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Samuel Chukwueze: The one-v-one phenomenon in AC Milan

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Football has always come easy to Samuel Chukwueze, but it hasn’t always been the game that he was destined to play.

“I got home from training really late again when I was 13”, he recalled in an interview with the Spanish football show El Dia Despues, “so my mother took my boots, my training top, put it all in a rubbish bag and burnt it all.”

A distraction from his studies, Chukwueze’s passion interfered with his future.

It was only his grandmother, eventually talking the family around, that allowed ‘Samu’ his shot at stardom. Trials close to home in Nigeria followed, with a trip to play a tournament in Portugal his reward for being one of the best players.

The first time that he had ever left his hometown, and with his mother’s blessing, Chukwueze dazzled with his dribbling and never looked back.

Just 10 years on from watching his only pair of boots smoulder, Chukwueze finds himself making a move to one of Europe’s most illustrious clubs, AC Milan, having already created history with another.

Aged 16, he signed a pre-contract with Spanish side Villarreal, after a deal with Arsenal fell through.

Five seasons and 207 appearances later, Chukwueze not only helped the Yellow Submarine to their first-ever major honour, lifting the UEFA Europa League in 2021, but he also fired them into the following season’s Champions League semi-final with an unforgettable breakaway goal at Bayern Munich.

“Everyone loves Samu”, a source at Villarreal, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect their position, told The Athletic. “No one at the club has a bad word to say about him.”

“He’s always really happy and in a good mood. His rise from the under-19s to the first team took less than a year, which is unheard of really.”

He is shy and grounded off the pitch, but he lets his football do the talking.

An admirer of Jay-Jay Okocha as he grew up, years of devotion to dribbling means that Chukwueze is one of few players in Europe that can consistently tie defenders in knots.

Operating primarily on the right flank, the 24-year-old often wastes no time in taking on his man, always looking to tempt the challenge with an attacking first touch before jinking away from the outstretched boot.

Even when opposing teams double up, Chukwueze’s commitment and creativity mean that he is still difficult to mark out of the game, as shown below against Real Sociedad, squirming between two challenges before bearing down on goal and forcing a good save from Alex Remiro.

The numbers paint a similar picture, showing Chukwueze to be one of the most efficient dribblers in La Liga. As the scatter plot below shows, Chukwueze boasted the second-highest success rate of any player to have attempted more than six take-ons per game last season, beating his man 49.1 percent of the time.

While not quite as relentless in the volume of his attempts as Vinicius Junior, Chukwueze was the closest player to the Brazilian in terms of the overall total of successful dribbles across the whole of 2022-23, having beaten his man on 86 occasions. Vinicius completed 112, but from 131 more attempts than the Nigerian. Quality enables Chukwueze to keep up with quantity.

More than ever, he is following up his take-ons with end product, especially when it comes to creating chances for his team-mates. Last season was the Nigerian’s most prolific in terms of assists — providing five killer passes, all from the left half-space.

His dribbling has been crucial for Villarreal to pick their way through stubborn blocks, like against the five-man defence of Getafe below.

As usual, Chukwueze receives the ball on the right and instantly squares up to his man. Aware of his ability to chop inside, striker Borja Mayoral drops deep to block Chukwueze’s route to a left-footed shot on goal.

Manipulating the ball with quick touches, Chukwueze feints to cut inside before producing a quick stepover and then ducking away to the right, leaving Gaston Alvarez wrong-footed, poking his boot at fresh air.

Having escaped the challenge, Chukwueze drives towards the byline and rolls the ball back for Jose Luis Morales to score.

When it comes to taking on the shot himself, Chukwueze has a trademark.

Much like Antony at Manchester United, the Nigerian often looks to cut in from the right and aim for the far corner. As the shot-location graphic below illustrates, Chukwueze isn’t afraid to try his luck from range, and particularly likes the zone to the right of the penalty area, allowing him plenty of distance to set the ball outside the post and bend it into the corner.

Most notably, Chukwueze scored a sensational winning goal at the Santiago Bernabeu last season, to top off the best individual performance of his Villarreal career.

Receiving the ball on the corner of the box, he shuffles across the edge of the penalty area before guiding a perfectly placed shot beyond the despairing dive of Thibaut Courtois.

There have been some spectacular efforts along the way too, as against Sevilla below, where Chukwueze’s dribbling ability saw him burst past Marcos Acuna before unleashing an effort that bounced off the crossbar and away.

The data suggests that, while his shooting technique has undeniably improved, Chukwueze could benefit from varying his decision-making when he receives the ball with space to shoot.

Despite being his primary shooting zone, the below shot map outlines an area from which Chukwueze scored only once from 67 attempts on goal across his five seasons in the Spanish top flight.

