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Walker: Southgate ‘backbone of this team; man’s a gentleman’

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Oh, the difference 24 months can make.

[ MORE: Deschamps: EURO heartbreak drives France to World Cup final ]

The entire footballing world could infer pretty safely that the vibe surrounding the England camp had changed massively between the time the Three Lions were eliminated from the 2016 European Championship — at the hands of Iceland — and Wednesday, when Gareth Southgate‘s side was defeated by Croatia in the semifinal of the 2018 World Cup.

Following Wednesday’s heartbreaking failure, Kyle Walker, who was in the squad and on the field when the full-time whistle blew and England were effectively embarrassed after losing in such hopeless fashion, spoke passionately of the 180-degree turnaround in terms of belief and support that he has witnessed over two years, and that he felt in the moments immediately following the end of extra time — quotes from the Guardian:

“I was there in France, in the Iceland game, and it was completely different to that. For them to still be singing when we’re seeing friends and families, chanting our names and singing the manager’s name, is completely different. And I think we need to take full credit for that because we’ve changed that.

“I think the football has brought the nation together, people are going to pubs and celebrating, and that’s what football should be about. It’s enjoyable, we all love to play the game and fans love to support it. So it’s hats off to us. It’s unlucky we couldn’t bring it home for them, but hopefully there’s time in the future.”

“There’s nothing better, when people are writing you off and saying, ‘You’re not fit to wear the shirt,’ slagging people off, it’s kind of saying: ‘Well, there you go, have that back at you.’ But we do it for ourselves as well.

“I can’t tell you how proud I am to share the dressing room with these players. We’ve all grown up watching England, and to represent your country at a semifinal of a World Cup, there’s no better feeling.”

[ MORE: Mourinho: England needs to keep coaches for next World Cup ]

As for Southgate, to hear Walker tell it, there’s not a single person in the locker room that wouldn’t run through a brick wall for him.

“The man’s a gentleman. That’s the best way to describe him. He’s been in our shoes. He relates to us massively. He knows what to say at the right time. And he makes you feel like you’re the best player in the world. He gives you that confidence, and I think that he needs to take the most credit out of everyone of us.

“We’re the guys who are running on the pitch, but he’s the backbone of this team. He’s made sure that everyone has stuck together through good and bad moments, and made sure our feet stayed on the floor. I can’t put into words how much credit he deserves for this.

And to think, Southgate only wound up in the job — one he pretty openly and firmly stated he didn’t want — because Sam Allardyce incriminated himself in a newspaper sting operation after 67 days on the job.

Southgate was the England U-21 manager at the time. Fast-forward 22 months, and he’s a near-lock to receive a four-year contract and be tasked with leading his country through the upcoming EURO and World Cup cycles.

Report: Man City could use Gabriel Jesus to get Rodri

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At the root of this report is a question to which we don’t know the answer: How highly does Pep Guardiola rate Gabriel Jesus?

A report from Spanish outlet AS says Guardiola could use his young striker to lure Atletico Madrid into a swap deal, landing Manchester City their stirring defensive midfielder Rodri.

[ MORE: Players to watch at U-20 World Cup ]

Rodri is a nearly year older than 22-year-old Jesus, and is more instrumental to his current club. One of Atletico Madrid’s top talents, his $78 million release clause is an obvious route for City.

If Guardiola doesn’t see Jesus as a huge part of the club’s future, however, the manager may be able to go nearly like-for-like money-wise.

Jesus scored nearly every other game for City in all competitions, nabbing 21 goals in 47 matches, and has 13 goals in 27 caps for Brazil. Those are good numbers, especially with still-electric Sergio Aguero turning 31 this summer.

At his relatively tender age, Jesus has appeared 100 times for Man City and his 45 goals are made more impressive by less than 5600 total minutes in those matches.

Giving up on him to complete his midfield is a tough one. We think it’s more likely Guardiola pays the release clause… unless the manager simply doesn’t rate the player.

Players to watch at the U-20 World Cup

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The U-20 World Cup begins this week in Poland, and there are a bevy of future stars to watch, as well as several who will make their names during the tournament.

We’ll focus on the former. While England’s failure to qualify somewhat limits the Premier League starlets on show, there are still plenty from the English top flight.


Tim Weah, United States (PSG) — After a loan at Celtic and time with the full USMNT, how much can he dominate back in his age group?

Alban Lafont, France (Fiorentina) — At age 20, he’s already the starter between the sticks for his Serie A mainstays.

