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Guillem Balague Exclusive Interview

Guillem Balague Exclusive Interview

With Liverpool storming to their first League title, the Champions League Last 16 just about to kick-off and plenty going on behind the scenes at Barcelona with Lionel Messi, Genting Casino ambassador Guillem Balague gives the inside track on all of this and more.





How impressed have you been with Liverpool this season, and where do they compare to the likes of Arsenal’s Invincibles, Chelsea in 2005, Man City and Man United’s title winning teams and other Premier League teams in the past? 

Liverpool have shown to be competitive for a long time, and that’s always a sign of a good team. They’re doing it by changing the way they win, which also suggests a team that is progressing. There’s still room for improvement, which is amazing because they’re beating everybody and drew against Manchester United.

So you have to compare them with the best. I don’t think anybody remembers what happened to Arsenal before and after the Invincible year, but at that point they were the best a team could have. And there was a lot of draws of that team, but Liverpool are winning most of their games.

They’ve developed strategies to keep the energy, they’ve developed strategies of attacking teams that are very solid. Everybody’s improving. Henderson is an example of it, to he’s become an allrounder midfielder that actually gets into the box and creates. And you see it throughout the team.

So Liverpool have to be up there. They’re going to win the league, they’re going to do it by beating their 100-point record and they have to be put in that list for certain.


If Man City fails to win the Champion’s League, will this season be Pep Guardiola’s last season?

Guardiola has got a contract and he’s said that many times. At least I heard it five times from him that he wants to stay until the end of his contract. That’s next season. The interesting twist could be if actually Manchester City convince him to renew his contract. And that would be just a sign of try to – try not to fall in the trick of oh, he’s leaving next season anyway, so everybody drops a level.

It’s a way of saying, no no, he’ll stay for longer. But in fact, I think that even if they renew his contract, it would be a bit of a PR stunt and I do believe that next season will be his last.

Nobody knows for certain because he keeps his cards very close to his chest and he hasn’t said one way or the other. I feel that there is a change to be made at City now. They need at least four new players that can go into the line-up, that can challenge. But it’s a very young side throughout.

David Silva is going but already you can see his influence diminishing a little bit this season. Everybody else has had a poor season, and they’ve had injuries problems, as everybody knows, that has made their life very difficult.

It’s very difficult to win after winning so often, two years of a lot of success. OK, they have taken a dip. People are taking it as, you know, that’s the end of something. For me, it’s just another challenge for Pep Guardiola to prove that he can come back stronger next season with perhaps, yeah, new players.


What has gone wrong with Man City this season and how much work does their squad need in order to compete with Liverpool next season?

Manchester City have to get these four starters coming in but they also have to demand more of the players that they’ve got there. The likes of Rodri would have gone a full season with City, so next season should be better. Rodri he was going to be a key player there.

Laporte has been missed for half the season which has been massive, so let’s see what happens with Sane otherwise they need that kind of player as well. But that can be there, because Sane of course got injured in August.

What has gone wrong is that they haven’t been strong in both sides. They’re missing a lot of chances like they did in the first season of Pep Guardiola. Apart from the last four, five games in which everything turned, and previously you then saw success the following year.

So it’s just adjusting things. It happens, it’s a dip, but I do believe they will come back very strong next year and they will challenge Liverpool for the season again for the title.




Which Premier League team have you been most impressed with this season?

Sheffield United have impressed me. Wilder has managed to create a culture at the club – not just the team – a culture at the club in terms of how they recruit, how they play, that is successful. All of these things are being done by people that know what they’re doing and they have an idea, a clear idea where they’re going. And they’ve done it by being consistent in a season in which everybody has been up and down.

They stay just match all the expectations and more. But they’ve done it with players that you think, you know, I’ll give you the back three: John Egan, Jack O’Connell, Chris Basham. None of them would just jump into a top team.

So it is the unit what makes the difference. Pako Ayestaran, when he was with Rafa Benitez at Valencia, he used to say, OK, which one of our players – and this is as a measure of progression or as a measure of quality –will play for Real Madrid or Barcelona. And perhaps at the beginning of the season it will be two or three, but at the end of that those successful seasons, it will be four or five and then we’ve done well.

I don’t think there’ll be many of these players that I mentioned and others that will go into Manchester City or Liverpool, but it’s the strength of the unity that managed to get them to where they are.


