the World Cup just around the corner, excitement is well and truly brewing. Construction workers in Brazil are frantically putting the finishing touches to a stellar lineup of stadiums ready to host fans the world over for a month.

There have been many obstacles along the way, notably the well-publicized construction delays that have led to criticism directly from FIFA, but it looks as if the construction will be carried over the line in time for the tournament—just.

Here we rank the 12 World Cup stadiums this summer, based on a number of criteria: geographical location, game significance, structural features and importance to the community.

Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

 

All stadium information provided by the World Cup Portal, the official Brazilian Federal Government website on the 2014 FIFA World Cup.

12. Arena Pantanal (Cuiaba)

12. Arena Pantanal (Cuiaba)

Jose Medeiros/Associated Press

Geographical Location

Cuiaba’s Arena Pantanal is last on our list, and its geographical location is a major reason behind its low ranking: There is no team in the state that plays in Brazil’s top football division, making this 41,390-seater a likely candidate to become a white elephant after the World Cup.

After the tournament, the arena will “turn into a new leisure venue for locals,” according to the World Cup Portal, which goes to show just how unimportant this stadium location was in the first place.

 

Game Significance

That the ground will only host four group stage matches doesn’t help its ranking on our list either.

While Chile-Australia, Russia-South Korea, Nigeria-Bosnia-Herzegovina and Japan-Colombia are all interesting matchups in their own right, the fact that none of the big boys will be on show in the Arena Pantanal says it all about its significance.

 

Structural Features

Since it is a brand-new stadium for the World Cup, modern architectural features and fan-friendly accessibility factors do redeem the Arena Pantanal somewhat.

It has 90,000 square meters of promenade surrounding it, while 20 entrances, 79 turnstiles, 20 staircases and 12 elevators will provide fans a spacious environment to enter and exit the stadium.

There are also 32 food kiosks, three restaurants, 97 boxes and 66 lavatories, making it a fan-centric modern structure.

 

Importance to the Community

Legacy inside and outside of football is very much part of FIFA’s lexicon when it comes to hosting World Cups across the world.

In the Arena Pantanal’s case, since there is no local first-tier team that will be able to make use of such a grandiose new construction project, there is no choice but for the stadium to turn into a multi-purpose venue after the tournament.

Whether that is “important” to the local community or simply a convenient reason for Cuiaba to be a host city is entirely up to you.

 

11. Arena Da Amazonia (Manaus)

11. Arena Da Amazonia (Manaus)

Jose Zamith/Associated Press

Geographical Location

The Arena da Amazonia is another stadium whose geographical location just doesn’t help itself.

Sure, you can argue that hosting a World Cup match so close to the Amazon makes for an exotic experience, but the traffic and the climate there—not to the mention the sheer distance from everywhere else—makes Manaus a royal pain of a venue.

There’s a local adage that goes: “There are two seasons in Manaus—summer and hell.” And there’s a whole article on CBS News (and other various news outlets) on just how challenging the Manaus location is.

 

Game Significance

The most high-profile match here is Group D’s clash between England and Italy—not that Roy Hodgson and his team will enjoy traveling such a long distance for an already tough match on paper.

Manaus was never going to host more than the standard four group-stage games: It would have presented too much of a logistical challenge otherwise.

 

Structural Features

What you can’t deny is the spectacle that the Arena da Amazonia is as an architectural feat. The 45,500-seater takes inspiration from an “indigenous straw basket, full of Brazilian fruit,” according to the World Cup Portal, which is its most distinct feature.

Seven colors in various tones of yellow, orange and red are represented in the stadium seats, while the stadium facade itself looks like a basket from the X-shaped metal modules. (We considered moving it up our rankings because of these unique features.)

 

Importance to the Community

Yet for all of its vibrant colors, the Manaus area really doesn’t have a pressing need for a state-of-the-art new football stadium, not least because of the transportation problems the city will likely encounter for its matches.

Here‘s a revealing statement from the Telegraph that shows just how “important” the stadium will be:

There has been some speculation that it might be used as a prison after the World Cup to relieve overcrowding elsewhere.

Legacy indeed.

 

10. Arena Da Baixada (Curitiba)

10. Arena Da Baixada (Curitiba)

Alexandre Carnieri/Associated Press

Geographical Location

Outside of sports, Curitiba has long been recognized for its central role in Brazilian economics; indeed, it was awarded the Global Sustainable City Award in 2010, which recognized the city’s sustainable urban development.

The Arena da Baixada finds itself in one of the most desirable cities in Brazil.

 

Game Significance

Despite its ideal location, the Arena da Baixada plays host to a disappointing four matches this summer, and none of the fixtures on show in Curitiba is a mouthwatering clash.

 

Structural Features

With a capacity of 43,000, the Arena da Baixada is a respectable arena that is also the home stadium of Atletico Paranaense, who also own and operate it.

Rising like a concrete box in the middle of the city, the Arena is a structurally impressive stadium: Its ground facade is almost see-through, meaning that people outside of the stadium are able to look inside towards the ground.

The 48 kiosks and four restaurants for food, as well as the 884 underground indoor parking spaces, make it a strong contender in the accessibility category.

 

Importance to the Community

Construction delays and failure to meet the agreed FIFA timeline is one of the reasons the Arena da Baixada ranks so low here. As of May 15, it was one of three World Cup stadiums yet to be completed, according to Yahoo!, while a test match in mid-May saw bulldozers parked outside with construction material piled up.

Curitiba was nearly excluded from the tournament outright because of “chronic delays that were caused mostly by financial shortcomings.” Certainly not encouraging.

 

9. Estadio Beira-Rio (Porto Alegre)

9. Estadio Beira-Rio (Porto Alegre)

Gabriel Heusi/Associated Press

Geographical Location

In terms of location, the Estadio Beira-Rio in Porto Alegre is arguably one of the most fitting venues in Brazil to hold World Cup matches. The city features one of the most intense cross-town rivalries in Brazilian football—Internacional and Gremio.

It is also the southernmost stadium out of all 12, which means that colder temperatures are likely.

 

Game Significance

With five matches to host, the Estadio Beira-Rio slightly outperforms its predecessors on this list. France, the Netherlands and Argentina are among the high-profile teams to play their group stages matches in Porto Alegre, while it is also set to host a round-of-16 match.

 

Structural Features

Unlike the stadiums at Cuiaba and Manaus, the Estadio Beira-Rio is not a completely new structure; rather, the redeveloped design accentuates the already striking facade to present one of the most memorable out of the 12.

It also hosts a respectable 50,000 seats, and after redevelopment, the stands have been moved closer to the pitch for a better fan experience. The 22 bars and snack bars and the 44 shops will add to a few good days out in Porto Alegre.

 

Importance to the Community

With football such a prominent part of the Porto Alegre community, the Estadio Beira-Rio commands an even more premium location, on the banks of the Guaiba River and extremely accessible from the main hotels and the airport.

The only major piece of negative news is that as recently as this March, its mayor claimed that it might drop out of the World Cup because of insufficient funding (via the BBC). For such a football-mad city, that is quite unbelievable.

