This week was marred by tragedy. Emiliano Sala, travelling to Cardiff for what should have been the start of an exciting chapter in his career, went missing on his flight to Wales. The plane disappeared from radar over the English Channel, and he and the pilot are now presumed to be dead. All our thoughts are with their families at this distressing time. The week’s football pales into insignificance in comparison, but there was nonetheless plenty of action from around the world.
Ajax against Feyenoord tends to be a top-of-the-table affair when the sides meet in the Eredivisie, but it was second against third on this occasion. PSV lead the way, but Ajax travelled to their old rivals looking to close the gap to the top and extend their advantage over Feyenoord. They got off to a good start, taking the lead after just eight minutes through a Lasse Schöne free-kick. However, Jens Toornstra responded almost immediately for the hosts, before Steven Berghuis stabbed home from close range to put Feyenoord 2-1 up. Hakim Ziyech equalised after 33 minutes, but Ajax could not even see out the half; Robin van Persie ensured that Feyenoord went in 3-2 up. They ran away with it in the second half: van Persie got another one with a typically neat finish before Vilhena and Ayoub completed the rout. Feyenoord still have an eight-point gap to make up on their rivals, but they definitely have the bragging rights over the club from the capital for the time-being. This marked another blow in a tough week for Ajax fans, who also saw their club announce that Frenkie de Jong would be leaving for Barcelona at the end of the season in a big money move.
De Jong notwithstanding, the January transfer window is not quite as hectic an affair as it was in its heyday – there has been precious little deadline day drama in recent years to rival the likes of the departure of Fernando Torres from Liverpool. However, this window has at least served up a classic striker merry-go-round. Chelsea have still not really found what they were looking for when they signed Torres eight years ago, and their latest attempt is Gonzalo Higuain. He was on loan at AC Milan, so the Italian side were forced into action – they brought in Krzysztof Piątek, a Polish striker who has impressed at Genoa. Meanwhile, Higuain’s arrival left Alvaro Morata surplus to requirements; the circle would have been completed more satisfactorily if he had been moved on to Genoa, but it was Atletico Madrid who snapped up the out-of-favour Spaniard. He will have to produce performances of an altogether higher calibre than those he managed in London to win over the Atletico faithful, many of whom are less than enamoured with the signing of a former Real Madrid man.
One man who can sympathise with Morata about moves that didn’t work out is Usain Bolt. He linked up with the Central Coast Mariners over the summer on a trial basis, and even scored in an appearance in a friendly. However, the holder of the 100m world record wanted big money – there was some talk of a third party covering some of the wages, but ultimately Bolt was unable to agree terms with the A-League side. The 32-year-old duly called time on his dream of becoming professional footballer, announcing his immediate retirement from the game. The Mariners, meanwhile, sit rock bottom of the table: it is at the back where the big money needs to be spent.
If Bolt thinks it is time to retire at 32, perhaps he needs to have a word with a certain Jamie Cureton. The journeyman striker, now 43, is probably most well-remembered for his prolific spell at Reading in the early 2000s, but his career has taken him to the likes of Bristol Rovers, Exeter, QPR and Norwich. He now finds himself as player-manager at Bishop’s Stortford, competing in the Isthiman League Premier Division. The goals are still flowing: he has 23 in 40 appearances since joining his new side last year, and has now netted in every season since 1994/1995 and in all of the top eight tiers of English football. He started himself on the bench in this week’s Hertfordshire Senior Cup match against Watford’s academy side, but decided to make an appearance late on. The Twitter account of the Premier League club noted that Cureton was 27 years older than some of the defenders he was coming up against – his experience was ultimately not enough to get a result for his team, however, as the Watford youth team advanced to the semi-final on penalties.
Perhaps Thierry Henry would have had more luck at Monaco if he had been installed as player-manager. Certainly he must have been frustrated not to be out on the pitch in some of the defeats he witnessed – he was ultimately powerless to turn around the Principality side’s awful form, and has been dismissed after just three months with the team a mere point off the bottom. A 2-0 defeat to Dijon proved to be the final straw. The man he replaced will also be his successor: the club have re-hired Leonardo Jardim to try and sort out the mess. It is at least admirable to see a team admit that they made a mistake in getting rid of an old manager, but Jardim will have to reacquaint himself with the club very quickly if he is to get them out of the predicament which he initially left in October. His first test will be a Coupe de la Ligue semi-final against Guingamp; the bottom-of-the- table side pulled off a huge shock by eliminating PSG, so this represents a very real shot at silverware.
Elsewhere in France, explosive striker Mario Balotelli was on the move this week. He joined Marseille after his relationship with Patrick Vieira at Nice became irredeemable. He made his debut from the bench at home to LOSC Lille, but the match was heavily disrupted after a firework was thrown on to the pitch and exploded close to multiple players. The referee called a half-hour halt to proceedings as a result of the unsavoury scenes – the drama seems to follow Balotelli around, although he cannot carry any of the blame for this one. Indeed, he caused some fireworks in the right way after being introduced; he scored a debut goal in the 96th minute, although it was only a consolation due to Nicolas Pépé’s brace from the spot. The Ivorian wide man is seriously in form this season, and has been linked with a move to Arsenal.
Balotelli’s old team Manchester City had no troubles in the FA Cup this week – they cruised past fellow Premier League side Burnley as if they were non-league minnows, taking them apart in a 5-0 thrashing. Not all of the big teams enjoyed such success. Tottenham was the biggest scalp of the round, crashing out to Crystal Palace. West Ham suffered the embarrassment of going out to AFC Wimbledon, who sit bottom of League One; the third-tier strugglers led 3-0 at one stage, and survived a late onslaught to escape with a 4-2 victory. This came just days after a 3-0 home defeat to Fleetwood. Wolves needed a 95th -minute strike to salvage a replay against Shrewsbury Town, and Everton were dumped out of the competition by Millwall. This game included controversy; the only match of the day not to feature VAR saw one of Millwall’s goals handled into the net, but the officials either did not spot it or adjudged it to be accidental. One thing is for sure: the magic of the cup is alive and well.