It’s been a week of end of season parties and awards ceremonies, with Louis van Gaal was very much in the vanguard – inspiring me to open a bottle of plonk, ogle the sax player (ok, the wife then) and dish out a few gongs of my own.
Best Young Player
For me, the award should go to a young player – 22 or under –who has performed consistently in one of Europe’s stronger leagues and/or has displayed said quality in the Champions League. Given those parameters, the standout young player of 2014/15 is Juve’s Paul Pogba.
The young Frenchman is the most coveted midfield talent in Europe. Power, grace and an eye for goal, Pogba looks the complete package. With an Italian league and cup double in the bag, Pogba has a realistic chance on an incredible treble should Juve beat Barca in next month’s Champions League final.
Best Senior Player
Lionel Messi, of course. No discussion.
Breakthrough Season for a Manager
I had considered calling this the Young Manager Award – but settling on an age cut off proved tricky. So, I’ve gone with the “breakthrough” season idea instead. On that basis, two come to mind – Phillip Cocu at PSV Eindhoven and Stefano Pioli at Lazio.
Cocu’s efforts in steering PSV back to the summit of Dutch football after a seven year absence deserve great credit. The leap from fourth in his first season to first in his second is certainly commendable.
But for me, Pioli deserves the award. Unlike Cocu, he didn’t have the backing and goodwill of supporters when he took the reins at the Stadio Olimpico.
But his positive attacking style has won over the fans and seen Lazio qualify for the Champions League qualifiers after last season’s disappointing, turgid ninth place finish under his predecessor Edoardo Reja.
The smooth, understated manner in which Massimiliano Allegri has built upon strong Juve foundations and then taken them to even greater heights – a league and cup double and a shot at Champions League glory – has been seriously impressive.
In Portugal, Benfica’s title win represents the club’s first back to back championships in over 30 years – bringing the veteran Jorge Jesus into consideration. But Benfica’s success and Jesus’s work are noteworthy for another reason; the manager lost six keys players from his squad last summer but still managed to see off all comers and a particularly strong Porto challenge.
But the gong goes to Luis Enrique. Yes, of course, he’s had wonderful resources with which to work – but with Barca’s roster and financial muscle come serious pressure. But the manner in which he has changed Barca’s approach to take account of the fading Xavi and to get the best from Suarez, Messi and Neymar gets my vote.
The brave shift away from tiki taka to a much more direct playing style has reaped dividends – returning the club to the top of Spanish football and leaving them a game away from the European throne.
Team of the Season
A fourth league title in a row was hardly unexpected. A first Coppa Italia since 1995 was a terrific bonus. But it’s Juve’s great leap forward in Europe that has been the most eye-catching performance by any team for me this season – earning them my Team of the Season award.
The Champions League is the best barometer for measuring the quality of a side. Despite dominating Italian football for the last four seasons, this is the first time this vintage has shown that they can mix it with the big boys. Nice to see the Old Lady back.
Flop of the Season
Plenty to choose from in this category – Guardiola’s failure to transfer Bayern’s German dominance to Europe, Klopp’s seventh place finish in his last season at Dortmund, and the lack of progress made by mega rich Chelsea and Manchester City in the Champions League.
But the award goes to Real Madrid’s Fiorentino Perez and his Disney style Galactico project. The President’s love of stars left Carlo Ancelotti with an unbalanced and ultimately weaker squad – derailing their hopes at home and abroad.
Should Rafa replace the Italian, what on earth will he make of a dressing room containing so many expensively acquired lampshades?