 

8. Arena Fonte Nova (Salvador)

8. Arena Fonte Nova (Salvador)

David Campbell/Associated Press

Geographical Location

Known as the capital of happiness in Brazil, Salvador is host to the annual Central do Carnaval, and it seems natural to bring the World Cup to a city with a party atmosphere.

Situated close to the seaside, the Arena Fonte Nova enjoys a spectacular view and stands out as a space-age construction amid buildings of modest height in a bustling city.

 

Game Significance

The Arena Fonte Nova will host six matches this summer, with four group matches (featuring such heavyweights as Spain, the Netherlands, Germany, Portugal and France), a round-of-16 match and a quarterfinal.

 

Structural Features

With a capacity of 55,000, Salvador’s stadium is one of the most impressive constructions to feature this summer. Having been constructed for the Confederations Cup, the Arena Fonte Nova has a distinctive “horseshoe” area that will support 5,000 removable seats for the tournament only.

Perhaps worth noting is the fact that it was the first to secure a naming rights agreement among the 12 World Cup stadiums, with the Brazilian brewery Itaipava signing a sponsorship deal worth $100 million lasting until 2023.

Construction faults led to blind spots from several areas inside the stadium during its inaugural match, however, while heavy rain caused a section of the roof to collapse in May 2013, affecting this otherwise remarkable stadium’s ranking on our list due to safety issues.

 

Importance to the Community

Salvador’s central role in Brazilian entertainment will likely have been a big factor behind the decision to host World Cup matches in the city, while there are already longer-term plans for the stadium after this summer: It will be one of the venues used for the football competition in the 2016 Summer Olympics.

 

7. Arena Castelao (Fortaleza)

7. Arena Castelao (Fortaleza)

Fabio Lima/Associated Press

Geographical Location

Fortazela is one of three major cities in Brazil’s north-east alongside Recife and Salvador, both of which are also World Cup host cities this summer.

 

Game Significance

The Arena Castelao will play host to six matches this summer, including four group-stage matches, a round-of-16 match and a quarterfinal.

Besides featuring crowd favorites such as Uruguay, Germany and Ivory Coast, Fortaleza will also see the Brazilian national team play on home soil in a Group A game against Mexico, which is sure to be a spectacle.

 

Structural Features

The Arena Castelao seats an impressive 63,903 people and has been refurbished to make the World Cup this summer.

An interesting architectural feature is its glass skin, which reduces heat inside the stadium. Its huge roof is also coated with a material that “allows for the circulation of air in the stadium,” and “provides soundproofing and ideal shade for television broadcasting.”

 

Importance to the Community

Surprisingly, the Arena Castelao has hosted two large-scale and high-profile religious events. In 1980, Pope John Paul II brought 120,000 followers to the celebrations of the 10th National Eucharistic Congress at the stadium.

In 1995, 50,000 followers gathered for the farewell of Dom Aloisio Lorscheider, the archbishop of Fortaleza, confirming the stadium (then yet to be redeveloped) as an important center-piece in its citizens’ lives.

 

6. Itaipava Arena Pernambuco (Recife)

6. Itaipava Arena Pernambuco (Recife)

Ana Araujo/Associated Press

Geographical Location

The Itaipava Arena Pernambuco is situated in the western suburbs of the Recife metropolitan area, one of the most important geographic locations in all of Brazil.

Recife itself is known as the Brazilian Venice, what with the rivers, small islands and more than 50 bridges found in its city center. Its famous 8km Boa Viagem Beach adds to its overall allure as an important cultural and leisure destination.

 

Game Significance

The Arena Pernambuco’s fixture list isn’t terribly impressive: Apart from four group-stage games that may throw up a few interesting twists in the World Cup, it will only host an additional round-of-16 match.

 

Structural Features

The seating capacity of the Arena is 46,000 and it’s a standard modern stadium designed to be accessible and convertible. There are plans for it to be used as a venue for concerts, conventions and other events after the World Cup.

The strong emphasis on sustainability impressed us. A solar power plant implemented in the stadium will generate 1MW of installed capacity and will be able to meet the average consumption of 6,000 people when the venue is not filled. Impressive.

 

Importance to the Community

One of the things that attracted us to Recife was its potential for a strong and positive legacy after the World Cup. According to the World Cup Portal, the Pernambuco represents the beginning of a new urban center named the “World Cup City,” a 242-hectare area that “aims to bring together housing, offices, educational institutions and leisure areas.”

The completed area will include a university campus, a hotel and convention center with other commercial, residential and entertainment complexes, and is predicted to generated 10,000 direct jobs until 2024. A noble effort if it ends up going through.

 

5. Arena Das Dunas (Natal)

5. Arena Das Dunas (Natal)

Jobson Galdino/Associated Press

Geographical Location

Natal is well-known for its tourist attractions, with its natural scenic landscapes, beaches, historical monuments and the famous Carnatal, giving the city a unique aura.

The Arena das Dunas finished construction in January 2014, replacing the old Machadao football stadium that was demolished in 2011 to make way for the new project.

 

Game Significance

For a stadium of such breathtaking beauty, it is a travesty that it will only host one truly high-profile match (Italy vs. Uruguay in Group D) among its slated lineup of four group-stage matches.

 

Structural Features

Probably one of the most striking and visually stunning stadiums in World Cup history, the 42,000-seat Arena das Dunas features a facade and roof made up of 20 petal-shaped modules, “designed to be higher on one of the stadium’s side, giving the impression that sand dunes—common in the region—are moving,” according to the World Cup Portal.

Sustainability, now a key element in all stadium construction, also plays an important role in Natal’s World Cup stadium: Its roof captures rainwater, up to 3,000 cubic meters of which may be reused in its lavatories and for pitch irrigation.

 

Importance to the Community

Just like Recife project, the Arena das Dunas is planned to be the center of an exciting new district, featuring a shopping center, commercial buildings, world-class hotels and even an artificial lake.

 

4. Estadio Nacional Mane Garrincha (Brasilia)

4. Estadio Nacional Mane Garrincha (Brasilia)

Tomas Faquini/Associated Press

Geographical Location

There aren’t many locations more high profile than a capital city, and that’s exactly what Brasilia is. A relatively recently planned and developed city, Brasilia provided a more central location for a capital city than Rio de Janeiro.

Given its political importance, Brasilia naturally pays less attention to football. Yet the Estadio Nacional Mane Garrincha is still a force to be reckoned with.

 

Game Significance

The Estadio Nacional Mane Garrincha will live up to its capital-city billing and play host to seven matches this summer: four group-stage games, in addition to a round-of-16 match, a quarterfinal and the third-place match.

Out of the four group-stage matches, Colombia vs. Ivory Coast and Portugal vs. Ghana will provide two interesting spectacles.

 

Structural Features

Named after legendary Brazilian footballer Garrincha, the stadium is one of the most easily recognizable in Brazil and hosts a remarkable 71,000 people, making it the perfect venue for high-profile matches in the World Cup this summer.

Its distinctive UFO-like design, which looks like a narrow bowl supported by a multitude of columns around the side, adds to the myth that surrounds one of the most iconic venues in world football.

 

Importance to the Community

Unfortunately, this is where the Estadio Nacional Mane Garrincha loses out. Not only will football continue to play second fiddle to politics, but the stadium itself will court controversy due to the sheer amount of money invested in it.