Can Leicester keep hold of their best players come the end of the season, and how important is it for them to keep players like James Maddison in order to reach the next level as a club? 

I think Leicester are in a very good place because their expectations are not huge but they could actually get into the Champions League, in which case why would anybody go. They play really well. Teams have come and tried to get players and haven’t managed to do so.

Once they sold Maguire, it seemed like others could follow suit but they decided to stay. It’s that mixture of being in the Premier League, not having expectations but doing well and still getting well paid, and being in a group that everybody enjoys being part of. It means that I don’t think there’s going to be many changes, especially if they make it into the Champions League.


Would you expect Pochettino to come to Manchester United in the summer? And if no, where else can you see him going?

I think Pochettino has got different options. For me, I would recommend that he should wait for Manchester City or Manchester United. I think that’s what, if I had to recommend him anything, I would say that.

He doesn’t need recommendations. PSG also want him. I know Atletico Madrid also want him. So it’s a decision to be made at the right time. Which should be coming quite soon because teams have to start to be organised for next season, managers need to know what’s happening. And it’s a great choice to have.

In the case of Atletico Madrid, they’re waiting to see what Simeone wants to do. But I know that if Simeone leaves, Pochettino is the option one, two or three. And I believe that he knows all the conditions that that will mean. But I think Manchester United is the place where he’d like to go next.


Can Wolves keep hold of their stars, their star player, as a manager, and do you expect the likes of Nuno Espirito Santo, Raul Jimenez, Adama Traore and Ruben Neves to still be Wolves players next season?

I think Jimenez, Traore, and Neves are players that have done well at Wolves but there’s room for improvement and they are in the perfect place for it. They are a team that maximises their potential, that suits their style. The three of them are different, of course, Neves, Traore, and Raul Jimenez. They’ve done really, really well.

Wolves don’t necessarily have to sell, and that happens with a lot of Premier League teams. If it changes, it’s because Nuno is the kind of manager who doesn’t match the players. If he’s got to move them on, he would. But those are three that I would say are needed to take the next step, which would be for them to consolidate themselves as a top six side. And maybe at some point just get into the Champions League.




How impressed have you been with Mikel Arteta since he took over at Arsenal and does he have the quality and temperament to become one of the best coaches in the world?

Arteta hasn’t changed the dynamic, Arsenal aren’t scoring more goals and they have improved defensively. That’s the negative. The positive is he’s stabilised a team that was confused, maybe that’s the word, where players weren’t completely convinced about what was happening. And even though the work that was put in was really strong, obviously there was a disconnection there, with the fans.

So all that has put everybody in the same boat. Everybody has to improve. I mean, Nicolas Pepe not being a regular now is suggesting that unless you get to your best, you won’t go far with Arteta.

The style – it’s the kind of style that takes a while to implement it, so he’s taken the long road to success. But the most, I think, the most solid way, which is give pace to the side, with domination, possession, but fast football as well. And you’ve got everybody working very hard defensively now. And generally, when you see the likes of Ozil, Lacazette, Pepe and Martinelli, working so hard without the ball, it’s a sign of leadership that is being respected. But also, I feel that Arsenal can improve a lot and that they need a lot of players, not a few players, a lot of players to actually get to the level they want to.

Right now, it’s stabilised and I think you’re going to see that Arsenal is going to improve next season.


Now that the dust has settled, is Jose Mourinho the right man for Tottenham?

Mourinho is the man that Daniel Levy wanted, that’s all you have to say. It’s completely different to the style that was in place, completely different. It needs a completely different set of players. He is demanding completely different stuff to them. But Daniel Levy wanted a big name that allowed the stock of the company – I think it was the priority – to actually not plummet. And with Jose Mourinho you have a big, Hollywood-like manager that allowed Spurs to still win their bid against City, but how they did it is what is a little bit disappointing.

Of course they can win, and winning is everything, but in the long term they need to show more personality on the pitch, dominate the games more, I feel, for them to be a big side again. Or to reach the heights of the past.

So, so far so good, but I feel that because there is a different way of thinking about the game between the players that have been developed in the Pochettino way. And Mourinho. Mourinho is going to make changes to the side. And that will be expensive. And that may have a medium-term bad effect. But it was about filling what was a very big gap, and certainly Mourinho can do that for a while.


