Clubs, England, Liverpool, Manchester United, Paris Saint-Germain, Story, Thomas Lemar


Welcome to our second European football notebook, featuring contributions from ESPN writers across the continent. In this edition, Liverpool’s preventative measures before the Champions League, a top goalkeeper hints at his availability this summer, Man United make contact with their first target and much more.

Jump to: Man United begin Lemar talks? | Liverpool lockdown | Neymar’s PSG party | Donnarumma for sale? | | La Liga take games to FIFA 20 | United seeking characters | Dier facing punishment? | French legends clash in court | India tour under threat | French teams facing ruin? | Serie A ref resurfaces in English non-league

Man United connect with top target Thomas Lemar

Despite the current suspension of football across Europe, clubs are hard at work on next season, in particular their recruitment plans. Manchester United are planning and hoping for summer of world-class signings and sources told ESPN they’ve begun meeting with agents. One name stood out: Thomas Lemar, whose representatives met with United in the past week.

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The French international wants to leave Atletico Madrid where the style of football is not suited to his qualities and where he is not playing much. Lemar, still only 24, was on United’s shortlist of targets after a stellar 2016-2017 season with Monaco, when he was linked to Liverpool and Arsenal only to end up in Spain for 70m euros a year later. He still has a bit more than three years left on his contract, meaning he won’t be cheap, but United believe his left foot and creativity could be an asset next season.

Man United executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward and his team will be in contact with a lot of agents and players in the weeks to come, and this is one to keep an eye on. — Julien Laurens

Thomas Lemar has underwhelmed in Spain but has the talent and desire to bounce back strong if given a chance in the Premier League.

Liverpool began lockdown early

Liverpool’s players were preparing for lockdown prior to their Champions League exit against Atletico Madrid last week, with the club imposing stricter measures on Jurgen Klopp’s squad due to the coronavirus pandemic. Players were told to limit contact solely to teammates and close family members before and after the game, with none allowed to visit the hospitality areas or private boxes at the end of the Round of 16 second leg.

Players not involved in Klopp’s matchday squad were also told to stay away from Anfield to limit the risk of exposure to COVID-19. — Mark Ogden

Neymar‘s impromptu party

The Paris Saint-Germain players swear they hadn’t planned it. Their 2-0 win over Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League last-16 second leg on March 11, putting the French champions into the quarterfinals for the first time since 2015-16, led to some wonderful scenes of joy, happiness and communion with the fans. Once the Parisian players finally left the Parc des Princes, they all met at Neymar’s huge house in Bougival, a residential city 20 minutes west of the stadium, for an impromptu party. Despite some tension over the conduct and focus of the squad at times this season, PSG sporting director Leonardo and manager Thomas Tuchel were all too happy for the gathering to happen and to let the players enjoy themselves and celebrate.

Sources told ESPN that the music and dancing went on until the early hours of the morning. The squad had a day off the following day, meaning plenty of time to recover from their improvised celebrations. — Julien Laurens

Donnarumma on the move?

It’s probably not a coincidence that Gianluigi Donnarumma posted an Instagram story suggesting he was studying English while on lockdown. The Milan goalkeeper, who has already made nearly 200 appearances for the Rossoneri despite only turning 21 at the end of February, becomes a free agent at the end of next season, and according to multiple sources, it’s going to be extremely difficult for the club to hang on to him.

Donnarumma already earns a whopping £6 million ($6.9 million) per season net, which works out to close to £200,000 ($233,000) a week. That deal was signed in 2017 under the previous ownership group at Milan, and while he’s been playing at a high level, sources familiar with the situation said it’s highly unlikely he’ll get a raise, which is what you normally get when you extend a contract — particularly when your agent is Mino Raiola — in light of the club’s disastrous financial state.

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If Donnarumma doesn’t renew his deal, Milan will face a difficult choice: sell when the transfer market opens for a cut-rate fee, or risk losing him for nothing in a year’s time. Hence why Raiola has been shopping him around discreetly, and why he’s letting the world know about his English lessons, the latter somewhat less discreetly.

It would look like another Raiola masterstroke, but as one veteran intermediary told ESPN, it’s not quite that straightforward.

