• John Gilding


2020 was one of the weirdest years in football history. Or any history. Crowds and competitions were cancelled, Messi nearly left Barcelona, and Liverpool won the Premier League. What a strange time to be alive.

Looking ahead to the next 12 months on the endless footballing calendar, I’ve made my five big predictions of the big stories to come. They are ranked in order of likelihood, starting with a more outside bet, before moving towards more solid ground.

5. Mbappé becomes a Galáctico

It’s a signing that has been whispered and dreamed of for at least a couple of years now, certainly since the 2018 World Cup. Mbappé, the ultimate wonderkid for so long, stepping out onto the grass at the Bernabeu, like so many greats before him. It makes so much sense, it almost justifies the inevitably astronomical fee they would have to fork out for him.

The only problems that face this prediction, and the reasons that it only comes in at 5 on this list come in the shape of Madrid’s current forward rock, Karim Benzema, and the emergence of Liverpool as equals in the race to sign the Frenchman.

Madrid feels like the natural landing point for him though, as they try to muscle their way back up to the top of the pile of world football.

4. A team wins the Champions League for the first time

It is very difficult to retain the Champions League. No matter who you are, winning Europe’s ultimate prize repeatedly is arguably one of the hardest achievements in football. Bayern Munich are a superb team, make no mistake, but the odds are stacked against them. Since 1991, when the group stage was introduced, only one club has managed to win the title back-to-back, and that was Real Madrid when they won three on the bounce between 2016-18.

In the Round of 16, seven of the teams left haven’t won the title before. Boiled down to the actual contenders, that’s Man City, PSG and Atletico. All of them have the qualities to win the tournament, as well as a drive to put any previous demons to bed and take home the trophy. It’s certainly possible, but there’s a lot of football still to be played, and a lot could happen between now and then. Guardiola could pull a Guardiola and get pummelled by Marcus Thuram.

They’ll have to get past the best teams in the world, but I have a feeling that the iconic trophy will be in very unfamiliar surroundings come the summer.

3. Xavi returns to the Camp Nou as manager

Barcelona are currently in third in La Liga, three points behind second, and four points off Atletico at the top, who have played three games fewer. Things have been looking up more recently after their dire start to the season, as Messi looks more like Messi, and Pedri is the shining teenage light leading the way for the Blaugrana.

However, the Camp Nou is not the most forgiving place when the trophies aren’t flowing, and if they don’t start rolling in soon, Koeman could be following Setien out the door at the end of the season.

That might have been the plan all along though. The appointment of Koeman has always felt like a placeholder for the return of a Barca legend, currently honing his tika-taka tactics at Al-Sadd in Qatar.

Xavi is pure Barcelona, and it’s inevitable that he’s going to manage them at some point in his career, he’s said so himself that it’s where he wants to be. This year feels like the perfect time to do it. A new chairman coming in, a promising batch of academy graduates to work into the side, and Messi might even be convinced to stick around for a bit at the sight of a familiar face on the touchline.

The Xavi era is coming back, and I cannot wait.

2. Belgium reach their first major tournament final in over forty years at the Euros

Belgium’s ‘golden generation’ hasn’t quite had the impact on the international stage that you’d expect from a team featuring the likes of Kevin De Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku and Eden Hazard. Their main achievement has been a bronze medal at the World Cup in 2018, and in 2016 they were eliminated by Wales at the Euros. But the better-late-than-never Euro 2020 tournament is a prime opportunity to put that right.

Their group draw shouldn’t cause too many problems, with games against Denmark, Russia and Finland. If Roberto Martinez can find a way to pack the unbelievable attacking talent available to him into a workable system, then there’s no reason why they can’t go all the way this summer. They have done once before, finishing runners-up in 1980 to West Germany. There’s no chance of a repeat of that happening this time though, mainly because West Germany doesn’t exist anymore.

1. AC Milan win a trophy

The Rossoneri are back. After roughly a decade away from the pinnacle of world football, AC Milan finally look like they have rediscovered some of the magic. Zlatan Ibrahimovic defies ageing at the pointy end of the team, with youngsters Jens Petter Hauge and Rafa Leao running riot around him. At the back, captain Romagnoli and keeper Donnarumma, who seems to be eternally 21, are a frightening combination to come up against.

Milan’s last trophy was in 2016, when they beat Juventus to the Supercoppa on penalties, but that doesn’t really count. To find a major trophy win, you have to go all the way back ten years to 2011, when they last won Serie A.

Now though, they have three trophies to compete for. In Italy they sit at the top of Seria A, fending off competition from Inter, and beat Torino in the last 16 of the Coppa Italia last night (Tuesday). In the Europa League, they face Serbian side Crvena Zvezda in the Round of the 32. Each one of the titles is there for the taking, and nobody can write Milan off for any of them. That’s why the rejuvenated Italian giants are my No. 1 shout for this year.