A tough approach needed for Bury and Millwall

 

 

“They are the best team in the league. I know we have done well against them but they have recruited fantastically well. They are a very, very good team. Their subs’ bench is absolutely incredible. They are a top team and it’s one we can look forward too. I’m really looking forward to this week to get a game plan together to compete with them.”

It is the final sentence in David Flitcroft’s comments that is the important one. The Bury manager will surely have more tricks under his sleeve when his side visit the DW Stadium tomorrow. With two wins and a draw under his belt against Latics already this season, can he do it again? What tactics will he employ?

The likelihood is that Flitcroft’s main tactic will be to adopt a physical approach in an attempt to put Latics off their game.

The same can be expected from Millwall on Tuesday. Latics were mauled by the opposition players and their crowd at the New Den in a key relegation match in mid-April last season. It was early days in Gary Caldwell’s new managerial position and Millwall manager Keith Harris’ intimidatory tactics worked. The 2-0 victory to the Lions proved to make no difference in the long run, with both clubs being relegated.

Neither Bury at home, nor Millwall away, is a particularly comfortable fixture for Latics. The Lancashire derbies have their own special feel and the competition can be fierce. Playing away at Millwall is never going to be easy, given the fiercely partisan crowd. Bury have only won one of their past ten, but Millwall have won four out of the last six and are serious challengers for a playoff place.

Latics have not played at all well against Bury this season. The League Cup tie in mid-August was decided by a controversial penalty given against Craig Morgan, the Shakers winning 2-1. But Morgan was to have his revenge by getting a last minute equaliser at Gigg Lane in early October in a 2-2 draw. Wigan’s performance in the 4-0 FA Cup defeat at Gigg Lane in early November was woeful, although it did leave one wondering how interested they were in progressing further in the competition.

But the Wigan team that faced Bury in the first half of the season, during the gelling process with so many new players, is a different kettle of fish than the current one. Latics are second in the table, on an 11 game unbeaten run, scared of nobody.

The win at fellow promotion hopefuls, Walsall, pushed them above the midland team for the first time. Wigan were much the better team on the day, but only won the game in the closing minutes. Will Grigg missed a handful of clear opportunities. Had he scored at least one of them he could have out the game out of reach for the home side.  However, it must have been a bittersweet return to the Bescot Stadium for him with the home fans jeering his every touch. Grigg is a fine centre forward at League 1 level, but such profligacy cannot continue if Latics are to attain that automatic promotion spot.

A home win for Latics tomorrow is most likely, but they must be careful to avoid complacency. But then again they have good reason to make a big effort in retaliation for the bad results against Bury so far. Flitcroft claims a long injury list, but it remains to be seen what side he will put out tomorrow. One thing is for certain – Latics can expect a rough reception from the visitors.

The Millwall game is another against a promotion hopeful and will not be easy. The Lions are now in fifth place, but surprisingly their home record has been poor, having a record of W7 D2 L7, whereas away they have the second best stats in the division behind Walsall. But Neil Harris will surely once again rile up his players and his crowd to give Wigan a hard time.

Gary Caldwell has used 33 players this season, six of whom were on loan and have gone back to their parent clubs. Two players – Grant Holt and Richard O’Donnell – departed over the January transfer window. Four players are injured or in recuperation – Michael Jacobs, Reece James, Kevin McNaughton and Sanmi Odelusi.

But Caldwell has a squad that is the envy of the other League 1 managers. The ability to bring players off the bench of the quality of Craig Davies and Yanic Wildschut gives Caldwell that added factor that the other managers do not have.

Wigan Athletic have the quality to win the division. But much will depend on avoiding complacency and being willing to slug it out with teams like Bury and Millwall.

Neither match is easy. Both are winnable at a physical cost. It would be no surprise if Caldwell once more rotates his team or changes its shape in the next two games. A return of four points from the two would keep Latics on track. More would be even better.

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Avoiding another mauling – Millwall Preview

"But it's a man's game". Neil Harris, Millwall manager.

“But it’s a man’s game”. Neil Harris, Millwall manager.

“That’s totally out of our control. We never throw in the towel at this club. In the first half there was one team trying to play football and one team out to rough us up.”

