Our time with Michael Laudrup, Swansea’s Don Draper

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It was easy to believe in Michael Laudrup. Between a legendary playing career, Jon Hamm’s looks, and a philosophy that melts the heart of any ‘play the right way’ aestheticist, it’s no wonder the man was being linked with so many big job openings last summer. It didn’t hurt that his latest team, Swansea City, had just won silverware in England, but even if the Swans hadn’t claimed the League Cup, Laudrup’s mystique would have still created links to Paris Saint-Germain and Real Madrid. After all, who doesn’t want to hire Don Draper?

As we’ve found out over Mad Men’s last eight years, perfect hair, a bone-cutting jaw, and the charisma to captivate beyond explanations leads to false belief. Now, with Swans chairman Huw Jenkins forced to call time on his Don, Swansea fans are left wondering what will become of their team now that their Draper has been shown the door.

Perhaps that’s too dramatic. Swansea of all teams is used to changing coaches. But as Jenkins pointed out in his announcement, this is the first time in a decade Swans have had to dismiss a boss. Before Laudrup, Brendan Rodgers had brought the Welsh team into the Premier League, using the club as a springboard to Anfield. Prior to him, Paolo Sousa guided the Swans before taking off for Leicester City, and before that, Roberto Martínez made his managerial name by taking Swansea into the second tier. All the while, Swansea maintained an approach that played progressive in addition to winning soccer. All the while, Swansea kept moving up the English ladder.

Laudrup seemed like a perfect fit – somebody whose reputation could match the ambition of a club that had established itself in the first division. Denmark’s greatest player ever — somebody who starred for all of Juventus, Barcelona, and Real Madrid — Laudrup would add a level of panache that could elevate Swans beyond Rodgers’ and Martínez’s success. For a club that had never won a major title, drawing a man of Laudrup’s mystique to the Liberty Stadium was a relative coup.

That coup produced immediate results. He was able to leverage his experience in La Liga, bring in Michu, and win silverware in his first year. If Laudrup was Swansea’s Don Draper, then 2012-13 was his carousel:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MoKtk8L77-U width=440 align=center]

Silverware makes you believe, so in the same way we didn’t worry about the empty bottles coming out of Don’s office, it was easy to overlook Laudrup’s problems. A murky past that didn’t add up to his present plagued Don as much as Michael, only where Draper never talked about Dick Whitman or Korea, nobody mentioned Laudrup’s one-season stints at Getafe, Spartak Moscow, or Mallorca. Where Don Draper disappeared to Southern California to hit on Anna’s niece, Laudrup let Swansea regress after claiming the League Cup. Distracted, intoxicated by his Draper-ness, Don lost his edge, just as winning a trophy make Laudrup forget.

Swansea are supposed to be the underdogs. They’re supposed to be Welsh upstarts. They’re supposed to be the feel good story that appeals to the neutral’s hearts. They’re not supposed to be resting on laurels, deserting Pete Campbell to lounge in the California desert. They’re supposed to be chasing Dow Chemical.

On Tuesday, our perceptions finally caught up to reality. Laudrup ceased being the hero. Unable to find new solutions, and with rumors from behind the scenes describing tensions that forced Jenkins’ hand, Swansea could no longer ignore the obvious. The club is two points from relegation. They’ve gone from playing beautiful, flowing soccer to holding the ball with little product. The man they were paying to help them build beyond the mire was guiding them back into it. It was time to move on.

For some, today’s move was a surprise. Had Laudrup been a little less Draper, it wouldn’t have been. It’s been over a season since Swansea played to the standard Laudrup inherited. He pushed the club to its greatest glory, but he was also on the brink of leading them to a debilitating failure. Sterling Cooper  had to move on from their Jaguar high, just as Swansea had to move on from the League Cup. At some point, the lesson’s so clear it’s painful: Not even Don Draper can avoid getting results.

The same year Mad Men debuted (2007), we started to see the cracks in Laudrup. Until then, the then-43-year-old was perfect, building on near rarefied playing success with four successful seasons at Brønbry. But he saw himself as too big for Getafe, never adapted to Moscow, and resigned rather than be troubled at Mallorca. Even before Swansea, he’d become a drifter, his new career an ill fit for an icon.

Swansea were given no choice but to move on. In the process, we’ve come to see a new Michael Laudrup. This wasn’t a coach building toward a place at a bigger club. This was somebody holding on in the face of failure, and as much as we want him to succeed, we’re forced to see him as flawed.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8i5SpIxx_A4]

Mascherano still believes Neymar is “the future” of Barcelona

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The Neymar-to-PSG saga has escalated quickly, and signs of the Brazilian’s move to Paris are growing, but one Barcelona player remains confident that his compatriot will stay in Spain ahead of the new La Liga season.

[ MORE: Morata signs five-year contract with Chelsea ]

PSG has shown a willingness over recent days to meet Barca’s worldly $260 million transfer fee for the 25-year-old, while Neymar has reportedly alerted his teammates that he will in fact be heading to the Parc des Princes next month.

Veteran Barcelona midfielder/defender Javier Mascherano is one of the Blaugrana players that hopes Neymar will stick around and help anchor the La Liga giants for years to come despite a possible massive payday in store.

“Obviously he is young and I hope he’s here with Barcelona for many more years,” the Argentina defender said to ESPN.

“He is a really important player for the club. Because of his age, he’s the future of the club and we hope we can keep on counting on him.

“He’s accustomed to the pressure and people talking. There’s always going to be rumours and news around him.