“Everything points to him leaving either this summer or next,” he said. “But the market for keepers is a funny one. Even at his current salary, there are no more than eight or 10 clubs that can afford him. And if he moves, it’s guaranteed he’ll get a further raise. Especially if it’s as a free agent. The very few clubs who can afford him are generally happy with their keepers.” — Gab Marcotti

La Liga gets creative with FIFA 20

Real Madrid vs. Granada. Barcelona vs. Espanyol or Eibar. Atletico Madrid vs. Real Sociedad. It was like any other cup draw in soccer, except the team names were on pieces of paper drawn from a large saucepan, and the host was sitting in his living room wearing a bathrobe.

With Spain officially in a state of lockdown and training sessions on hold, La Liga’s players are having to get creative to keep themselves entertained. This weekend, 19 footballers — one from each La Liga club, with the exception of Real Mallorca after winger Alejandro Pozo dropped out — will be playing FIFA 20 online in a tournament organised by content creator Ibai Llanos and now officially backed by La Liga.

Marco Asensio will represent Real Madrid after beating Dani Carvajal and Thibaut Courtois in a warm-up event on Tuesday. Carvajal was returning to FIFA having stopped playing last summer, saying he got too annoyed when he didn’t win, while Courtois’ near-constant involvement in various esports events in recent days has even raised eyebrows among teammates.

Sergi Roberto will play as Barcelona, Marcos Llorente as Atletico Madrid, Carlos Soler as Valencia, Adnan Januzaj for Real Sociedad and Lucas Perez as Alaves. The big event comes after more than 60,000 people watched Borja Iglesias of Real Betis beat Sergio Reguilon of Sevilla in a mock Seville Derby online last weekend.

The event will be broadcast on Spanish TV and La Liga’s social media accounts, and proceeds will be donated to charity. — Alex Kirkland

Man United’s scouting: character matters

Manchester United now place as much importance on a prospective signing’s personality as his talent, with sources telling ESPN that one of the key criteria in every scouting report is now the player’s character. What may seem like a statement of the obvious only dates back to the appointment of manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer last season, with the Norwegian and his staff unhappy with the attitude of some of the players inherited from Jose Mourinho.

Sources told ESPN that too many players were focused primarily on themselves rather than the team, with one high-profile member of the squad unable to accept that he was not regarded as the biggest star at Old Trafford.

Since Solskjaer’s arrival, United have signed Harry Maguire, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Daniel James and Bruno Fernandes, with each player regarded by Solskjaer as having the required mentality to shine at Old Trafford. Maguire and Fernandes, in particular, have impressed with their selflessness and also the demands they have placed on their teammates.

Solskjaer is determined to add players of similar quality, on and off the pitch, this summer, with Borussia Dortmund’s Jadon Sancho a leading target. — Mark Ogden

Dier still in the dock

While football operations at every level have been placed on hold, the English Football Association is still attempting to maintain some sense of “business as usual,” which is not necessarily good news for Tottenham midfielder Eric Dier. No action has yet been taken against the 26-year-old as a result of his confrontation with a supporter in the stands following the FA Cup defeat against Norwich City on Mar, 4, but the FA’s disciplinary unit is continuing to investigate the incident by seeking observations from all involved.

While Dier received widespread sympathy in the wake of the incident, which was allegedly sparked by the player’s brother being verbally abused by a spectator, the FA is aware of its responsibility to assess the whole picture, rather than merely focusing on the vitriol directed at players and their families, on and off the pitch.

Dier is facing the prospect of a lengthy ban because of the necessity to provide a deterrent not just stopping other players entering the stands, but also avoiding a potentially much worse outcome than the argument that ensued in Dier’s case. — Mark Ogden

Cantona and Deschamps to square off in court

In September, the trial between Man United legend (and four-time Premier League winner) Eric Cantona and France national team manager Didier Deschamps will reopen. It was adjourned less than a month ago, because of a strike in the judiciary system in Paris, after the France head coach is suing the former player tuned actor for libel.