Diego Lainez, Mexico (Real Betis) — Eighteen with 12 league appearances for Real Betis, Lainez is a massive part of El Tri‘s future and carries four caps to his name.

Ruben Vinagre, Portugal (Wolves) — Wolves were promoted, and Vinagre actually made eight more appearances (17) than he made in the Championship.

Ezequiel Barco, Argentina (Atlanta United) — His sophomore season for the Five Stripes has been better than his debut campaign, though that’s not saying a ton given the hype.

Evan N’Dicka, France (Eintracht Frankfurt) — Plenty of playing time in the Bundesliga at the age of 19 for this towering center back.

Paxton Pomykal, United States (FC Dallas) — Looking good in MLS. How much should that translate on this stage?

Andriy Lunin, Ukraine (Real Madrid) — Won’t be wearing the white of Madrid in meaningful action any time soon, but made four appearances on loan for Leganes as a 20-year-old.

Sebastian Soto, United States (Hannover 96) — Not the American-born Bundesliga starlet we expected had we created this list months ago, but Soto has made his Bundesliga debut, so there’s a lot to like while Josh Sargent works with the full USMNT.

Dan Zagadou, France (Borussia Dortmund) — The left- and center back has 25 first team appearances for BVB at 19.

Diogo Dalot, Portugal (Manchester United) — Red Devils supporters know about this fella, who was purchased under the watch of Jose Mourinho last summer.

Mickael Cuisance, France (Borussia Monchengladbach) — Took a step back after his blockbuster ‘Gladbach breakthrough in 2017-18, but will be a key piece for the favorites.

Moussa Sylla, France (Monaco) — The winger is already a factor for AS Monaco, even if they struggled this season.

Bonus: Erling Håland, Denmark (Red Bull Salzburg); Ronald Araujo, Uruguay (Barcelona); Tom Dele-Bashiru, Nigeira (Manchester City).

De Ligt reportedly chooses Barcelona; Klopp set at CB

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Liverpool, Manchester United, and pretty much everyone but Barcelona looks set to miss out on Matthijs de Ligt.

De Ligt, 19, has paired with Liverpool’s Virgil Van Dijk while in the Netherlands national team set-up, but reportedly is opting to join Ajax teammate Frenkie de Jong at Barcelona.

[ MORE: Brighton hires new boss ]

In the case of Liverpool, Sky Sports says that Reds boss Jurgen Klopp thinks he doesn’t need another center back.

Injuries hit Liverpool’s center backs this season outside of Van Dijk. Joel Matip and Dejan Lovren were rated highly and combined for just over 2500 minutes, while young Joe Gomez suffered a long-term injury midway through the season.

If all are healthy, Liverpool has decent depth. Yet even Gomez doesn’t have the upside to shake a stick at De Ligt if the 19-year-old was truly interested in coming to Anfield.

I mean, “Are you interested in this 19-year-old captain of a Champions League semifinalist? He’s interested in coming there” usually doesn’t yield a firm, “No.”

As for Barcelona, it will reinforce its back line a year after allowing 36 goals. That’s pretty decent, but the Blaugranas‘ third-highest total of the last decade.

Mkhitaryan assured of safety by Azerbaijan ambassador

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The Europa League Final in Azerbaijan has not been getting a lot of positive press due to fans unwillingness to travel for the event and Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s fears of stepping foot in the country.

That’s because Mkhitaryan is the captain of Armenia’s national team, and that nation’s long dispute with Azerbaijan.

[ MORE: Brighton hires new boss ]

Arsenal, of course, plays Chelsea in the May 29 final, and Mkhitaryan already missed an earlier UEL match against Azerbaijan powers Qarabag. He’s played plenty for the Gunners this season apart from a broken foot, and his absence would not be welcome news for this London Derby of a European Final.

Azerbaijan’s UK ambassador Tahir Taghizadeh has guaranteed safety for Mkhitaryan, and said he’d be happy to personally offer assurances to the Armenian. On the other hand, this doesn’t sound like the most positive messaging, via Sky Sports:

“My message to Mkhitaryan would be: you’re a footballer, you want to play football? Go to Baku you are safe there, if you want to play the issue then that’s a different story. What I can guarantee is that the Azerbaijan government will do everything what needs to be done and provide safety and security for every fan, player and staff member coming to this game.”

By using the phrase “play the issue,” it does launch the discussion firmly into political waters. One thing’s for sure: The issue may be debatable, but whether a player feels safe deserves to be his call and his call alone.