So said Gary Caldwell in April after Latics had been mauled by Millwall’s players and their crowd. Millwall manager, Neil Harris had a different view:

“That was a Millwall performance. I don’t condone melees but if you need a spark down at The Den you have to look after your own. I can see an argument for all three red cards. But it’s a man’s game. I can’t ask for commitment, passion, tackles, and then criticise one of my players for it.”

Latics had gone into that match at the New Den in mid-April, not having won for six matches. However, as the match started they soon settled into a possession style of football that frustrated the fiercely partisan home support. The crowd prompted their team to “get stuck in” and they did so with a series of professional fouls, in an attempt to knock Latics off their game. However, Latics managed to stay relatively calm, retaining the majority of possession until the half time whistle had blown with the score 0-0.

Up to that point the referee had resisted the baying of the crowd. Sadly he did not in the second half with Martyn Waghorn being sent off for a silly retaliation after 54 minutes. Ten men Wigan were unable to hold out, with Millwall scoring 20 minutes later. Jason Pearce and Ed Upson of Millwall were sent off after 80 minutes, a poor refereeing decision, and Latics conceded another near the end. The foul count revealed sixteen committed by Millwall to seven by Latics, with the home side receiving four yellow cards to Wigan’s two. However, what would the statistics have looked like had looked like if a stronger, more competent referee had been in charge?

Caldwell had surely known what to expect in that visit to South Bermondsey. In the 0-0 draw at the DW earlier in October the Lions had committed nineteen fouls to Wigan’s eleven, receiving three yellow cards to the home team’s none.

One wonders what kind of advice Caldwell will be giving his team tomorrow when Millwall are once again the visitors to the DW Stadium. Neil Harris is still in charge and Millwall have improved after a rocky start to the season, standing a point behind Latics in eleventh place. Surprisingly it is their home record that has disappointed – they have won three and drawn one of their four away games.

Latics come into the game following a similar physical battering at Oldham. Once again a Wigan player was unable to withstand intimidatory tactics from the opposition, leading to him retaliating and being sent off. Jordan Flores was by no means the only Latics player to have been systematically fouled.

Going down to ten men led to the match turning in the opponents’ favour, with Wigan apparently stunned by what had happened on both occasions. There are fans who were critical that Caldwell did not seem to have a plan on Saturday to help his team cope, following the sending off. He did make a substitution three minutes after Flores’ expulsion, but it was a like-for-like with Sanmi Odelusi replacing Jordy Hiwula.

Can Latics handle intimidatory tactics by the opposition? Can they match the other teams physically? Will referees give some degree of protection to their creative players? The statistics make interesting reading.

In their four home league games Latics have committed an average of 15 fouls, compared to 11 by the opposition. They have received 8 yellow cards, the opposition 4.

In their five league away games Wigan’s average foul count is 10, compared with 12 for the opposition. They have received 2 red cards and 7 yellows, the opposition 11 yellows.

In total Wigan have committed five fouls more than the opposition, with the same number of yellow cards, but with two red cards to zero.

The stats suggest that Caldwell’s side is not lacking in aggression, particularly at home.

However, there are fans who are not comfortable with Caldwell’s adherence to a Martinez-esque style of possession football, preferring a more direct style of play leading to more shots on goal. Once again the stats provide an insight.

At the DW Stadium Latics have averaged 58% possession, with 52% away from home. The only team to dominate Latics for possession was Chesterfield. In home games, in terms of shots (shots on target in brackets), Latics have had 48(22) compared with the opponents’ 34(10). Away from home the figures are 50(23) for Latics and 53(21) for the opposition.

Some will argue that too much of Wigan’s possession consists of sterile passing across the defensive line. It allows the opposition to regroup, eliminating the surprise aspect of Wigan’s play. Moreover it has too often led to mistakes being made at the back that have either led to goals or threatened to do so.

However, others will say that the defenders holding on to the ball gives the midfield and forwards some respite, an important factor given the physical demands of League 1. They will also cite that it is an integral part of a possession style of football that allows Latics to probe the opposition defences for openings.

The stats show that Latics have not only had more possession, but also taken more marginally more shots, with more on target, than the opposition.

Wigan Athletic have a salary bill that dwarfs that of the majority of clubs in the division. They have players of proven quality together with an exciting group of youngsters which augurs well for the future. It is a squad that should grow in stature as the season progresses, providing injuries keep to a minimum.