In the midst of the Premier League winter break, which Spanish players have impressed you the most?

Adama Traore is strong, as we know and he’s fast. He needs to be more consistent in the way he does his things, and he was about to make it into the national side. He would have done it with Robert Moreno but he got injured, I know that in the past Lopatelli was looking at him too. Traore hasn’t made it yet but let’s see if Luis Enrique continues. It won’t be before the Euros, but maybe after, if he continues monitoring his progression - but he’s got to keep going.

With Rodri, it took him a while to kind of settle, but I think he will be the midfielder that Manchester City wants. And the one that Spain kind of have to replace, when the time is right.

And Eric Garcia, the centre-back from Manchester City who perhaps fans want him to see more of, because they see that he’s got the potential to be a good centre-back. He needs to improve physically and he hasn’t got the experience yet, but I think you will see much more of him next season.




Liverpool face Atletico Madrid in the Champions League Round of 16. Do you expect Liverpool to progress or do Simeone and his men have what it takes to stop the Champions League title holders?

There’s no doubt that Atletico Madrid can compete. But I think they’ve been all damaged, including Simeone, by what happened against Juventus. They could have qualified and they lost three nil in Turin, and they were knocked out. This was Atletico Madrid showing their weaknesses and that it was the end of an era.

But now, a new era has started and there has been a transition. Simeone has used that word a few times, far too often perhaps, because everybody believed that, OK, whatever happens, it doesn’t really matter. But it does. They need to bring money through the Champions League to pay all the wages that they’re paying in and all the transfers that they’ve been paying, such as 127 million for Joao Felix.

Joao Felix may not be there but they have problems with injuries. Fimez is returning but he won’t be fit, Leo Costa is returning but he won’t be fit. Morata will be there, I imagine, but Morata, Vitolo Correa, Koke, Thomas and Saúl haven’t been at their best.

With Liverpool, on the other hand, and the return of Mané, you’ve got a team that is strong in all the areas. Liverpool are the best team in the world and compete very well. In one game anything can happen. If it was a final, you can always put that out there. But in two games they are superior.


What do Liverpool need to do to win the game and how important is it for Liverpool to have Sadio Mané back from injury in the first place?

Liverpool will defend very compactly and counterattack, and that’s how they can kill Atletico Madrid. Atletico Madrid haven’t got enough weapons when they have to attack a team that’s very solid and very defensive. Atletico Madrid are not very good when they have to track bac and when they have been counterattacked. So if they play their usual game and it will be one of patience. Liverpool are a mature team and they know what to do every moment. I don’t think Atletico Madrid have got a chance.


Atletico have suffered form in the past couple of weeks. Does their domestic form go out of the window in the Champions League?

It doesn’t really, the domestic form exposes things. It hasn’t just been the last couple of weeks that they showed that they are not at their best, it’s just been the whole season. Even though they are fourth, three points from third at the moment, they are a team that are not strong in both boxes and need to score more, that’s the main thing. Defensively they’ve been iffy, but especially upfront, if it is Morata. If there’s no Morata then nobody else scores.

These are the kind of things you could see domestically, so it will show as well in the Champions League.


Which Atletico player should Liverpool be most wary of ahead of the crunch time 

If Joao Felix is not ready, it’s Morata. Morata can hold the ball and is very fast as well - when there is not much space he suffers. But everybody else suffers because the midfielders are not terribly creative. Koke has been used in the last game closer to the forward, because they don’t have a Joao Felix that can open up defences, the midfield is not terribly creative.

Correa is the one that you don’t expect and the invisible player and then comes out with something sometimes, so Correa and Morata will be the ones to watch.


Manchester City face Real Madrid in the Champions League. Who do you think will come out on top over the two legs?

I can’t predict this one, there is so much at stake here for both teams. For Real Madrid, it is their competition, and they have improved. Defensively they are so strong, they have the best defence in La Lig. But upfront they are struggling, Benzema hasn’t been scoring freely, and he is so influential in everything they do. He becomes a midfielder sometimes, as everybody knows, but he needs the others to step up. Maybe that’s what we see finally Bale just coming into form because I think he will be needed, I’m not sure he will be played.

All in all Real Madrid are a team that’s solid, more than spectacular. As for Manchester City, we’ve seen the weaknesses again in both boxes, they don’t score enough but they create so many chances.