According to this AP story, fraudulent billing has led to a huge increase in building cost: At $900 million, it is now the second-most expensive stadium in the world, despite there being no major professional team in Brasilia. Authorities will need to navigate the political minefield or risk having the first major demonstrations start right under their noses.

 

3. Estadio Mineirao (Belo Horizonte)

3. Estadio Mineirao (Belo Horizonte)

Marcus Desimoni/Associated Press

Geographical Location

The Estadio Mineirao is the largest football stadium in the state of Minas Gerais, where Belo Horizonte is its most populous city.

Its bustling activity makes it one of the most important cities in the south-eastern region of Brazil, while its urban planning—inspired by that of Washington, D.C.—has won international accolades for urban revitalization and food security.

 

Game Significance

Now we’re getting right into the thick of the action. Besides hosting four group games, Belo Horizonte will also feature a round-of-16 match and a semifinal, making it one of the most high-profile venues in the World Cup.

 

Structural Features

The Estadio Mineirao first opened back in 1965, making it one of Brazil’s most iconic football stadiums in its long and illustrious history. Its post-refurbishment 62,160 seats make it one of the continent’s largest, while its distinctive circular, Coliseum-like structure make it one of the most recognizable venues in South America.

Once again, sustainability is the hip word of the moment: 90 percent of the rubble produced by the building site was reused, according to the World Cup Portal, while a rooftop solar power plant converts enough energy to cater to the demand of 1,200 medium-sized households. Not a bad feat at all.

 

Importance to the Community

By way of sheer longevity, the Estadio Mineirao has become an institution in the minds of the Brazilian football public.

The promenade area outside the stadium itself will be used as a social space to host events alongside leisure, cultural and sporting events staged inside the arena.

 

2. Arena De Sao Paulo (Sao Paulo)

2. Arena De Sao Paulo (Sao Paulo)

Mauricio Simonetti/Associated Press

Geographical Location

The home stadium of Brazilian powerhouse Corinthians will be called Arena de Sao Paulo during the World Cup.

The city of Sao Paulo itself is well-known: It is the largest city in Brazil and plays a huge role in the country’s commercial, financial and entertainment activity.

 

Game Significance

Probably the second-most important stadium in terms of game significance this summer, the Arena de Sao Paulo will host four group games, including the opening match between Brazil and Croatia, as well as other heavy-hitters such as Uruguay vs. England, the Netherlands vs. Chile and South Korea vs. Belgium.

It will also host a round-of-16 match, as well as a semifinal.

 

Structural Features

For a stadium of such high profile and importance, the Arena de Sao Paulo actually has a surprisingly low standard capacity. It was only to meet the FIFA requirements for an opening-match stadium that 21,200 removable seats were added to form the current 68,000-seat capacity.

Structurally, it is one of the most impressive World Cup stadiums on show this summer. The stadium complex will feature a pedestrian mall as well as other spectacles such as a performance fountain and large gardens.

Stadium acoustics were also a key consideration during the planning and building of the stadium—it will duplicate the current noise level supporters create during games—while, as in several other host stadiums, rainwater reusability is a key sustainability feature.

The Sao Paulo project was awarded the Best Commercial Project and the Best Overall Project awards in the 2011 Grande Premio de Arquitetura Corporativa.

 

Importance to the Community

Public accessibility and capacity management are two of the most impressive features of the Arena de Sao Paulo.

Express trains will connect to the stadium during the World Cup, linking it to the city center in just 20 minutes, according to FIFA.com, while the metro and train stations have the capacity to handle 100,000 passengers an hour.

 

1. Estadio Do Maracana (Rio de Janeiro)

1. Estadio Do Maracana (Rio De Janeiro)

Daniel Basil/Associated Press

Geographical Location

Is it any surprise that the most high-profile stadium in Brazil will host the most-profile match in the World Cup this summer in its most high-profile city?

Rio de Janeiro is arguably Brazil’s most famous city—and deservedly so, given its iconic status in both tourism and popular culture. It’s known for its natural settings and historical monuments, while its beaches and carnival atmosphere only add to the cultural significance of the city.

 

Game Significance

You can’t get any bigger than this. Forget that the titular Group B clash between Spain and Chile will take place at the Estadio do Maracana; forget that six other matches will take place; the Maracana will host the final, which might very well feature the home nation.

 

Structural Features

Having first opened in 1950, the Maracana is probably the arena most steeped in Brazilian football tradition out of all the 12 World Cup stadiums, making it the perfect choice to host the showpiece event of the whole tournament.

A major reconstruction project was undertaken to prepare for the 2014 World Cup: A new one-tier seating bowl, featuring yellow, blue and white seats alongside the green pitch make up the Brazilian national colors, while a new fiberglass roof was installed.

 

Importance to the Community

To see the cultural importance of the Maracana to the Brazilian public, see the number of non-World Cup events that take place at the stadium.

Besides the record-breaking concerts put on by the likes of Paul McCartney and Madonna, the Maracana will also host both the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2016 Summer Olympics and the 2016 Summer Paralympics.

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report.

How Brazil Hopes to Get Rich off the 2014 World Cup

With less than two weeks left before the World Cup kicks off this summer in Brazil, all the attention has understandably been on the football side of things, with all participants playing warm-up friendlies to ready their squad for the tournament.

For the Brazilian government and footballing authorities, who have attracted criticism for repeatedly missing construction deadlines for the World Cup stadiums, perhaps the recent attention to the friendlies makes for a welcome respite.

After all, most of the coverage in the past year or so (this is an example from The Washington Post) has focused on the state of the host nation. (I wrote an article on that only a few months ago.)

But the public protests in Brazil have not gone unnoticed. In fact, the demonstrations that started during last year’s Confederations Cup have provided a controversial backdrop to the upcoming World Cup: How will officials be held accountable for the massive overspending they have committed in their preparations for the tournament?

It is imperative that there is an answer to how Brazil and its citizens stand to benefit from hosting a glamour tournament like a World Cup—not just from glory and hype alone.

Let’s take a look at how the 2014 host nation hopes to make money off the latest installment of the World Cup—but as we see, not all the hopes and proclamations may ring true.

 

Jobs and the Local Economy

 

Eraldo Peres/Associated Press

 

Brazil’s tourism minister, Vinicius Lages, told AFP, via Yahoo: “The Cup is not an economic panacea but a catalyst for Brazilian development. It was a key factor behind Brazil finally overhauling its infrastructure.”

The World Cup, he predicted, would add about $13.6 billion to the Brazilian economy—already the world’s seventh largest—in 2014 alone.

It doesn’t stop there.

report by Ernst & Young Terco on the social and economic impacts of the 2014 World Cup concluded that the tournament “should generate 3.63 million jobs/year and R$63.48 billion income for the population in the period 2010-2014, besides an additional R$18.13 billion in tax collections.”

EY’s projected impact on the national production of goods and services stood at R$112.79 billion, while the sectors most benefiting from the event—defined as economic activities with major increased output—were civil construction, food and beverage, business services, utilities, information services, and tourism and hospitality.

All of which sounds glamorous and sexy, but there have been contrasting reports on the actual long-term gains as a result of hosting the World Cup—and they aren’t quite as pretty.