Despite the pressure of promotion upon him, Caldwell has given youth its chance in a way that no other Latics manager has done in recent memory. However, younger players tend to be less consistent than their more experienced counterparts and also more likely to be wound up by cynical opponents. Caldwell will be hoping to bring back from injury his more experienced players, to  provide the backbone of the team. Craig Morgan and Kevin McNaughton at the back, Francisco Junior in midfield and Craig Davies, Will Grigg and Haris Vuckic in attack are all key players in Caldwell’s system.

Like Wigan, Millwall too have seen a lot of comings and goings over summer. Seventeen players have left, with seven coming in. Their squad now includes more players who have come through their academy.

However, Wigan’s record against Millwall over the years reads W7 D8 L12, even if one of those wins included an FA Cup semi-final victory. With Harris remaining in charge Latics can expect a physical encounter. Self-discipline will be important.

Caldwell will want to play two strikers up front. Grigg was an unused substitute on Saturday, but Caldwell may well be tempted to put the striker in despite his elbow injury. Perhaps Davies will also appear. If not we might expect a cameo appearance from Grant Holt.

Tomorrow’s game is unlikely to be pretty. Latics must not allow themselves to be mauled again and the foul count for both sides could be high. Caldwell will be looking for a win ahead of the visit of high flying Walsall at the weekend.

Mauled by the crowd at the Den

 

It was my first visit to the district of South Bermondsey, the home of Millwall FC since 1993. I had expected to meet a partisan crowd keen to cheer their team to victory in a relegation dogfight. But following Latics’ draw at Fulham I was optimistic that they could do even better against a side with much less quality than the Cottagers. Gary Caldwell would have his team play neat and compact in the first half, frustrating the home crowd, stifling their passionate support.

In fact the home crowd was to voice its frustration on several occasions in the first 15 minutes as their team could not string their passes together. Millwall looked a poor side, ready for the taking. But Latics were playing cautiously with Marc-Antoine Fortune a solitary figure up front. Nevertheless their possession football was frustrating both the Millwall team and their supporters.

However, the home crowd was to rouse their team into knocking Latics off their game. For once we had bought tickets in the central stand near the half way line. I had hoped that not only would we get a good view of the game, but be surrounded by some of the more moderate home supporters.

My illusions were soon shattered. As Kim Bo Kyung ran with the ball the crowd around me chanted racist words at him, akin to the politically incorrect term that Dave Whelan had used when referring to  Asian restaurants he used to visit as a kid. One fan behind me shouted “stop him”, another took it a stage further with his rallying call of “flatten him”.

Millwall responded to the crowd’s promptings with a series of professional fouls, in an effort to knock Latics off their game. However, Latics stayed relatively calm, retaining possession. Neither side was to produce much goal threat in the first half. Scott Carson had saved Latics after Gaetan Bong ‘s error put them in trouble. The much maligned Fortune should have opened the scoring for Wigan after 27 minutes from a lovely Bong cross but his tame header made it easy for Forde to turn the ball over the bar. It clearly was not much fun for Fortune playing that role as the lone striker, but his lack of running off the ball and inability to stay on side hampered promising moves developing.

Going in at half time with the scores level was a solid base to build upon. Up to that point the referee had resisted much of the baying of the crowd. The atmosphere had almost resembled that of a bull fight rather than a football match. Spectators who had previously looked contemplative would suddenly stand up and shout expletives at the referee and the Latics players. One wondered how long the referee could resist their demands.

But if Latics could continue to frustrate Millwall and their hostile crowd and pose more of an attacking threat, it looked like they could go on and win the match. One wondered if Caldwell would put in Martyn Waghorn for Fortune immediately after the interval in an effort to win the game.

The crowd continued to be loud and vocal, aiming their abuse at the “northerners “, but James McClean in particular. Caldwell was to wait a further 8 minutes before making the obvious change to the applause of the away contingent. Sadly with the crowd baying for blood Waghorn was to stay on the pitch for only 9 minutes, being given a red card after supposedly retaliating following a scuffle. His departure seemed to have provided the death knell for Wigan’s chances, but they could have got on top soon after when a neat move saw Kim pass the ball to Bong who blasted the ball over the top from eight yards.