So I think Manchester City will have more chances. They haven’t been very efficient. Let’s see if Sterling is in the side or not. They have a little bit of an advantage, because Real Madrid don’t score a lot and it’s important to score there. But at the same time, you can tell because City defensively are poorer than Real Madrid. It’s very much in the balance, there’s not much separating them.




Will Pep need to set up his team differently in order to progress past Madrid over the two legs? And more importantly, will he make a change to his system?

It’s interesting that every time that City are going through a bad patch or they’re not meeting their targets, which hasn’t happened very often since the first year of Pep, but now, that everybody is talking about changing the system. There’s a way of saying, right, OK, we knew that the system was not going to work, so now he’s got to change it. That’s not knowing Pep, or how he’s done what he’s done and the way he’s done it is, and what system is it that he is playing. He’s actually getting his players to do a lot of things on the pitch in a lot of different ways.

I don’t understand this system talk, what they have to do is to convert the chances they create. That has got nothing to do with the manager, or the system. It’s got to do with the players being more efficient.


With City’s game versus West Ham postponed at the weekend, will the winter break work against City’s favour ahead when they play Real Madrid?

Manchester Ciy won’t feel the favour of the winter break because now they play Leicester and West Ham before Real Madrid, which means in seven days they’ll have two very competitive games. That’s what Pep Guardiola wanted - he wanted the holidays to be broke a little bit earlier, so now instead of two weeks it will be about 10 days or something. Manchester City will come fresh for the two games competitively, which is what he wants. Pep wants everybody to be sharp.

There is that invisible thing that you don’t see, the match fitness, the rhythm, the taking of decisions quickly. They’ll be sharp in their minds and that doesn’t come just because you play in the Champions League, it comes because you’ve been competing. I think it’s good news that the games will be in that order.


Is it fair to say that the winners of Real Madrid versus Manchester City will automatically become favourites to win the Champions League?

We are only at the quarter finals. This year, Juventus are losing games domestically and have been cut out by Inter. Bayern are there, Leipzig are surprising many, but they are unexperienced at this level and Barcelona who are having their own problems. You cannot give the favourite to anybody, including Manchester City or Madrid. They will find their own teams that are at that level in the next competition – so I couldn’t tell you who are the favourites at this stage.


Eden Hazard has been out of action for two months, how important will he be against Manchester City for Madrid? 

I don’t think Hazard will start against Manchester City, Madrid are going very slowly with his time. I think he may take part more a bigger part in the second leg. He is important because Madrid haven’t been scoring a lot, and Benzema and Hazard started linking very well and with Mendy on the left-hand side - what a powerful left-hand side. Right-hand side needs to see who goes there, if it’s going to be Rodrigo or Benissues or Bale.

Baran and Sergio Ramos are doing so well too. But, offensively, the appearance of Hazard will definitely help the side for the last three months of the season.


What do you make of Chelsea’s chances against Bayern Munich in the Champions League round of 16?

Bayern Munich are a strong team at all levels, I hope that Chelsea aren’t taking this as a competition to win. I hope that it’s one to actually add experience to the side. I hope that they are adventurous. They will play the youngsters, because that’s what they have, and it will be a great experience to them.

I wouldn’t put past Chelsea to beat Bayern in one of the games, but I think Bayern are superior. It’s all about getting Hudson-Odoi and Mason Mount to actually get to the next level.


How does Frank Lampard need to set up to get a result against Bayern?

I hope he doesn’t fear for the result and that Chelsea go to try and beat Bayern in both sides - I do believe that that’s what he will do. I’ll be surprised if he actually sets up a team in a completely different fashion to what we’ve seen, which is a team that defends with a line high up and with who passed the ball, who dominated and won the ball. Against Bayern, this doesn’t matter, you cannot just go and say, right guys, we’ve done things one way and now we must change because it’s Bayern Munich. You cannot go like that because I think you lose a little bit of authority if that happens.

So it’ll be adventurous and it’ll be a fun game to watch.


RB Leipzig are currently battling out with Bayern at the top of the Bundesliga. Do Tottenham have enough quality to beat them and progress?