All but one of those attempts were left-footed efforts, with 20 drifting wide of the left post and a further 24 being blocked, pointing to an insistence at finding that curled finish towards the far corner.

He can sometimes try to force the angle, leading to overhit shots as he tries to force a way through no matter what.

Here against Real Betis, for example, Chukwueze receives the pass and instantly sets up to cut inside, controlling the ball with the outside of his boot. Juan Foyth had made a storming underlapping run, but the winger has already made up his mind.

Having darted away from full-back Juan Miranda, Chukwueze is charged down by Andres Guardado, and elects to quickly take the shot before the shooting angle is closed. Leaning back, his rushed attempt flies over the bar and into the stands.

His dribbling was as incisive as always, drawing in three players and creating space for the simple lay-off, but Chukwueze would benefit from resisting his favourite shot more often, especially when the set-up is not quite right.

He certainly has the ability to mix things up — emphatically shown by his assist against Getafe — and he tends to be effective when he decides to drive to the touchline.

His attacking carries map below tells much the same story, affirming not only his productivity down the right-hand side with the ball at his feet but also his improved output when he releases it.

Chukwueze is too talented to stop taking on the spectacular shot, but slightly more variety in the final action would surely see his attacking output increase.

While generally a touchline-hugging winger, Chukwueze can be extremely effective when he wanders into smaller spaces in the middle of the pitch.

During a sizzling run of form between February and April last season, Chukwueze scored five, assisted three more and won a crucial penalty in the space of just eight games. Chukwueze was notably effective in central areas in this spell, from a first-time volley against Osasuna to a delicate dinked finish at Mallorca.

His opener at the Bernabeu highlighted how dangerous he can be from the middle, applying the effortless finishing touch to his dribble in one sweeping move.

Similarly, in a Champions League-chasing clash with Real Sociedad, Chukwueze picks up the ball further back, immediately looking to run at the back-line. First, he chops inside Igor Zubeldia and bursts through the gap…

Joining up with the similarly electric Rafael Leao at San Siro, you can be sure that Serie A full-backs and centre-backs alike will be drawing nervous red rings around their dates with the Rossoneri in 2023-24.

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EPL: Crystal Palace snatch 1-0 win at Anfield to leave Liverpool behind in title race

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EPL: Crystal Palace snatch 1-0 win at Anfield to leave Liverpool behind in title race

Liverpool on Sunday lost 1-0 to Crystal Palace in what is a major blow to their Premier League ambition.

A first home league defeat in 29 games for the Reds leaves Jurgen Klopp’s men two points behind Manchester City and level with Arsenal, who can go top with victory over Aston Villa later on Sunday.

Eberechi Eze’s early goal handed the Eagles a vital win in their battle for survival as they move eight points clear of the drop zone.

However, Liverpool’s final season under Klopp is unravelling.

The League Cup winners were on course for a quadruple just a few weeks ago.

But after crashing out of the FA Cup to Manchester United, Liverpool succumbed to a first home defeat in any competition for 14 months when Atalanta stormed Anfield on Thursday to take a 3-0 first leg lead in their Europa League quarter-final tie.

Klopp’s men have now won just three of their last eight games in all competitions and are showing clear signs of fatigue after already having played 51 games this season.

Slow starts have been a recurring theme of Liverpool’s struggles of late and they were again forced to come from behind.

Alisson Becker made his long-awaited return in goal for the home side but he had no chance when Eze was left with a simple finish from Tyrick Mitchell’s cross.

Crystal Palace were millimetres away from a second moments later when Andy Robertson produced a remarkable goalline clearance to deny Jean-Philippe Mateta after Virgil van Dijk’s slip let the French striker through.

Liverpool had to resort to set-pieces to put the Crystal Palace defence under pressure in the first half.

Wataru Endo’s scuffed effort came back off the crossbar.

Dean Henderson then produced a stunning save to prevent Luis Diaz levelling at the back post with an acrobatic effort.

Klopp reacted at half-time with the introduction of Dominik Szoboszlai and Trent Alexander-Arnold’s return after two months out quickly followed when Conor Bradley went down injured.

Diogo Jota and Cody Gakpo were also sent on for the rescue mission from the bench.

Jota looked certain to equalise when picked out by Szoboszlai but the Portuguese forward’s finish hit Nathaniel Clyne on the line with the goal gaping.

At the other end, Alisson showed why he is one of the world’s best goalkeepers with a remarkable stop to turn Mateta’s strike over from point-blank range.

Liverpool galloped immediately up the other end and Curtis Jones slotted wide with just Henderson to beat.

Mohamed Salah had one final chance to at least snatch a point, but his goalbound effort was brilliantly blocked by Mitchell in stoppage time.

