It’s that time of the year. Lit trees adorn squares in every town and city, prizes are handed out to whoever wears the most atrocious red and green sweater to the local pub crawl and children draft hopeful lists of everything they’ve seen advertised on television in the past 12 months. As Tom Petty nasally enthuses on the perennial soundtrack middle-aged fathers insist on cueing up every time late December rolls around: it’s Christmas all over again.
But children aren’t the only ones lying down to sleep each night right now in wait of the presents of their dreams. Football managers around Europe are eying up shiny new toys for their squads, nifty gadgets that can shift the balance of power in pursuit of glory. Because directly following Christmas comes the January transfer window, the maddest 31-day period of shopping known to mankind. Silly season is once again right around the corner, and Europe’s elite are busily penning their wish lists to bolster their prospects in the new year.
Whether it be a center back as tough as a G.I Joe action figure to shore up a feeble back line or a classy playmaker with the foresight of a magic eight ball, every side has needs to fill. Checks will be written and contracts will be signed. For some, the perfect gift will be in supply. For others, only lumps of coal will be pulled from their proverbial transfer market stockings.
So take a belt of eggnog and pull up a chair beside the roasting chestnuts. It’s the holiday season, and the anticipation of tearing away the wrapping paper to reveal clubs’ latest acquisitions is too much to bear. Following are the Christmas wish lists of Europe’s biggest teams as the time for chopping and changing fast closes in.
20 Real Madrid
For lack of a more euphemistic way to put it, Real Madrid are the equivalent of a spoiled child. Los Blancos have every footballing gizmo anyone could want, but they still always seem to be unsatisfied. Does a side that has won an incredible 21 games in a row need even have a wish list to begin with? Of course not. When the likes of Keylor Navas, Chicharito, Asier Illaramendi and Fabio Coentrao regularly ride the bench, there’s in reality no pressing need for expensive gifts. Perhaps if Sami Khedira should leave in January, Real Madrid would be wise to bring in another strong midfield presence as a replacement, but that’s contingent on the German waving goodbye. But never rule out the Champions League title-holders from making a splash – Europe’s spoiled child is always on the hunt for a fashionable new toy.
19 Bayern Munich
Like their financially well-endowed cousins over in the Spanish capital, Bayern Munich don’t have much to hope for this Christmas they don’t already have. Pep Guardiola’s squad stands strong and deep at the moment, like the most expensive, well-equipped set of army men money can buy. There are, however, a few key injuries that may have Bayern eying up reinforcements. Thiago Alcantara and Philipp Lahm are both shelved long-term, as is Javi Martinez, meaning the German giants could do with another midfielder as not to overwork 33-year-old Xabi Alonso. But instead of hoping for a significant purchase, Guardiola’s holiday wish could instead be for youngsters Sebastian Rode, Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and Gianluca Gaudino to mature quickly. All three are quite capable but playing regularly for Bayern requires near-perfection, which calls for something of a Yuletide wonder.
For most of his managerial career, Jose Mourinho hauled in bags of trophies so swollen they’d nary fit in the opening of a chimney. But alas, the Portuguese is in a drought. Chelsea should fear not, however, because the Special One is on a mission – with a stacked squad at his disposal. Perhaps the most Mourinho should wish for in the new year is good health for his players. Diego Costa has missed some time due to injury, while Eden Hazard has played nearly every minute on offer, putting him at risk. Chelsea’s phenomenal depth means they’re well covered in all areas – the likes of Andre Schurrle, Felipe Luis and Petr Cech are luxuries – so there’s no really much to ask for. Count on Chelsea to go searching for some gifts in the form of raw talents that can be loaned out, though. Never does a transfer window pass without the Blues investing for the future.
Barcelona were naughty, and now will pay for it this holiday season. While their peers excitedly welcome new arrivals with high hopes, the Blaugrana will sit in the corner without any of their own – in all likelihood. The Catalan giants currently await a verdict on their appeal against a two-window transfer embargo – imposed for falling afoul of FIFA policies regarding signing underage players – in the Court of Arbitration for Sport. Even if the ban is reduced to just one window, Barcelona will be left out in the cold. In need of defenders to help balance a top-heavy squad, Barca almost certainly will be forced to make due with what they already have, no matter what’s on their wish list. Way to be a Scrooge, FIFA.