Moody’s report on the impact of the tournament on different industry sectors concluded that “the 32-day event will provide short-lived sales increases that are unlikely to materially affect earnings and disruptions associated with traffic, crowding and lost work days will take a toll on business.”

Then there is the very real possibility that the “World Cup effect”—defined by IBTimes.com as the phenomenon of countries being more harmed economically from hosting the event, as seen from South Africa 2010—may take hold in Brazil.

Four years on, the same uncertain material benefits from a World Cup are still yet to be transparent. As cited in the IBTimes.com article,University of Maryland professor Dennis Coates noted that even the 1994 World Cup in the U.S.—claimed as one of the most successful and transformational ever—ended in an income reduction of $712 million for the average host city relative to predictions.

 

The Tourism Industry

 

Eraldo Peres/Associated Press

 

Vinicius Lummertz, Brazil’s national secretary of public policies, toldThe Rio Times last November of his optimism that Brazil’s tourism industry would stand to gain enormously from the World Cup:

We hope tourism in Brazil rises to a new level after the World Cup. With infrastructure improvements that increase the competitiveness of Brazil as a tourist destination, and the high exposure of the country abroad, I expect to see a significant increase in foreign tourists—but mainly more Brazilians traveling through Brazil.

The Tourism Ministry predicted that tourists home and abroad would spend R$25 billion during the tournament, when 600,000 foreign and three million Brazilian travelers are estimated to visit the country.

The massive spending on infrastructure by the Brazilian government in recent years in preparation for the World Cup has likely been to maximize the revenue the country can make during the tournament—and with an eye on the future as well.

The EY study quoted above addressed such needs for investment in order for tourism income to be realized:

Once the actions that are required to enable the country to capitalize on the opportunities generated by the World Cup are completed, the event may result in an increase of up to 79% in the international tourist inflow to Brazil in 2014, with even possibly higher impacts in subsequent years. In the period 2010-2014, that figure should be as high as 2.98 million additional visitors.

The tourist inflow directly and indirectly induced by the World Cup is expected to account for additional income up to R$5.94 billion for Brazilian companies.

Yet before Brazil can throw a metaphorical carnival to celebrate their upcoming economic benefits, a few sobering updates on the tourism front may dampen the mood.

According to Claire Rive of The Rio Times, “The tourism sector in Brazil has had to adjust their inflated estimates concerning the expected influx of tourists…leading to big discounts on local and international flights and accommodation during the tournament.”

The reduction in projected tourist numbers has led to discounts on airfare prices and package tours, while demand for accommodation has “substantially decreased and prices have decreased.”

 

And, of Course, Corruption

 

Eraldo Peres/Associated Press

 

That a World Cup involves staggering amounts of money and an opportunity for businessmen and government officials to make a quick buck is no surprise—and Christopher Gaffney, professor at Rio de Janeiro’s Federal University, agrees strongly.

“There’s collusion of the Brazilian governmental elite with the business elite, and the game is rigged in their favor,” Gaffney said(via Yahoo). “This was an opportunity to make a lot of money and that’s what’s happened.”

But adding to the depressing reality that corruption will form a huge proportion of Brazil’s money made from the World Cup is the astonishingly public manner in which the embezzlement has been carried out.

See the case of the lead builder of Brasilia’s Mane Garrincha Stadium, already the world’s second-most expensive football stadium.

The Associated Press ran a story this May alleging that Andrade Gutierrez, a construction conglomerate, and Via Engenharia, an engineering firm, made up a construction consortium that billed the government $1.5 million for the transportation of prefabricated grandstands for the Brasilia stadium—a fee that was initially thought to cost just $4,700.

Auditors pointed out that “wasteful cutting practices or poor planning added $28 million in costs,” while “$16 million was lost when Brasilia’s government inexplicably failed to enforce a fine against Andrade Gutierrez for a five-month delay in completion of the main portion of the stadium.”

According to Al Jazeera, the same firm made political contributions totaling $37.1 million after confirmation of which cities would be hosting tournament matches, and after it was awarded stakes in contracts totaling “nearly one-fourth of the World Cup’s total price tag,” four years after it contributed a measly $73,180 in municipal elections, a 500-fold increase.

Moreover, auditors found $275 million in alleged price gouging with just three-fourths of the $900 million Mane Garrincha Stadium project.

The most damning part?

“Funding for Brasilia’s stadium relies solely on financing from the federal district’s coffers, meaning every cent comes from taxpayers.”

What comes around, goes around.

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report.

Top Summer Transfer Need for Every Premier League Club

As we eagerly await the start of the Brazil World Cup in a few weeks, the transfer rumour mill has gone into frenzy after the Premier League season ended earlier this month.

Every day we see new links between players and clubs, new tantrums thrown by agents and new bullish proclamations by managers and owners. But which of those rumors carelessly thrown about actually have some legs to them?

Here’s a guide on the top summer transfer need for every Premier league club. Let us know your picks in the comments below.

 

Arsenal: Defensive Midfielder

A thrilling FA Cup win over Hull City finally gave Arsenal a piece of silverware to cheer about and overshadow another fourth-place finish in the Premier League.

It wasn’t for a lack of leadership in defence: Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny formed an excellent partnership. Nor for a lack of creativity and productivity in attack, either; with an attack comprising Mesut Ozil, Santi Cazorla, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Olivier Giroud, how could any team be found wanting up front?

With Aaron Ramsey storming back to form after his injury layoff and Theo Walcott still to return—their absences made a major impact on the Gunners’ season—it is the core of the midfield that needs strengthening.

Without steel and leadership at the base of a young and attack-minded midfield, Arsenal at times looked soft last season and were cruelly exposed by teams pushing through the middle. The lack of a world-class enforcer and a leader by example—Mikel Arteta, sadly, isn’t either—has cost Arsene Wenger’s side in the league.

Arsenal will probably look to add to their defence and attack this summer, but if they finish the transfer window without having brought in a defensive midfielder, they could be contemplating another season without lasting the title race.

 

Aston Villa: Striker

It wasn’t quite an example of “second-season syndrome” by Christian Benteke—he still hit 10 league goals. But perhaps it was a case of all immediate competitors strengthening well, making Aston Villa look poor in comparison.

When Benteke sustained his long injury layoff and would miss the end of the season, we saw how hard Villa had to graft in order to secure results.

Sure, Andreas Weimann and Gabby Agbonlahor (who was also sidelined through injury) provided pace and width, while Fabian Delph supplied drive and power through the middle, but in an otherwise well-balanced team, Villa have lacked options up front.

With owner Randy Lerner putting the club up for sale and manager Paul Lambert’s future up in the air, turbulent times lie ahead. They can’t start the season with just Benteke as their only senior striker, and Darren Bent’s return from a dismal loan spell at Fulham won’t add much to the equation.

 

Burnley: Central Midfielder

On paper, Burnley probably go into the summer with the worst squad in the Premier League. Yet this is a team that scored 72 goals in the Championship last season—the fourth most in the league—and conceded just 37—the league’s best defensive record.

So perhaps, even with well-known Premier League names few and far between in defence and up front, Burnley can be spared premature criticism—but that doesn’t mean that their midfield is close to ready for the top flight.