It’s a very equal game. With the first leg being in London, Jose Mourinho will probably play for a nil nil draw, and then we’ll see what happens back in Germany. If you go one by one, you have five players in a mixed line-up, five players per team, plus perhaps the goalkeeper of Spurs with [Lloris] in the line-up too. They’re very equal and they both have got kind of the same limitations but also the same strengths for Spurs. They don’t create as many chances but they’ve been a bit more solid at the back than they were at the beginning of the Jose Mourinho era.

For Leipzig, this is a team that has got in Timo Werner, one of the best strikers in the Bundesliga, and just generally a team that is solid in every line. So I think Leipzig are superior to Spurs, a little bit - they seem to have been this season, so they will be battling Bayern Munich for the Champions League.


Will Mourinho’s experience in the Champions League steer Tottenham to another Champions League final this year?

Mourinho has got the worst squad he’s had since his time at Porto right now, and just because he’s done it before with other teams doesn’t mean that he can do it here. He’s limited in his resources but his approach works against the side. Spurs made it because they were to the top, to the final, because they were adventurous, because they risked things, and he likes not to risk. And when that happens, I think you get penalised eventually.




With Messi unhappy with Sporting Director Eric Abidal, do you think that the time has finally come for Messi to look for a move away from Barcelona?

Messi needs to be surrounded by his own people, in his own environment, he’s made where he lives a little Rosario. He just feels at home, he’s got three kids, a wife, so change is not something that goes with him. He needs to be in a place where he thrives.

The problem is the club, and that’s a little bit the background of his words. The club are making so many mistakes in terms of recruitment, they’ve been unlucky with the injuries of Dembélé because he hadn’t got injured before, but his big injury now is keeping him out for six months and there is no replacement. So it’s fine. You cannot plan ahead thinking, oh, how about if, you know, two or three of our best players get injured. But you have to be ready for it as well.

Another thing, they have got now 16, 17 professionals training. The rest are youngsters and that’s very difficult to compete. Plus, if you accuse, as Abidal said, the players for basically getting rid of the previous manager, it’s normal that a player will react.

Now the waters have come down a little bit, Messi is a bit tired, he is not as his best physically so he’s drop a little bit deeper. He assists but still very influential. And right now, there is no indication whatsoever that he’s leaving this summer, even though he can.


Atletico Madrid scored for the first time in four league games at the weekend but remain 10 points adrift of Real. Do you believe that they still have a chance at the title or is it a two-horse race in reality?

La Liga is a two-horse race, no doubt about that. Atletico Madrid have given up on the title because they have to sort out their own problems first. They have to fit in Joao Felix who is now out ill and they have to create more and concede less. A lot of problems that suggest, perhaps in my eyes, the end of an era. But you have to be brave enough to admit it, accept it, and then invite the manager to go. Atletico Madrid will not sack, or that’s what they’re saying. Simeone will have to begin leaving.

In any case, they are looking for alternatives and Pochettino is at the top of that list. Because they sense that Simeone doesn’t listen any more, so it’s hard to communicate with him. Perhaps it’s time for the team to match, with the spectacular football, the stadium that they’ve got and the new stage that they are in history.


Does Simeone recently triumphed in the Super Cup in Saudi Arabia. But do you feel that that’s papered over the cracks? Is Simeone coming to the end of his tenure, given the recent elimination and the distance to the top of the table?

Atletico Madrid went to the Super Cup and they got knocked out, lost the final against Real Madrid, so that wasn’t widely celebrated, of course. Even though they beat Barcelona, for 70 minutes they were so superior to Atletico Madrid.

So being knocked out of the Cup as well, now being three points from Getafe, Getafe are third and Atletico Madrid are fourth, there are enough indications there that things are not right. And everybody close to Simeone will tell you that he deserves to be given yet another chance because in eight years this is the first big crisis that he’s got. Fair enough. But he’s had eight years to make the team play better. And with the budget they’ve got at this stage, they should be challenging for titles. And they could be knocked out of the Champions League soon, so it is not a good season by all means. And perhaps a solution is not to give Simeone another chance.


Third to eighth place in La Liga are separated by just seven points, so who would your bet be to secure the final two Champions League places as things stand? 

We keep saying Getafe, because Getafe could have been fourth last season. so it just looks like Getafe are consistent. The problem is they’ve got another competition, an extra competition this year, they’ve got in Davidson an extra forward, but they lost Cabrera the centre back.