16 Manchester City
For Manchester City, Christmas came early in the form of qualification to the Champions League round of 16. Now, the Citizens must focus on consolidating their position in the Premier League – in hot pursuit of leaders Chelsea – while gearing up for their European knockout tie with Barcelona in February. Due to Financial Fair Play restrictions, there unfortunately won’t be much of a budget for January, however. Luckily for City, they don’t need much. Manuel Pellegrini will first and foremost want to see top performer Sergio Aguero get healthy. Another midfielder would be of help, considering that City will lose loanee Frank Lampard to New York City FC in the coming months. So too would another center back, as Martin Demichelis is aging and marquee signing Eliaquim Mangala has been somewhat unreliable. But Pellegrini will most likely be working double time to bring Mangala along instead of giving up on him so soon, especially considering the Frenchman cost €40 million in the summer.
15 Paris Saint-Germain
Picture Santa reclining in his workshop. A jocular elf brings him a small, rolled up piece of paper. On it is a message informing him that FFP-sanctioned PSG spent €50 million to sign David Luiz over the summer. “Nothing for you, then,” Saint Nick says unapologetically, munching on a chocolate chip cookie. Snapping back to reality, Les Parisiens aren’t set for a merry transfer market – Laurent Blanc’s squad is already as it will be for the remainder of the campaign. What the Frenchman needs is for his midfield to click into high gear. The trio of Thiago Motta, Marco Verratti and Blaise Matuidi hasn’t functioned at its best thus far. Thiago Silva could also use a fitness boost, as David Luiz is significantly calmer with his fellow Brazilian at his side. Also, Edinson Cavani magically transforming into a winger would be of great benefit to Les Parisiens, but that might be a bit too much to ask for.
When Antonio Conte unexpectedly left Turin in the summer, resident weathermen everywhere predicted stormy skies with Massimiliano Allegri guiding the sleigh. But such hasn’t been the case. Juventus broke through to the Champions League knockouts and enter Serie A’s winter break at the summit of the standings. If there’s any area where additions are necessary, it’s the defence. Juventus are looking at bringing in another center back in January given Andrea Barzagli’s long-term injury, even as Leonardo Bonucci has been in sterling form this term. The switch to a four-man defense also calls for cover out wide at the back, as Stephan Lichtsteiner and Partice Evra are the only true full-backs in the squad. The Bianconeri should be expected to go about their business rather quietly in January, but get it done nonetheless.
13 Atletico Madrid
In life, the only certainties are death, taxes, and Christmas. Well, those, and Atletico Madrid retooling successfully each summer after a few of their top performers are poached away. Despite having the side within seven points of a ravenous Real Madrid in La Liga and in the Champions League round of 16, Diego Simeone does have a few holiday requests to make. Consistency for Antoine Griezmann is a must, while Raul Jimenez could use a boost after a slow start to life in the Spanish capital. A few more goals from Mario Mandzukic – who has done well – wouldn’t hurt, either. Youngster Jose Gimenez has done a brilliant job standing in for 33-year-old center back Miranda, and his continued development is crucial for the club’s future. Simeone needs everything to come together in the second half of the season to replicate last term’s dream run. The pieces are there, they just need to fit together in harmony.
Each transfer window, Arsenal fans dream of the present they’ve long wanted: a hard-tackling, intuitive, all-action defensive midfielder. And each time, Gooners everywhere are left empty-handed in this regard, going on to see the same lack of brawn in the center of the park that’s long been glaring at Ashburton Grove. That being said, it’s not as if the Arsenal faithful are deprived. Alexis Sanchez has been superb, keeping the side afloat in a difficult period. But he needs help. Arsene Wenger needs the rest of the squad to match the Chilean’s level of intensity. As well, the French boss will be keen to see Mesut Ozil hit the ground running when he returns from injury. Furthermore, the back line needs bolstering, running thin on bodies as Nacho Monreal, Calum Chambers and Mathieu Debuchy have been forced to deputize as center backs. And maybe, just maybe, now is the time Wenger will spring for that long-awaited holding midfielder.
With deep pockets, new Valencia owner Peter Lim has arrived at the club in a giving mood – and at the right time. For years, Los Che have been hampered by the burden of insurmountable debt, the unfinished Nuevo Mestalla standing as a symbol of a club stuck in neutral. But, in fifth place in La Liga with Lim’s takeover now complete after 10 months of negotiations, Valencia are primed to be a force. A decent summer market session means the side doesn’t have any glaring needs, with some wise purchases made in Andre Gomes, Nicolas Otamendi and Shkodran Mustafi. The latter two have kept Valencia sound at the back as the preferred central defense pairing – conceding just 13 goals through 16 La Liga games. It’s further up the pitch where consistency is necessary. Alvaro Negredo and Rodrigo just haven’t offered enough in the goals department, scoring just twice in domestic action between them. Youngster Paco Alcacer has done well to hold down the fort with five goals and four assists, but the 21-year-old’s Christmas wish is certainly some help carrying the load.