An already lightweight midfield has been further weakened after the end of Michael Kightly’s loan from Stoke City. As Sean Dyche’s side will find out, the Premier League is a whole different environment than the Championship.

If they don’t strengthen their midfield core, they won’t enjoy their battles in the centre of the pitch next season.

 

Chelsea: Striker

When it comes to Chelsea, the answer is easy: striker.

Jose Mourinho has a world-class team at his disposal, from their dual option of Petr Cech and the returning Thibaut Courtois in goal right up to the brilliant attacking midfield line of Eden Hazard, Oscar and Willian et al. What he lacked all of last season was a world-class striker to lead the line.

Hence the rumors of Diego Costa and Mario Mandzukic moving to Stamford Bridge this summer. The Blues will be prepared to spend on a big-name striker to deliver the goals when they need to grind out a result next season.

Oh, and Didier Drogba is available on a free.

 

Crystal Palace: Striker

It wasn’t as if he lit Selhurst Park on fire last season, but when Crystal Palace confirmed that Marouane Chamakh may leave when his one-year contract at the club expires at the end of next month, it became patently clear that Tony Pulis has lots to do to strengthen his attack.

Dwight Gayle showed in his last couple of games that he might just have the ability to be a Premier League player—despite costing a hefty amount when he signed last summer—but he alone won’t be able to lead Palace to two consecutive seasons in the top flight.

Pulis’ teams are known for their rugged defence, while Mile Jedinak has led a disciplined midfield this season. Both areas will need improvements, but the Eagles only have two recognized senior strikers in their first-team squad—Gayle and Glenn Murray—if they do not reach an agreement with Chamakh, or a deal with loanee Cameron Jerome.

They might not be relegation favourites next season, such is the influence of Pulis, but Palace will have to bring in reinforcements if they are to compete.

 

Everton: Striker

In Roberto Martinez’s hands, Everton appear to have a bright future. Their young and energetic team turned heads with their exciting style last season, while Martinez’s eagerness to promote youth can only be a good thing for the Premier League.

Yet it would be foolish to disagree completely with those jibes that they wouldn’t have achieved their fifth-place finish without their loan players—Gareth Barry and Romelu Lukaku played huge parts in Everton’s season.

While Barry might end up returning to Goodison Park on a permanent transfer—the Blues have also been linked with fellow Manchester City reject (and former old boy) Jack Rodwell—the issue of striking options remains a tricky one.

Lukaku may set his sights on becoming a first-team player for Chelsea or become involved in a deal for a big-name striker. Steven Naismith, while a useful and hardworking option, doesn’t have the required quality for a top-four push, and Arouna Kone, injured or not, is getting on.

Get in a genuinely exciting striker, and Everton can really look to push on next season.

 

Hull City: Central Midfielder

At the start of last season, quite a few of us had Hull City as relegation favorites. Their squad just didn’t seem up to the task for a long and challenging Premier League campaign.

But Steve Bruce has proved to be a reliable Premier League manager over the years, and so it proved again. Hull surprised many onlookers with their defensive strength, led by the impressive Curtis Davies, and the KC Stadium became a tricky place for teams to visit.

A previously toothless attack, especially after Robbie Brady’s injury, was augmented with the additions of Nikica Jelavic and Shane Long in January—a Premier League-level strikeforce, at last.

What’s left now is to add in the centre. Jake Livermore’s impact after signing on a season-long loan from Tottenhm Hotspur will likely lead to Bruce going all out to secure his permanent transfer this summer, and reunite him with Tom Huddlestone.

Hull would do well to strengthen their central core. They might need more than Livermore.

 

Leicester City: Striker

The runaway champions in England’s second tier, Leicester City, will bring a decent squad to the Premier League next season, with an experienced defence strengthened by the free transfer signing of Matthew Upson.

A midfield lacking Premier League experience has just been significantly improved by the arrival of Marc Albrighton, who had been released by Aston Villa (per BBC Sport).

While David Nugent is a 20-goal Championship striker, he has shown to be out of depth at the Premier League level, while 16-goal Jamie Vardy isn’t likely to strike fear into his opponents’ hearts next season.

Nigel Pearson will be acutely aware of his team’s deficiencies up front as Leicester approach their summer transfer activity.

 

Liverpool: Central Defender

By now, it’s well-known that Liverpool’s title challenge last season fell short because of their leaky defence. A goals-conceded tally of 50 proved too much to make up for, even with a forward line as prolific as theirs.

As the season went on, it appeared that Martin Skrtel and Mamadou Sakho cemented themselves as Brendan Rodgers’ first-choice central defensive partnership. Summer addition Kolo Toure proved to be a shaky option, while Daniel Agger appeared to have failed to convince the Liverpool manager.

Yet Skrtel and Sakho themselves proved defensive liabilities as well, not least with their errant positioning and erratic concentration. The lack of leadership at the back was evident all season, but made especially clear in their capitulation against Crystal Palace in the penultimate game of the season.

For a side that finished two points behind the eventual winners, Liverpool still have plenty to do on the transfer front; their current squad will take lots of strengthening if they are to sustain their level of performances through till next season, given their Champions League commitments.

But central defence trumps all other positions in terms of transfer need. Urgent transfer need.

 

Manchester City: Central Defender

In the end, the best team always wins the league. Manchester City might have spent the fewest days at the top of the tree out of the top four over the course of the season, but their squad proved most able to last the title charge and deservedly lifted the Premier League trophy.

You’d be hard pressed to find a weakness in Manuel Pellegrini’s side, such is the quality throughout the entire team and across all positions.

If there’s one area that needs strengthening, it’d be at the centre of their defence. Despite Vincent Kompany’s nomination into the Team of the Year, his performances didn’t match the consistency and excellence of previous campaigns, while Martin Demichelis only came into his own in the last couple of months.

To handle the attacking threat of the strongest teams in Europe, an upgrade is needed, especially on the left side of the central defence. Matija Nastasic was unable to sustain his debut-season form due to injury and City may need to look elsewhere to strengthen.

 

Manchester United: Central Defender

How the mood at a club can change because of a new manager. It seems like it’s been an age since David Moyes was managing Manchester United, and now that Louis van Gaal is on board, United might have a manager whose clout they badly needed in the post-Sir Alex Ferguson era.

Not that this changes anything in terms of the United squad though; besides an all-star selection of attacking players, they have plenty to do in the midfield and defence.

Though Van Gaal needs to upgrade on Michael Carrick, Tom Cleverley and Marouane Fellaini, with Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand leaving, his most urgent need is to strengthen his central defence. Phil Jones and Chris Smalling have yet to develop into the centre-back partnership that Ferguson thought they would.

Rafael da Silva and Patrice Evra remain a defensive liability, but without a reliable and solid centre-back, United are left easily exposed by better forward lines—we only have to look at Moyes’ defensive record at Old Trafford this season as a harrowing example.

 

Newcastle United: Striker

Out of the 43 goals Newcastle United scored this season, Loic Remy, on loan from Queens Park Rangers, scored 14 and Yohan Cabaye, now at Paris Saint-Germain, scored 7. That’s almost half the total tally.