Unless Liverpool produce a stunning fightback against Atalanta in midweek, Klopp will have just two more games at Anfield before his momentous reign comes to an end.

But what looked like it could be a glorious goodbye is now at danger of turning into a damp squib.

 

 

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Arteta urges Arsenal to banish painful history with Bayern

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Arteta urges Arsenal to banish painful history with Bayern

Mikel Arteta has challenged Arsenal to prove their wretched Champions League record against Bayern Munich is ancient history as the Gunners look to seize their “special” opportunity to reach the semi-finals.

Arteta’s side have endured a series of chastening defeats against Bayern over the last decade, but Arteta expects them to reverse that trend in Tuesday’s quarter-final first leg.

Beaten 5-1 in each of their last three meetings with Bayern, Arsenal were eliminated from the Champions League by the German club in the last 16 in 2017, 2014, 2013 and 2005.

However, Premier League leaders Arsenal are in superb form, while Bayern arrive at the Emirates Stadium in turmoil.

Arteta puts no stock in his club’s past problems against Bayern and the Spaniard called on his players to justify his faith.

“That’s history. When you look at their history in the competition it’s clear. We have to prove that, that’s for sure,” Arteta told reporters on Monday.

“Football is such a competitive environment and it’s so hard to be consistent that this can happen to anybody.

“We are really enjoying the moment because this is where we want to be. We are in a really good position in the Premier League and we are in a good position in the Champions League.

“We have a big task ahead of us against one of the successful teams in Europe. That’s the hurdle we have to overcome and we are really looking forward to it.”

Arsenal have not made the Champions League semi-finals since 2009 and will be playing in the last eight for the first time since 2010.

While Bayern are well below their usual standards this term, Arteta is relishing the opportunity to face the six-time European champions.

– ‘So excited’ –

“A lot of passion and emotion. We haven’t had this opportunity for 15 years so that tells you how special this night is going to be for us. We are going to have put everything into every ball to make it happen,” he said.

“It’s been a really demanding season and it’s a big step forward to be here in this competition, and competing in the Premier League. This is the challenge and we are so excited to be part of that.”

Bayern squandered a two-goal lead in a 3-2 loss to Heidenheim last weekend that all but extinguished their slim hopes of catching Bundesliga leaders Bayer Leverkusen.

Thomas Tuchel’s troubled team have lost five of their last 10 games in all competitions.

Yet Arteta’s respect for Tuchel — a Champions League winner with Chelsea in 2021 — ensured he would not underestimate Bayern.

“They are top team. I’m a big admirer of Thomas. The way his teams set-up, the way they play, the way they transmit. I have learned a lot from him and looking at them they are a top team,” he said.

“We have prepared well and now we have to take our game where we want to. If we do that we have a chance to win.

Even the presence of Bayern striker Harry Kane, who scored a north London derby record 14 goals against Arsenal during his time with Tottenham, is unlikely to rattle the Gunners.

Asked about the threat posed by the England captain, Arteta said: “When you look at his numbers over the past 10 years they are unbelievable.

“He can score in many different ways. He has got the service and the players around him as well to provide those opportunities.

“We know the individual qualities of those players, and him in particular. The ability he has. The best thing is to collectively prevent certain things.”

 

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Olympics Qualifier: Supporters Club Rallies Nigerians In South Africa For Super Falcons 

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Ahead of the decisive second leg match of the qualifier for the women's football event of the 2024 Paris Olympic Games between Nigeria and  South Africa billed to hold

Ahead of the decisive second leg match of the qualifier for the women’s football event of the 2024 Paris Olympic Games between Nigeria and  South Africa billed to hold Tuesday in Pretoria, Nigeria’s foremost football fans group, the Nigeria Football Supporters Club (NFSC), have intensified its efforts to ensure the Super Falcons enjoy massive support in the game.

 

According to the National Chairman of NFSC, Ambassador(Rev). Samuel Ikpea, the club have mandated its South African chapters, particularly, in South Africa, to rally all Nigerian football fans resident in the country in the neighbouring nations, to storm the stadium on Tuesday and give the much needed support to the Nigerian girls.

“The Chairman of our South Africa chapter, Osita Okeke and his secretary, Boyo Abijoh, have been rallying Nigerians in the country to come out enmasse and give our girls the needed support to qualify for the Olympic games in Paris,” Ikpea said.

“We’re equally supporting our Super Falcons spiritually from home. And we believe, our girls shall pick the ticket for the Paris Olympic games, Ikpea added.

It would be recalled that Super Falcons defeated South Africa 1-0, in the first leg of the final qualifiers played last Friday, in Abuja.

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