After a rollercoaster few months, Roma could use a visit to Babbo Natale in Piazza Navona. There’s a somewhat lengthy wish list at hand for the Giallorossi that needs satisfying. Injuries have devastated Rudi Garcia’s squad since the start of the campaign, and the Frenchman will be hoping Serie A’s traditional Christmas break offers the necessary respite for his players to recharge. The likes of Daniele De Rossi and Miralem Pjanic have been out of form, leaving a rampaging Radja Nainggolan to prop the team up with some sensational play in the center of the park. Marquee signing Juan Iturbe could use the gift of confidence, while the recently recovered Kevin Strootman is awaiting an elixir to restore the wonderful form he showed before a devastating knee injury. As for signings, the Eternal City outfit are on the hunt for a full-back and a new goalkeeper. Injury prone Maicon and Vasilis Torosidis aren’t getting any younger, while Ashley Cole has disappointed. Replacing Morgan De Sanctis between the sticks may have to wait until the summer, as, in Grinch fashion, Jose Mourinho doesn’t seem inclined to gift wrap Petr Cech and cheerily send him off to the Italian capital.
9 Bayer Leverkusen
German efficiency has a refreshing taste. Now wash it down with a sturdy-bodied Christmas beer and have a look at the state of Bayern Leverkusen. The club have finished third and fourth in the previous two Bundesliga seasons, currently sitting in third at present. If anything, they’re ruthlessly consistent in a tough league. Karim Bellarabi has emerged as a star after his loan spell at Eintracht Braunschweig, while 20-year-old Hakan Calhanoglu is getting on well after coming over from Hamburg. Heung-Min Son is yet another young star that complements the veteran presence of Stefan Kiessling and Emir Spahic. However, Josip Drmic is yet to take off in Leverkusen – helping him along will be an important task for boss Roger Schmidt down the stretch. An important piece of January business is to secure the services of 19-year-old defender Tin Jedvaj permanently. The versatile Croatian has been fantastic on several occasions for Bayer, who hold the option to buy him outright from parent club Roma. Schmidt has everything he needs to make a strong run in the second half of the season, and Bayer will be a force if he plays his cards right.
Last season, they lost a fierce battle for Germany’s fourth and final Champions League place. This time around, they seemingly won’t be denied. Dieter Hecking’s men are in fine fettle in second place in the Bundesliga, thanks in large part to an inspirational Kevin De Bruyne. Last January, Wolfsburg were handed the Belgian after Jose Mourinho quickly tired of him at Chelsea. This time around, seeing his form excellent form stretch in 2015 is the best gift Di Wolfe could ask for. Well, that and a few other things. Keeping hold of the in-demand Ivan Perisic would be a victory, while Europe’s elite have been clamoring for the services of 22-year-old left back Ricardo Rodriguez for some time now. Wolfsburg have plenty of Christmas cash already stashed up, so retaining the pair shouldn’t be an issue. The kitty would be wisely used on a new striker, given that Ivica Olic is 35 and Bas Dost has only scored twice. Of course, Nicklas Bendtner is on the club’s books too. But he is, well, jolly old Nicklas Bendtner after all.
Marcelo Bielsa can feel Christmas coming. Back in September, the Argentine threw a tantrum, as he wasn’t given the gifts he wanted in the summer transfer window. In the holiday spirit, perhaps Marseille will be more willing to give him what he wants this time around – especially considering results. El Loco has the club top of Ligue 1 ahead of Paris Saint-Germain, but he’ll need help keeping them there. A permanent central defense partner for Nicolas N’Koulou – who has shone this term – would be a welcome addition, given that Bielsa has frozen out young Doria, openly saying he didn’t want the Brazilian. Beyond this, Bielsa needs to find some Christmas faith in Michy Batshuayi. Andre-Pierre Gignac has been a force with 12 league goals, but admitted he’ll likely be gone in the summer. Batshuayi finding form would take some of the strain off of the Frenchman and better prepare Marseille for a future without him.
6 Manchester United
One can only imagine what sharing a company Christmas party with the unpredictable Louis van Gaal must be like from a player’s perspective. Short of knowledge on that topic, there are far more important matters surrounding Manchester United. Yes, United are in third in the Premier League. Yes, they had won six in a row heading into the busy holiday period in England. But no, they’re not back to the United of old. Van Gaal’s back line remains quite suspect, and it’s clear that a world class central defender is needed at Old Trafford. David de Gea has been extraordinary between the pipes, mitigating the damage caused by opposing attackers. Despite Michael Carrick’s heroics and the resurgence of Marouane Fellaini, a top-level box-to-box midfielder is also a must. Whether Ed Woodward will show up to deliver the goods in a Santa hat remains to be seen – especially after a summer of heavy investment – but the football world at large will soon enough know what United’s next move is.