So I think they could suffer at the end. Which means that Getafe have to improve, but now they started going down in form. Atletico Madrid people expect to be a top three. There’s Valencia and Bilbao, up to a point. I would have given Bilbao the fourth place but now it’s Seville and Valencia. But Getafe and Atletico Madrid to be the top four.


How impressed have you been with Getafe this season? They’ve risen above more established clubs this season to get in third place?

It’s a fantastic story from the  players– some of them are in their 30s, some of them spend most of their career in the second division or second league. The players understand what the manager’s asking them to do, they’ll give everything for the manager and they’ve also been scoring. Mata, Molina] and Angel have scored more than any other trio in La Liga apart from two others. They’re the fifth best goal scorers and they spend a lot of time in the opposition half, partly because they apply high pressure and do it very efficiently, partly because they play long with the other team, they play more often long than anybody else in La Liga.

That’s a style that seems to be working for them. They double up in full-backs in the wide areas, which means that everybody is very conscious of their defending work and it has worked for them, so fantastic work Bordalas, could yet again could be given the title of best manager of the season.


The Gareth Bale saga continues at Real Madrid with the Welshman seemingly back in favour after playing 71 minutes against Osasuna. Do you see the situation ultimately coming to a head in the summer?

Gareth Bale had decided to leave this summer, he was all decided, couldn’t stand Real Madrid anymore, he was left out of the squad against Bruges and he didn’t understand what he had to do to be in the team. But there were no offers on the table, so now the message that comes from his camp is completely the opposite, of oh, he’s staying now. But Real Madrid would like to get rid of him so it’s one of those situations in which Gareth Bale doesn’t want to be seen as opening the doors very easily, but Real Madrid will still push.

It was Real Madrid’s fault that he hasn’t gone, he had a deal with a Chinese club, Gareth Bale was going for free and the Chinese club would pay his wages, and Real Madrid agreed to that. But then Florentino Perez heard that James Rodriguez was about to get an offer of 30, 40 million EURO from another Chinese club and when Florentino heard about James, he thought, oh, if they’re going to pay 30, 40 for him then they should pay the same for Gareth. And at that point the conversations broke down, so no deal.

If going to China was something that attracted Gareth Bale at the time, who’s to say that maybe he gets attracted by another foreign approach. I don’t think he’ll go back to the Premier League so now it’s a matter of seeing the chess game that’s going to be produced now.


Sergio Ramos scored his 90th goal for Real Madrid at the weekend, an incredible tally for a centre-back. Sum up, if you can, how integral he has been to Real Madrid’s success and where does he rank in Real Madrid and La Liga’s history of centre-backs?

When he came to Real Madrid as an 18-year-old, he said in his press conference, my dream is to be a captain of Real Madrid. And he thought, right, OK, but you have to imagine your future, if you are ambitious, and fight for it. He’s done that by hearing from the other captains and leaders that he had in the squad to waiting for his moment. His moment arrived and by the time that Mourinho was there, he was already a power force that eventually worked against Mourinho. That was seen as a bit of a hero thing in the eyes of the fans and also the players.

I think his relationship with the club hasn’t been the best, but at the same time it’s difficult to take somebody that’s managed to convert himself in a symbol of a way of understanding the game and leading Real Madrid and right now he’s also adding goals to his armour. So you’re talking about a, on the back of a lot of wins in the Champions League, he must have won five, maybe four. He’s done that representing well the club, and it’s a leadership that everybody follows.

So he’s happy to be in that position and he has to be considered a legend of the club.


Do you think Isco has finally come of age in this Real Madrid team? His stock seems to be high heading into the Champions League Second Round?

Isco was blind for the defeat against Majorca butthat was in October and then he wasn’t back into the line-up of Real Madrid since the end of November. He has taken advantage the minutes that he’s been given in recent times, his work rate has improved. He was key in the recent victory at the weekend against Osasuna, he realised that Osasuna brought high pressure and weren’t allowing the ball to get from the midfield to the forwards. So he was the left winger, came inside, he’s intelligent that way, linked up very well, realised where the spaces were, and he was key to the success, a four one victory away that gives Real Madrid – keeps them at the top.

So that kind of worked. That’d be fine. If he does that he will be used. And he knows now that his role is to be in and out of the side. And even though it looked like at the beginning of the season he wasn’t there for long, yet he is useful again.







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