Besides that? Yoan Gouffran netted six and Moussa Sissoko and Hatem Ben Arfa netted three apiece Most alarmingly, Shola Ameobi, whose contract has now expired, and Papiss Cisse, he who enjoyed that single half-season of scoring form, both registered a paltry total of two.

Forget their needs in defence and midfield, this summer is all about finding a striker for Newcastle. If they don’t manage to bring in a quality option to replace Remy up front by the start of September, they could be looking at a long, hard few months before January comes around.

And that wouldn’t be fun for anyone.

 

Queens Park Rangers: Central Defender

Considering that Queens Park Rangers’ wage bill was higher than Champions League finalists Atletico Madrid last season (per the Guardian), it’s perhaps no surprise that QPR ultimately won promotion back to the Premier League.

In their ranks are a whole host of players with extensive Premier League experience, as well as international stars, some of them remnants of their failed battle against relegation in the 2012/13 season.

Having completed the Championship campaign with Richard Dunne and Clint Hill as their defensive mainstays—as well as a group of underwhelming Premier League players—QPR are most in need of reinforcements in the center of their defence.

The creaking legs of Dunne and Hill won’t be pretty to watch against the top flight’s young and sprightly forward lines.

 

Southampton: Striker

After a successful season and a half at the Saints helm, Mauricio Pochettino and his young charges are reportedly the subject of intense interest from elsewhere in the Premier League, and Southampton may end up selling some of their most important players this summer.

From Adam Lallana to Luke Shaw, from Jay Rodriguez to Dejan Lovren—not to mention Pochettino himself—the stars of the Saints’ campaign may be moving on. Make no mistake, this will be a defining few months for Southampton’s short- to medium-term future.

It’s a good thing that they have a stellar youth academy to fall back on. Callum Chambers and James Ward-Prowse are but two of the hot prospects ready to step up in case of departures, though the potential exits of Lallana, Morgan Schneiderlin and Rodriguez could have big ramifications on Southampton’s upcoming campaign.

Even if they start next season with their full squad intact, it looks as if central striker may be their most pressing transfer need. With Rickie Lambert not getting any younger, Rodriguez’s absence towards the end of the season severely dented the Saints’ firepower.

Daniel Osvaldo didn’t work out and they need another striking option to deliver the goals and to take over Lambert’s mantle when the time comes—and hope that the majority of the current crop are still around to ease that transition.

 

Stoke City: Striker

Mark Hughes’ Stoke City proved to be a well-rounded team in terms of goals scored—their goals last season were shared among a sizeable number of their squad, which explains their ninth-place finish.

Leading the way was Peter Crouch with eight, and their second striker on the list was Peter Odemwingie with five, followed by Marko Arnautovic, who played more on the flanks, with four. With Hannover striker Mame Biram Diouf apparently nearing a move to the Britannia Stadium, according to ESPNFC, it might come as a surprise that our tip for their biggest transfer need is up front.

But with a decent Premier League-level midfield capable of scoring goals and a notoriously rugged defence, it’s their attack that most needs a shot in the arm in terms of goal return.

Diouf will add to the squad but does not provide the instant upgrade up front. Crouch isn’t getting any younger and Arnautovic needs to turn his quality and creativity into goal-getting productivity. We’d be surprised if Diouf was the Potters’ only striking addition this summer.

 

Sunderland: Central Midfielder

Yes, we are suggesting that Sunderland—having lost Fabio Borini back to Liverpool and who go into the summer with just Connor Wickham and Jozy Altidore as their established strikers—should place their transfer priorities in central midfield and not up front.

Because we’ve seen the style of play that Gus Poyet wants to impose in his Black Cats: an aesthetically pleasing, passing-heavy, attacking side. That means that the midfield is arguably their most important position on the pitch.

It doesn’t help that both Jack Colback and Sebastian Larsson are out of contract this summer. While Liam Bridcutt was an interesting signing who provided plenty of glimpses of his composure and quality on the ball, the loan return of Ki Sung-yueng back to Swansea City does not bode well for Sunderland.

Ki’s passing and vision—not to mention the odd goal or two from midfield—were crucial to the Black Cats’ survival last season and will undoubtedly be missed. His role at the base of the midfield, playing simple passes to spread play and alleviate pressure off his midfield colleagues, will need to be reprised next year, and Poyet doesn’t have anyone of Ki’s ilk in his current squad.

 

Swansea City: Central Defender

With 54 goals scored and 54 goals conceded, Swansea City were the only side to finish the season with a goal difference of zero. A testament to their attacking ability—they were joint-eighth in terms of goals scored—but an indication of their defensive vulnerability as well.

Jonjo Shelvey proved to be an inspired signing last summer, while Wilfried Bony—who, after his exploits last season, will surely be on the shopping list of many a club looking for a powerful line-leading striker—will resume his telepathic partnership with Michu if both stay fit and remain at the club.

So that’s the attack sorted, and given Garry Monk’s fondness for attacking football, he will no doubt be on the lookout for attacking reinforcements as well.

But the position they most urgently need an upgrade in is at centre-back, where Chico Flores regressed considerably and became a defensive liability with his lapses in concentration and penchant for the bizarre.

For much of the season, Swansea spent their campaign worrying about a possible drop back into the Championship. They need a more reliable defensive partnership to ensure that doesn’t happen next term—goals or no goals.

 

Tottenham Hotspur: Full-Back

With the squad that they have, and the money that they spent building it, perhaps Tottenham Hotspur were the real underachievers of last season.

There is quality all across the team. Even if Roberto Soldado proved to be a flop in his first season, perhaps there could be a way to make a partnership with Emmanuel Adebayor work. Then there’s the small matter of a quality midfield.

Despite a relative weakness at the back, their most pressing need is on both flanks in defence. Kyle Walker and Danny Rose showed glimpses of their promise but failed to deliver regularly, while Kyle Naughton is simply not up to Premier League standard.

Instead of starting Naughton (or Ezekiel Freyers) as a back-up or shunting Jan Vertonghen out as a makeshift left-back, what Spurs should do is invest in an upgrade in their full-back positions.

 

West Bromwich Albion: Striker

It is a curiosity that West Bromwich Albion, given the squad they possess, had to wait until the penultimate game of the season (let’s face it—Norwich City were as good as relegated by then) to secure their Premier League status.

On paper, they have a good goalkeeper, a decent defence, and a strong midfield core. What’s left is a forward line capable of scoring goals and adding points on the board.

Stephane Sessegnon and Saido Berahino were tied as top scorers for the Baggies last season with just five, while their second most prolific scorer was midfielder Morgan Amalfitano, who is now back at Marseille after his loan spell at the Hawthorns.

Regardless of the burgeoning interest in Berahino, West Brom badly need a more threatening presence alongside him up front: Victor Anichebe might bring the hulk and power, but he is far from an established Premier League-level marksman.

 

West Ham United: Full-Back

Despite reports that West Ham United will bring in a new attacking coach next season to save Hammers fans from the dour, predictable style of football of Sam Allardyce (per BBC Sport), their attacking style will still centre heavily around target man Andy Carroll and the onrushing Kevin Nolan.

We saw last season that when both players are fit and on form—presumably, Carroll will be next season with a summer off and a full pre-season schedule under his belt after returning from injury—their understanding and partnership can actually be quite fruitful.