Doubts have been lingering over Rafael Benitez for much of the campaign. The Spaniard’s expiring contract and middling results have seen his status at Napoli called into question, but he maintains there’s no threat of him departing just yet. What will make the ex-Liverpool boss’s Neapolitan Christmas a bit less merry, however, was failing to get the Partenopei into the group stage of the Champions League back in August. This cost Napoli a fair amount of revenue that could be invested in the squad – particularly to bolster the defense and deeper-lying midfield positions – and drove owner Aurelio De Laurentiis up a wall. Nonetheless, Napoli are on the verge of landing talented 23-year-old Sampdoria striker Manolo Gabbiadini, so Benitez will get a new toy. The problem is that his play set already has plenty of attackers, and he’d be better served getting the missing pieces in his collection.
4 Borussia Dortmund
Must all good things come to an end? After years of hipster-fueled brilliance, Dortmund have descended into a state more dysfunctional than that of the Parker family from A Christmas Story. Hovering in and around the relegation zone in the Bundesliga all season long, the yearly poaching of stars by Bayern Munich seems to have come to pass as other sides have figured them out. Jurgen Klopp must galvanize the men he already has at his disposal, but an iron fist will likely be more effective than holiday cheer at this point. The squad is littered with players who have underperformed, none more guilty than Henrikh Mkhitaryan, yet to pick up a single goal or assist. Ilkay Gundogan needs time to get back to his best, while usually reliable center backs Sokratis, Mats Hummels and Neven Subotic haven’t been up to snuff. The saving grace for Dortmund has been their Champions League campaign, in which they finished top of Group D despite awful league results. It’s up to Klopp to figure out how to establish congruity between performances in the two competitions.
Walter Mazzarri received an early holiday leave last month when he was dismissed in favor of Roberto Mancini, who has returned to San Siro to find the Nerazzurri in disarray. It took the ex-Manchester City boss until the fourth time of asking to secure a win in Serie A, a scrappy effort against Chievo at that. Mancini has a laundry list of Christmas wishes he’ll be hoping owner Erick Thohir wil fulfill. The Nerazzurri desperately need an attacking threat out wide, with Joel Campbell and Alessio Cerci among those linked. Also needed is another reliable striker to match Mauro Icardi, as Pablo Daniel Osvaldo is both unpredictable and on loan, while aging Rodrigo Palacio looks about as fit for top flight football as Father Christmas. Then, there are players already in the squad who must turn things around - and fast. Hernanes has looked a shell of the player he was at Lazio after coming in last January, with Nemanja Vidic looking absolutely lost in Italy thus far. Things aren’t as they were during Mancini’s first spell at Inter – and it will take a herculean effort to restore former glories.
2 AC Milan
Once upon a time – just a few years ago, really – it was a wonderful life at AC Milan. Now, however, the Rossoneri resemble more a ragtag assembly of strategic marketing signings and youngsters confused about what role they’re meant to fill in the squad. Former star striker Pippo Inzaghi is nonetheless responsible for getting the best out of the men he has, though is no doubt pleading with Silvio Berlusconi for some fresh faces in January. The side desperately needs a classy, all-action midfielder, as well as a capable center forward with the Fernando Torres project already proving a massively predictable failure. A new contract for Nigel de Jong – who would be a free agent come summer – is also a must, the Dutchman being a veteran leader and the heartbeat of the side. Banishing the injury bug that has plagued the back line would also help immensely, but that’s up to fate in some regard.
Asked if there was a chance Liverpool’s Luis Suarez-funded spending spree would see Liverpool run into the same problems Tottenham did after reinvesting cash from Gareth Bale’s sale, Brendan Rodgers replied: “Not at all. At Liverpool, there’s a strategy behind what we’re doing.” That was in July. Now it’s December, and the Reds could well and truly be said to have ‘done a Spurs’. This Christmas season, Liverpool need luck, continuity, and hope. Luck in the form of injuries subsiding, continuity in Rodgers choosing his best tactical options and sticking with them and hope to galvanize a squad that already looks emotionally defeated in the race for the Premier League top four. How much will Liverpool spend to right the ship in January? After a net outlay of £50 million over the summer, it’s possible that there won’t be much activity at all at Anfield. Christmas miracles do happen – so long as one believes – and few top clubs need one more than the Merseysiders right now.