“It’s really difficult to give advice. Firstly, I’m not anyone to be giving advice and secondly, I see him really happy here, really happy. [Barca] are a club that have made it possible for him to perform at his best. But after that, each person has to make their own decisions.”

If Neymar does bolt for Paris the complexion of the MSN-Barca attack changes drastically despite still boasting elite talents Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez.

[ MORE: Man United drops Man City in Houston “Manchester Derby” ]

Barca has done little in the transfer market this summer, only adding Everton winger Gerard Deulofeu and Nelson Semedo of Benfica. The club continues to pursue Liverpool attacker Philippe Coutinho, however, the Reds recently rejected a bid of $93 million.

‘Nothing is impossible’: Bonucci brings hope to AC Milan

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MILAN (AP) Nothing is impossible. That’s AC Milan’s new unofficial slogan following Leonardo Bonucci’s surprise transfer from defending six-time Serie A champion Juventus.

[ MORE: Neymar reportedly tells Barca teammates he’s off to PSG ]

Presenting fans to Bonucci via Weibo on Friday, Milan CEO Marco Fassone recounted how Italy’s top defender moved to a rival club.

“It started by chance and it seemed impossible but Leo interrupted me right away and said, `Nothing is impossible. When there’s desire to do things you can get them done.”‘

Milan has been on a spending spree following the club’s sale to a Chinese-led consortium for $800 million in April, and Bonucci is the top acquisition, so far.

“Leo doesn’t require introductions,” Fassone said. “It’s an extraordinary reinforcement for us. … He completes a mosaic sought after by (Milan chief sport officer Massimiliano) Mirabelli – a mix of younger players and experienced leaders who will make the road ahead easier.”

Other recent signings by Milan included forward Andre Silva from FC Porto; midfielders Ricardo Rodriguez (Wolfsburg), Franck Kessie and Andrea Conti (Atalanta), Hakan Calhanoglu (Bayer Leverkusen) and Lucas Biglia (Lazio); and defender Mateo Musacchio (Villarreal).

Bonucci thanked Kessie for letting him wear his preferred No. 19 shirt, and pointed to Milan’s seven European Cups and Champions League titles as a reference point for a club that did not even qualify for continental play the last three years and hasn’t won Serie A since 2011.

“Milan deserves to be among the elite again in Italy and Europe,” Bonucci said. “When you are united you win. The strength has to be that of the squad whereas singular players alone can do nothing. We can get back to the top and that’s what this club deserves.”

Bonucci’s transfer fee reportedly topped the 40 million euro ($45 million) mark, and the center back was signed to a five-year contract worth up to 10 million euros ($11 million) per season, including bonuses – making him the highest-paid player in Italy.

Meanwhile, Juventus is reportedly near to signing prized winger Federico Bernardeschi from Fiorentina for a reported fee of 40 million euros ($45 million). The Gazzetta dello Sport reported Juventus will sign the 23-year-old Bernardeschi to five-year contract worth 4 million euros ($4.6 million) per season.

Vertonghen: “We need to level up” like rest of PL contenders

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Tottenham put up a heck of a title fight in 2016/17 as the club attempted to chase down Premier League champions Chelsea, but Spurs have been inactive this summer as Mauricio Pochettino‘s group gears up for next month.

[ MORE: Striker Morata signs five-year contract with Chelsea ]

The London side finished second in the PL a season ago — a record-high for the club during the modern Premier League Era.

[ VIDEO: History of the North London Derby ]

However, Pochettino and Co. have made no moves in the transfer market this summer, while its competitors — Chelsea, Manchester United, etc. — have all made significant roster additions to bolster their lineups.

Defender Jan Vertonghen says that Spurs must compete with the rest of the PL’s elite in the transfer market if the club is to finally realize its goal of finishing atop England’s top flight.

“The way our rivals are strengthening this season, we need to be aware of that and we need to level up as well,” Vertonghen told ESPN FC.

“I’m not saying with new players, but we need to take our levels up and I think we can. I’m the oldest outfield player in the team and I feel very fit. The younger guys can improve even more. It can definitely be our year and we want it to be our year.

“Luckily we almost kept everyone from this year. Obviously the window is not closed yet but if we can keep these guys, we can do the same thing again. It’ll be a bit harder because we play at Wembley! [The pitch] is a lot bigger but the training pitches have already been adapted.

While Spurs certainly benefit from having one of the strongest young groups of players in England, the club’s lack of spending is a bit concerning, especially after its recent loss of Kyle Walker — who joined Manchester City for a record fee.

Zouma signs new Chelsea contract, is immediately loaned to Stoke City

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Kurt Zouma‘s long-term future is secure at Chelsea, but his short-term future will be away from Stamford Bridge.

The France international centerback signed a new six-year contract with Chelsea and was promptly sent out on a season-long loan to Stoke City. Zouma made just three starts and nine total appearances last season as he came back from a torn ACL suffered in February 2016.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

“It is fantastic Kurt has chosen to commit his future to Chelsea,” Chelsea technical director Michael Emenalo said in a statement. “He has shown his talent since joining us three years ago, and has returned from a serious injury with a fantastic attitude.

“Now he has the opportunity to play regularly in the Premier League and we will be monitoring his progress closely while he is at Stoke.”

The move to Stoke will give Zouma a new experience, playing for a mid-table side in the Premier League, and it will be interesting to see where he fits in at centerback, battling with American Geoff Cameron and Englishman Ryan Shawcross.

Even with John Terry leaving the club, Zouma was likely to be second-choice in the back three for Chelsea and if he wants to make France’s squad for the 2018 World Cup, he’ll have to play regularly.