The referee continued to be swayed by the crowd, allowing the home team to continue their professional fouling. Millwall were to take the lead after 74 minutes when Abdou ran to head in a left wing cross from Harding. Six minutes later the referee made a ludicrous decision in sending off Jason Pearce after he had taken the ball in what looked like a hard, but fair, tackle. He evened things up by sending off Millwall’s Upson with Pearce.

Nine man Wigan continued to attack, but looked vulnerable with only two at the back. Substitute Gueye capitalized on the lack of defensive cover by running through and beating Carson with an angled shot in the last minute.

In the end the partisan home crowd had won the day. They had lifted their mediocre team to a crucial victory that gives them hope of avoiding relegation. However, three of their final four games remaining are away from home. Their home game is against Derby County.

Wigan had by no means played badly. The defenders had clearly been working on their distribution and it was a rare sight to see Carson resist so many chances to hoof the ball upfield. Instead he looked for a teammate nearby with a throw. Rarely can one remember a Wigan Athletic goalkeeper so reluctant to use the throw as a means of launching attacks. He looked almost peeved to have to the throw the ball in this match.

It was pleasing to see Tim Chow being brought on for the final 10 minutes. The young player should really have been in contention for a place back in August, after a fine close season. Caldwell has done what Rosler feared to do in blooding the St Helens-based player.

With just three games remaining, Caldwell will have the opportunity to blood more young players, who will become senior squad members next season as the club downsizes its wage bill.

Summer is likely to see another fire sale as Latics will almost certainly head down a division. The likes of ex-Premier League players such as Carson, McClean and Perch will be sold off to the highest bidder. None of the players currently on loan or short term contracts are likely to be offered renewals, given either their potential salary demands or their performances up to this point. Old favourites like Al-Habsi and Boyce will surely be on their way.

Once again it will be a time of change for Wigan Athletic.

Can Rosler turn it around?

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Dave Whelan needs to avoid another managerial merry-go-round.

Another poor display, this time a goalless draw at home to Brentford, and the winless run now stretches to seven matches. The pressure on Uwe Rosler intensifies.

But it is not the first time that Rosler has faced such pressure, being under siege by those who want him out.

In August of last year Rosler’s Brentford side had seemed destined for better things. They had lost an automatic promotion spot in the last match of the previous season, Marcelo Trotta missing a last minute penalty, then Doncaster scoring a last gasp winner at the other end. They failed in the playoffs. However, the Bees started the 2013-14 season well, with two wins and two draws, but they were to lose four of their next seven games, winning only two. When they lost to lowly Stevenage in the next game the call for him to be sacked reached a crescendo.

The story of Rosler locking his team in the dressing room after the game for a heart-to-heart discussion is folklore at Brentford. The end result was a turnaround in fortunes as the Bees won seven and drew one of the eight games that followed, before his departure to Wigan.

Can Rosler turn it around at Wigan as he did at Brentford? How much more time will Dave Whelan give him if the results of this week’s games against Millwall and Derby are adverse? Can Latics afford to change their manager again? If so, what kind of appointment could we expect?

Rosler is by no means a conventional manager. His team selections and tactical approaches can be baffling. Moreover the marginalization of some of the players in his squad reeks of poor man-management skills. His pre-season programme just did not work, with the result that his team was at a physical disadvantage and would collapse in the second half. Poor results against teams with less talented players have been too often the norm this season. He has not got the best out of his players this season and their confidence is approaching rock bottom.

What has happened up to this point of the season hardly merits further debate, except maybe for the way he has ostracized certain players. That is something he still has time to put right.

Grant Holt is one of the least popular players that Latics have ever signed. However, Rosler’s reported treatment of him beggars belief. Every story has two sides, but what Holt has recently revealed to the press remains disturbing.

Moreover the marginalization of Roger Espinoza is also incomprehensible to fans. So many times this season the midfield has looked ineffective and lethargic. Espinoza may not be the most skilled footballer in the squad, but whenever he comes on to the pitch he shows an infectious dynamism that few can match. Juan Carlos Garcia was sent on loan to Tenerife after spending a year at the club and not playing in a single league game. Fraser Fyvie and Thomas Rogne now find themselves regularly outside the match day squads.