It is a frankly incredible story of animosity between two former teammates at Marseille and with France. Before the 2016 Euros, Cantona hinted in a couple of interviews that Deschamps was prejudiced because he didn’t pick either Karim Benzema or Hatem Ben Arfa in the French squad for the competition. “Maybe he is, maybe he is not,” said Cantona at the time. “What’s for sure is that Benzema and Ben Arfa have North African origins and won’t go to the Euros. So the debate is open.” Deschamps’ lawyer, Carlo Alberto Brusa, immediately went public with Deschamps’ intent to pursue legal action. “These words are unacceptable, unworthy, and Cantona brings shame on France, the French people and the France team which is the epitome of diversity. To bring up North African origins is to deny that the two players are French.”

The former Manchester United legend has never liked Deschamps. He used to publicly call him a “water-carrier” and a “random player” while taunting his lack of technical ability. Deschamps, winner of the 1998 World Cup as a player and 2018 World Cup as coach, therefore decided to have his day in court, a reunion many years in the making. — Julien Laurens

India facing disappointment over Man United visit

Manchester United had been due to visit India for the first time this summer, with plans at an advanced stage to play East Bengal during the Premier League club’s preseason preparations in July.

United have long held ambitions to play in India, with club research suggesting that they have as many as 35 million supporters in the country. In the past, concerns over the climate in the sub-continent have scuppered attempts to play there in July, but having overcome those reservations, United were preparing to play in India this summer before embarking on a series of friendlies in Europe.

However, the coronavirus outbreak has now left the trip to East Bengal in serious doubt, with sources telling ESPN that the logistical chaos ahead regarding the end of the 2019-20 season is likely to lead to their summer plans being redone entirely. — Mark Ogden

Teams in France bracing for economic impact

Some French clubs are already counting the potential cost of domestic football’s suspension due to the coronavirus. Both professional tiers, Ligue 1 and Ligue 2, were paused indefinitely by the Professional Football League (LFP) last week, and the French Football Federation (FFF) did the same from the semi-professional third tier on down, as well as suspending the women’s game too. The freeze has created an inevitable debate over if the current season can, or even should be, finished and Champions League qualification — a prize given only to the top three finishers — is a major bone of contention.

Fierce rivals Lyon president Jean-Michel Aulas and Marseille counterpart Jacques-Henri Eyraud publicly sparred after Aulas told Le Monde that a null and void campaign is “the best solution” as any alternative would “open a can of worms.” His reasoning for this appeared personal: Based on the suspended Ligue 1 standings, Aulas’ club (seventh this season, nine points adrift of automatic qualification) would qualify for European competition by virtue of finishing third last season. Conversely, Eyraud and Marseille (in second this season, 16 points clear of Lyon) would be left out having finished fifth in 2018-19.

While French football waits to see if it will be possible to resume and finish the current season before the end of June, Aulas has since placed Lyon’s sporting staff on partial unemployment during the suspension despite claiming that OL would be “put in no difficulty” — Amiens (in 19th place) have already taken similar measures. Not every club is exploring that option: Nantes owner Waldemar Kita vowed, in an interview with Ouest-France, to honour all employees’ “full salaries” during the suspension.

KPMG has estimated that Ligue 1 clubs stand to collectively lose between €300 and €400 million if this campaign is ultimately deemed to be a null and void term. — Jonathan Johnson

Gavillucci back in the game… in England’s non-league

As 480 supporters turned up to watch Radcliffe FC against Whitby Town in the Northern Premier League on Saturday, one or two eyebrows were raised by the name of the referee on the teamsheet: Claudio Gavillucci.

Two years ago, Gavillucci was taking charge of games in Serie A and he made headlines in 2018 when he suspended a fixture between Sampdoria and Napoli after home fans were heard making discriminatory noises toward the visiting supporters. With the game suspended in the 31st minute, Sampdoria president Massimo Ferrero took to the field to ask his own club’s supporters stop their chanting. Yet Gavillucci was subsequently dismissed from his role by the Italian authorities, who cited his poor performance as justification for their decision.

The 40-year-old has taken legal action but has since relocated to England, where he registered with the Cheshire FA in January. He is due to publish a book chronicling his experience on March 20. — Mark Ogden



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