West Ham are well set up to service these two key men, with delivery from wide from Stewart Downing, Matt Jarvis and Matthew Taylor, while Mohamed Diame and Ravel Morrison—if they can hold onto him—provide pace, power and drive through the middle. Add the trademark rugged central defence, and it’s actually a quite decent Hammers squad.

But they need to upgrade their full-backs. Guy Demel is clumsy and doesn’t offer much going forward, while Allardyce is short of a starting full-back after Pablo Armero’s loan from Napoli finished and George McCartney’s release.

Imagine what two full-backs capable of bombing down the flanks, putting in good crosses and dovetailing with the wingers in front of them could do to West Ham’s attack. Is that too much to ask for?

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report.

10 Things Liverpool Learned from the 2013/14 Premier League Season

Perhaps it was just a touch too far for Liverpool in the end. Their fans harbored the hope and the romanticism, but Manchester City’s ruthless efficiency meant that as soon as Liverpool handed first place in the Premier League back into City’s hands, it was always going to be a tall order for the Reds.

On Liverpool’s part, it could’ve been a poetic end to the season on the final day. Steven Gerrard providing two set-piece assists to go clear in the Premier League assist charts, a goal from Daniel Agger on possibly his last-ever appearance for the Reds, and a goal for the understated Daniel Sturridge—all after Newcastle United took the lead through some dodgy Liverpool defending.

West Ham United—Andy Carroll, Stewart Downing and Joe Cole et al—just couldn’t play their supposed part against City on Sunday.

But while the conciliatory and congratulatory messages will be sent from the red half of Merseyside to the blue half of Manchester amid disappointment—“devastation,” Gerrard told Sky Sports (h/t Fox Sports)—at a lost chance to win a title, the overriding mood at Anfield after the final whistle on Sunday was a celebratory one.

For while City’s two goals in a clean sheet sealed their second title in three years, the Liverpool fans preferred to bask in the knowledge that their team had stormed their way back into the top four ahead of Brendan Rodgers’ schedule and preferred to acknowledge the brave but valiant efforts of their heroes.

And why not? It’s been an exciting campaign for Liverpool, and here are 10 things we learned from their 2013/14 Premier League season. Enjoy and let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

 

Attack Wins Games…

Attack Wins Games…Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

Having scored 101 goals in 38 league games this season—just one short of Manchester City’s haul—Liverpool have been one of English football’s great entertainers over the past 10 months.

Without taking any penalties and having missed his first five games of the season, Luis Suarez equaled the 38-game-season Premier League goal-scoring tally of 31, while Daniel Sturridge added 21 goals and Steven Gerrard 13.

The blitzing of Tottenham Hotspur (both home and away), Everton and Arsenal—all considered rivals at the start of the season—will be remembered for years to come, as the Reds hit three or more goals in a remarkable 21 out of their 38 games. The thrilling 11-game winning streak that rocketed Brendan Rodgers’ men to the top of the table with a few games to go was especially memorable.

Rodgers has instilled flexibility, directness and dynamism into his team, who are now capable of changing tactical formations from game to game and during matches. They can score goals from a variety of approaches—counterattacks, direct free kicks and other set pieces. The interchanging of his electric forward line has added to their aesthetic appeal, which has won them fans up and down the country and around the world.

From 71 goals last season to 101 this term—a 30-goal swing over a 38-game span—it has been a remarkable improvement in attacking form from by and large the same group of players, and Rodgers deserves as much credit as his charges.

Liverpool fan or not, this has been a season to savor.

 

…But Defence Wins Championships

…But Defence Wins ChampionshipsMichael Regan/Getty Images

Yet a simple comparison of goal difference between City and Liverpool shows everything about how the season has panned out: City, who scored just one more goal in total, finished with a goal difference of plus-65, compared with Liverpool’s plus-51.

Somehow it seemed fitting that Martin Skrtel’s own goal was Newcastle’s opener on Sunday—he is the highest-scoring defender in the Premier League with seven goals this season, yet his four own goals this season set a Premier League record.

Defence has proved to be Liverpool’s Achilles’ heel, and the main reason behind their failure to win the title.

Inevitable off days notwithstanding, there were fixtures and results that hinted at their defence being susceptible and potentially damaging to their cause. Hard-fought wins over Stoke City (5-3), Fulham (3-2), Swansea City (4-3) and Norwich City (3-2) always featured three goals or more scored, but required resolute defending to hold onto their slender lead.

So as much as it was anticlimactic from Liverpool’s point of view, the draw at Crystal Palace in the penultimate match of the season was actually arguably a long time coming, considering their weaknesses in defence and tendency to commit costly mistakes.

Liverpool finished the season just two points behind Manchester City. If they had been able to turn one loss into one win or two draws into two wins, they would’ve ended on top. Their attack is near-complete; it’s now the defence that needs major work.

 

A Mental Collapse Toward the End…

A Mental Collapse Toward the End…Clive Rose/Getty Images

In this season’s title race, we saw it all from Steven Gerrard: the “crazy eyes” after his opener in the 4-0 rout over Everton, a shirt-flinging celebration after a last-gasp penalty winner over Fulham, a kiss for the camera after his second penalty at Manchester United and even emotional tears after the thrilling win over Manchester City.

And if those celebrations weren’t enough to confirm just how desperate Gerrard was to win his first-ever Premier League title, surely the team talk that he gave on the pitch after the City match did.

So it was a cruel twist of fate—and to some an inevitable turn of events—that Gerrard was the one who committed the fatal error to let Demba Ba through, allowing Chelsea an opening goal deep into first-half stoppage time and hand the impetus back to City.

From then on, we rarely saw the Reds’ nerves settle.

Instead of playing it patiently and build attacks through Suarez, Liverpool opted to cross aimlessly into the box against Chelsea’s bus-parked box while notching their highest tally of crosses in a single game over the course of the season. A draw would’ve done just fine.

Instead of holding a three-goal lead and maximizing the points return at Palace, Rodgers opted to take off Raheem Sterling, one of his best defensive players this season, and decided to leave his experienced defenders on the bench in a bid to rack up the goals. A simple three points, which they were on the way to achieving, would’ve done just fine.

An 11-match winning run was what started making the Kop dream—but conversely it was the belief and dreams that led them to a calamitous collapse in the crucial moment of the season. The five dropped points made the difference in the end.

 

…But a Clear Sign of Increasing Maturity

…But a Clear Sign of Increasing MaturityAlex Livesey/Getty Images

Eleven wins on the bounce is no mean feat, and in the context of the entire season—and considering the lack of squad depth and strength at Rodgers’ disposal—the Reds, by and large, carried and managed themselves well.

There were the nervy wins brought about by the hesitant defence and the prolific attack, and there were moments that showed Liverpool’s increasing maturity.

Holding onto a one-goal lead when the tide had turned and the momentum had shifted to their opponents was a sure sign of mental progress on the part of Rodgers’ men. In April when they held their nerve against relegation-fighting Norwich City after Philippe Coutinho’s second-half winner over Manchester City, Liverpool fans started to believe.

No two players can exhibit finer physical and mental development this season than the excellent Raheem Sterling and Jordan Henderson, who got their chances to impress and took them in their own hands beyond any reasonable belief.