However, Rosler’s history as a manager in Norway and England shows that he has had his downs and still bounced back. He did an exceptional job last season and surely deserves more time to show that he can put things right. A fascinating analysis by Sam Whyte on that excellent site, Vital Wigan Athletic, compares the proportion of wins that the club’s managers have enjoyed over the last decade or so. Rosler’s record of 21 wins in 50 games gives him a 42% win ratio, almost the same as Paul Jewell who won 127 out of 291, a 43% ratio. Owen Coyle won 7 out of 23, a 30% ratio.

Rosler’s critics have been keen to show that at the same point last year, after 12 league games, Coyle’s team had amassed 16 points, five more than this season. However, Coyle had the likes of Jean Beausejour, Jordi Gomez, James McArthur, Chris McCann, Nick Powell and Ben Watson at his disposal. Rosler has had to deal with the departures of so many of his more skilful players, plus serious injuries to others.

Rosler has had to replace too many key players and it is taking time for the replacements time to settle in. This time last year fans were unimpressed by Chris McCann, signed from Burnley as a free agent. However, McCann was to become a key player in Rosler’s setup in an excellent midfield. His serious injury in the FA Cup win at Manchester City was a body blow for the manager.

It is far too early to write off players Rosler has brought to the club. In Don Cowie and Andrew Taylor he signed experienced players who have had played not only in the Premier League but were key players for the Cardiff team that gained promotion from the Championship. He also signed the Denmark national team captain, William Kvist, who played in the Premier League last season. Oriel Riera scored 13 goals in La Liga last year and is clearly capable of doing so in the Championship, providing he receives a modicum of service.

Moreover Rosler has started to sow the seeds for the future. In the second half of last season he signed Martyn Waghorn who was to gain the club’s ‘Young Player of the Year’ award. Midfielders Emyr Huws, 21 years old and Adam Forshaw, 23, are players of real technical ability with work rates to match. Andy Delort, 23, banged in 24 goals for Tours last season, and like Riera, will score goals at Wigan when the service improves. Full backs, James Tavernier, 22, and Aaron Taylor-Sinclair, 23, are both talented players who will be carefully groomed for Championship football.

Rosler had little choice in  the departures of Beausejour, Gomez and McArthur because of financial constraints imposed upon him. However, he has been financially astute in the transfer market,  signing players who were free agents and others at close to bargain prices. He has brought in ten new players with his outlay being only marginally more than the money that has come in.

Millwall come to the DW Stadium tomorrow night having done the double over Latics last season. Will it be the turning point, when Rosler’s team embarks on a successful run of results? Lady Luck has hardly shined on Latics so far this season. Will this be the match in which it does? A deflected shot going in or a soft penalty decision in Latics’ favour – the kind of “luck” that this team needs.

If the results against Millwall and Derby were to go against Latics and Whelan were to step in to replace Rosler, what would happen next?

The prospect of a new manager coming in and the whole merry-go-round that tends to follow is not what the club needs. The transition from Coyle to Rosler brought in ten new players, but the German brought only Chris Haslam from his backroom staff at Brentford. However, most managers prefer to bring in their own men and it would involve more upheaval at a time when the club does not need it.

It would be more likely a change from within. The names of Eric Black and Gary Caldwell are already being put forward on the social media.

Despite the poor results so far this season, Rosler has built a strong and well balanced squad. Fitness issues now seem to be resolved and with time the new players will settle in.The challenge for whoever is in charge over these coming months will be to get the best out of those players.

Uwe Rosler has shown before how he can overcome adversity. Who could say with certainly at this stage that he will not bring Latics back into contention for a return to the Premier League?

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History made, as final beckons for Wigan

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Wigan Athletic made history today after a professional performance at Wembley saw off Millwall to secure a spot in their first ever FA Cup final.

The 2-0 scoreline was probably a fair outcome given the number of chances created on either side, while the quality of the strikes outlined the gulf in class between the two sets of players. Shaun Maloney got things started when he met a gorgeous, floated cross from Arouna Koné in mid-air 25 minutes into the fixture. Callum McManaman, a real threat throughout, had earlier gone close with a rasping drive, while Jordi Gomez’s first time effort was excellently parried by Millwall keeper David Forde. The first half petered out with Wigan comfortably in cruise control.

The second half was a different story, as Millwall stepped up their effort to press high up the pitch, forcing mistakes out of the their opponents. A period of sustained pressure from the London side saw some last ditch defending from set pieces preserve Wigan’s lead, but it was the Premier League outfit that looked the more threatening from open play. McManaman, reveling in his key creative role out wide, tormented his marker time and time again, cutting onto his right foot to blaze over before crossing dangerously with his left foot just behind Koné. A delicious through-ball by Gomez with just over 10 minutes left put him in a great position however, and he made no mistake by classily rounding Forde and slotting home to celebrate the goal he thoroughly deserved.

The Good:

This was the best possible outcome. It was a job well done, with two excellent goals, a clean sheet, no yellow cards or injuries. A huge morale boost for a team that has now gone five matches undefeated and won six of the last nine. Wigan’s two little creators, Maloney and McManaman, made the difference.

The Bad: 

Today is not a day to pick at imperfections, but a day to enjoy, celebrate, and savour. With hope, the violence caught by television cameras in the Millwall supporter section did not lead to serious injury and was contained as supporters left the stadium.

Player Ratings: 

Ali Al-Habsi: 7 — Few Wigan supporters would begrudge his return to the starting lineup, despite a wobbly season. Joel Robles did nothing wrong and indeed looks a very promising young goalkeeper, but he was always likely to make way for the Omani international and club talisman before the end of the season. It was a fitting and kind reward for Ali’s service and standards in his time with the club that he could make his return at Wembley. The big question now is whether he retains his place for league play.

Emmerson Boyce: 7 — Solid defensive play with one important interception standing out. Has proven a good stand-in captain in Gary Caldwell’s absence and will be extremely proud if he retains the armband to lead the team out in the final.

Antolin Alcaraz: 8 — An excellent player who has made a huge difference since returning from injury. It is hard to imagine Wigan being involved in the relegation struggle this season had he been fit and available for the majority of the season.

Paul Scharner: 7 — A couple wobbly moments, but he made more crucial tackles and interceptions than anyone on the pitch. You could see what it meant to him at the end of the match — he’ll be making his second cup final appearance for Wigan (he is the only member of the current squad who played in the Carling Cup final against Manchester United seven years ago).

Maynor Figueroa: 7 — Very solid and composed defensive performance, as has become his habit.

James McCarthy: 6 — Didn’t really assert himself on the game, but didn’t let anyone down and worked very hard as always.

Jordi Gomez: 7.5 — Very involved, retaining possession in attack and making a significant amount of tackles and interceptions on the defensive side of things. His pass for McManaman’s goal was beautiful. Unlucky with a first time effort after a flowing move in the first half.

Shaun Maloney: 7 — Good first half, capped by an excellent goal. Quiet in the second and eventually pushed out wide when Jean Beausejour was withdrawn — a position from which he has less impact on the game.

Jean Beausejour: 6 — Not a bad game, but not his best either. Second time running he has been substituted early — possibly carrying a niggle?  That said, Wigan lost the midfield when he was withdrawn. He rarely loses the ball when in possession.

Callum McManaman: 8 — Excellent, positive, brave performance, taking risks with his direct dribbling and powerful shooting. Took his goal brilliantly, and might have scored another couple but for a brilliant save by Forde and an overhit finish. Only made his first start for the club a couple months ago but is fast becoming a key creator for Wigan. Certainly offers something the team has been lacking since Victor Moses’ departure in the summer. Surely in with a shout for player of the tournament.

Arouna Koné: 7.5 — Very good, confident front-man play. Single-handedly created the first goal with a brilliant “sombrero”, turn, run and cross. Only had one real chance which Forde beat away with his feet. In good form.

Subs:

James McArthur — Brought on to give Beausejour a rest and help the team regain possession, but the substitution didn’t work. Not so much McArthur’s fault in particular, who put in his usual shift, but the team suffered an anxious patch before McManaman’s goal settled matters.

Angelo Henriquez — A strange substitution, with Franco Di Santo presumably sitting next to him on the bench. With the match just about settled at that point, you would think Martinez would have given a Wigan player the big-game experience, rather than an on-loan Manchester United striker who is likely to get plenty of it in the future. One must hope it does not have to do with the Argentine’s intentions this summer.