As we consider the close-season anticlimax, a good context to keep in mind is that one of the league’s youngest squads repeatedly held their nerve to secure a second-placed finish.

It will be of some comfort that reported targets Adam Lallana and Steven Caulker are currently the club captains of their respective clubs (Southampton and Cardiff City). Leadership is being targeted.

 

“They Have Been the Most Wonderful Underdogs”…

“They Have Been the Most Wonderful Underdogs”…

Paul Gilham/Getty Images

Players and fans alike have lauded the fervent atmosphere of Anfield this season, especially during the final few weeks of the season when the Kop roared on in full voice every match and Liverpool fans lined the streets of the city to inspire the players.

The atmosphere has frequently been compared with that of Champions League nights at Anfield, and now the Reds finally have that to savor next season.

This title race even evoked memories of the miraculous Champions League final turnaround in Istanbul almost nine years ago—and Martin Tyler’s remark that the Reds had been the “most wonderful underdogs” over the course of the tournament that season surely applied to their Premier League title challenge this time around.

A young squad playing scintillating attacking football with the charismatic Rodgers and the elder statesman that is Gerrard helming the side—Liverpool’s title challenge was inconceivable but widely welcomed and supported.

For most of the season, they played with no fear and without shackles. Chelsea and Manchester City were the big spenders with big-name players and managers, while Arsenal’s fall from top of the league to fourth place, Everton’s top-four challenge, Tottenham Hotspur’s wild inconsistencies under Tim Sherwood and Manchester United’s spectacular demise captured all the headlines.

As they have proved over the years, especially in Europe under Rafael Benitez, Liverpool are at their most dangerous when the underdog tag is applied.

 

…But What Happens When the Pressure Is On?

…But What Happens When the Pressure Is On?

Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

The question now is whether or not the Reds can live with a “favorites” tag.

To expect a thin squad and a poor bench to sustain a top performance level over the course of a season and outcompete world-class teams proved too much this season. While their lack of European football has been claimed by many to provide them with a sense of regularity, the fact that Liverpool didn’t even qualify for Europe last season says it all about their status as underdogs.

When the pressure was well and truly on and they were expected to see out the season in first place, they buckled.

Whether it was because of Gerrard’s unfortunate slip, Rodgers’ decision to go for the jugular against Chelsea when a draw would’ve done or the naivety that they could make up for the gigantic goal difference by continuing to pile forward with a three-goal lead against Crystal Palace, Liverpool seemed to make the wrong decisions at the wrong time.

And after providing a surprise element and a breath of fresh air this season, Liverpool will be considered favorites for the top four again next year, and another title challenge—especially in anticipation of their transfer activity this summer—has already been mooted.

It’s not just about managing expectations anymore; it’s about managing themselves so they can unlock their potential, but also get results over the line when they most need them.

 

Success Built on Experience and Quality…

Success Built on Experience and Quality…

Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Where would Liverpool be this May without Luis Suarez and Steven Gerrard?

Together, the No. 7 and No. 8 contributed 44 goals and 25 assists, over 68 per cent of Liverpool’s whopping total of 101 goals over the campaign—and that’s including Suarez’s five-game suspension at the start of the season and Gerrard’s midseason injury layoff.

When Liverpool fans look back in years to come, their likely conclusion will be that keeping Suarez away from the clutches of Arsenal in the summer of 2013 might just have proved their most pivotal decision in recent years.

And Rodgers moving Gerrard into a withdrawn playmaking role has unlocked the best out of the captain, possibly even extending his playing career.

Suarez has added even more to his arsenal (ha): Not only has he evolved into a fearsome finisher, but he has also become prolific at direct free kicks and also ranks second in the Premier League assist charts.

Likewise Gerrard, who has taken to his new position smoothly and has been able to unlock defences through his unerring through balls and long passes. His dead-ball deliveries have been a big component of Liverpool’s league-leading set-piece goal tally.

 

…But Exciting Glimpses Toward the Future

…But Exciting Glimpses Toward the Future

Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

But despite Suarez and Gerrard taking first and second place in the Football Writers’ Player of the Year awards, their supporting cast have been equally important and threatened to steal the show.

There is no need to elaborate on the maturation of Jordan Henderson, nor the meteoric rise of Raheem Sterling—likewise with the resurgence of Jon Flanagan, the consistency of Daniel Sturridge and the mercurial talent of Philippe Coutinho.

What has been made abundantly clear is that Rodgers, himself a young coach, has prized talent development and made youth a centerpiece of his Liverpool side. In taking such a young team to within a whisker of the Premier League title takes vision and guts and deserves credit.

That Henderson, Sterling and Sturridge have risen from pure potential to potentially starting alongside their club captain in Roy Hodgson’s England lineup in the World Cup this summer is a testament to their own hard work and Rodgers’ tutelage.

Add a few more quality players with at least a few top years ahead of them this summer, and Anfield could witness not just a new generation of blossoming talent, but a golden era in itself.

The possibilities are tantalizing.

 

Liverpool Face Their Most Pivotal Summer Transfer Window…

Liverpool Face Their Most Pivotal Summer Transfer Window…

Alex Livesey/Getty Images

To realize their potential, however, Liverpool must continue their encouraging momentum and take full advantage of a first genuinely exciting summer transfer window ahead of them.

For the first time in a few years, the Reds have the Champions League and a title challenge to offer—with the money that comes on the back of such developments—and can use them to attract the players that will keep them there.

Too many transfer windows have come and gone without real progress. Even last summer, after almost six months of tantalizing attacking football following the excellent additions of Sturridge and Coutinho, the Anfield club wasted a good opportunity.

Eight players were signed, but only Simon Mignolet has managed to make himself a mainstay in Rodgers’ team. Pepe Reina left on loan to Napoli, leaving the Belgian as the only realistic choice as No. 1.

The excuse that has often been offered is that squad strengthening was the priority last summer, but a quick look at the Liverpool bench shows that even that objective was not realized.

They must not repeat the same mistakes again, not in the least because their rivals will no doubt be spending big to boost their own squads this summer.

 

…But the Belief Is Back

…But the Belief Is Back

Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

At the core of it all, though, this season has been about the triumphant return of belief, of lofty ideals and of giddy daydreaming for Liverpool Football Club—whether it be in the stands, on the Kop, on the Anfield pitch or in newspaper headlines around England and the world.

As we close out the season and look ahead to the World Cup—less so the inevitable circus that is the summer transfer window—we prefer not to focus on the possibility that this was perhaps Liverpool’s best shot at the title for many years to come.

We prefer not to focus on the calamitous slip that lost them their sure footing en route to winning a first-ever Premier League title.

Why focus on the negatives, when Liverpool have just finished ahead of schedule, not only in the Champions League places, but just two points short of the title outright?

While they have done so while breaking the three-digit mark in terms of goals scored, just one short from one of the most expensive squads in world sport? And with one of the youngest top-ranked teams in all of European football?

The anxiety and apprehension at how next season will pan out should come right as the Premier League resumes again in August—not now.

The anxiety and apprehension will only come about because Liverpool have made it possible to dream again anyway.

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report.

Liverpool, English Premier League, Football Business