Top 10 transfer targets you’ve never heard of

June 27, 2009

everton_s_marouane_fellaini_reacts_after_scoring_a_5046199294Every year Premiership managers conspire to spend millions of pounds on exotic sounding foreign players whose names have never graced the screens of an English TV. Last year it was Marouane Fellaini, a £15 million signing for Everton. And what’s more, his tough tackling, willingness to play ludicrously out of position, and even more ludicrous haircut have made the Premiership a better place over the last twelve months. So who will be the next anonymous football starlets to to be thrust into the Premier League‘s limelight?

10. Steven Defour and 9. Alex Witsel – Standard Liège

Starting with Fellaini’s old club, these two versatile and elegant midfielders added finesse to Fellaini’s more direct approach during their years together at Standard Liège. Steven Defour, the club captain, is the side’s playmaker. At 5’8 and without seven inches of hair to add to that height, he hasn’t got his former team mates presence. But he has got oodles of vision and a superb right foot, both of which helped Standard in 2008 to lift their first Belgian league title in 25 years and Defour to the coveted Golden Shoe award for his performances. With Gareth Barry now ensconced at Manchester City, rumour has it Martin O’Neill has earmarked the 21-year-old as the perfect replacement for Aston Villa.

At 20 Alex Witsel is an even younger, although arguably also a little rawer, talent. A natural deep lying player and capable passer of the ball, his athleticism has seen him play much of this season on Standard’s right wing. Witsel succeeded Defour as the Belgian Golden Shoe winner in 2009, marking him out as the season’s outstanding player a year after his goal secured Standard’s title victory. All of which should make him a pretty attractive proposition for the Premiership‘s most veracious developer of young talent, Arsenal‘s Arsène Wenger.

8. João Moutinho and 7. Miguel Veloso – Sporting Clube de Portugal

Another double header, this time from Sporting Clube de Portugal – the club that gave the Premiership Cristiano Ronaldo and Nani. Like Defour, João Moutinho is an attacking midfielder and club captain. But unlike Defour, five seasons at one of Europe’s elite clubs has honed Moutinho into a complete talent that has certainly caught the eye of Everton (and surely a host of other suitors). A creative player with a tendency to drift out wide on the right, he could be just the midfield dynamo to add energy to Tim Cahill‘s increasingly weary legs.

Two years ago Miguel Veloso was being linked to Arsenal, so perhaps it is no wonder that he has been reticent about more recent rumours about a move to Bolton Wanderers. Whether playing just in front of a back four, or in the heart of defence, Veloso’s stock can only have improved after a string of impressive performances in the Champions League over the past three seasons. Veloso is an expert man marker and has nullified some of the most potent attacking forces in the game – just the kind of grit Liverpool could do with if Javier Mascherano decides to up sticks to Barcelona.

6. Andre-Pierre Gignac – Toulouse

The BBC’s gossip column today suggests Andre-Pierre Gignac could be a transfer target for a Blackburn side shorn of Roque Santa Cruz. The Toulouse forward was top scorer in last season’s Ligue 1, but is hasn’t always been plain sailing for Gignac. As a young striker with Lorient, the Frenchman reneged on a contract with Lille to move to Toulouse in 2007 leading to a protracted and very public allegation of foul play. A rumoured doubling of his salary at Toulouse may have had something to do with the controversy. Yet his slightly checkered past clearly hasn’t troubled his football, and as one of the French league’s top performers last year he is bound to attract attention from a cluster of top clubs in the Premiership.

5. Yuri Zhirkov and 4. Igor Akinfeev – CSKA Moscow

Chelsea and a Russian? Surely not? But the Blues fans can rest assured that Yuri Zhirkov is no Alexei Smertin. The CSKA Moscow star can play anywhere along the left flank, which would provide welcome competition for Ashley Cole and Florent Malouda.  The Russian league is a bit of an anomaly, as high salaries mean that players as good as Zhirkov haven’t previously been swept up by Europe’s bigger leagues years ago. He certainly hasn’t been kept a secret – his goal against Hamburg in the 2006-2007 Champions League was named the best of the competition.

Right, time for big hyperbolic claims now. Igor Akinfeev is the best goalkeeper outside of Europe’s big three leagues, and probably the best 23-year-old keeper in the world. Aged 18, he was the Russian national team’s youngest ever player when he made his debut. What’s more, regardless of his age after 147 senior club appearances and 32 caps for Russia he is well on the way to being a veteran. He is certainly not green, anyway. If you want proof of his ability, he went 362 minutes without conceding a goal in the 2007-2008 Champions League season. That should be more than enough to convince Sir Alex Ferguson that he could be Edwin van der Sar‘s long-term successor at Manchester United.

3. Diego Buonanotte – River Plate

Extremely short, Argentinean, breathtaking ball skills – it all sounds very familiar. Diego Buonanotte is the latest in a long line of the next Diego Maradonas. Leaving that particular poisoned chalice aside, Buonanotte is an exceptional talent with a diminutive frame, just how they like to build them at River Plate. At 21, he has played nearly 50 times for River, scoring 13 goals, and represented Argentina in the Olympics. With an Italian grandparent, and therefore an Italian passport, he might not come cheap but he would come easy without the hassle of work permits to be negotiated. Which could all sound very tempting to a manager like Gianfranco Zola at West Ham, a man who knows a thing or two about small but effective creative talents.

2. Edin Džeko – Wolsburg

You could be forgiven for struggling to pronounce Edin Džeko‘s name. However, you may have to get used to saying it. The Bosnian has set the German Bundesliga alight with his performances for Wolfsburg, including a tally of 34 goals in 60 appearances. Alongside teammate Grafite (picked out by this blog in March) the duo were the most successful strike partners in Bundesliga history as they propelled Wolfsburg to their first ever league title. AC Milan has been strongly linked – a deal is expected to be concluded shortly – but if it falls through expect the likes of Chelsea and Arsenal to be circling.

1. Jozy Altidore – Villareal

Six games and one goal for Villareal are hardly the signs of a world beater – even a 19-year-old world beater. But if one moment can make a career, then Jozy Altidore‘s goal for the USA against Spain to end the European champion’s run of 15 straight wins and 25 games unbeaten was it. A place in the team to face Brazil in the Confederations Cup, and even perhaps a winner’s medal, are the least Altidore deserves. That goal, set up by Fulham‘s Clint Dempsey, was Altidore’s 7th in 15 appearances for the USA. That record alone could be enough to convince Roy Hodgson to take a punt on the American linking up with Dempsey again in the Fulham team.

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What would Liverpool look like without Benítez?

March 13, 2009

curbishley1All hail Rafa Benítez, conqueror of Europe and vanquisher of Real Madrid. Liverpool has developed a reputation as masters of the Champions League tie, punching well above their weight in cup competitions compared to their performances in the Premiership. To date Benítez has delivered an FA Cup, one Community Shield, the European Super Cup and of course that majestic Champions League triumph against AC Milan during his five years with Liverpool. Which is a fantastic achievement. But back at the start, when Gérard Houllier was shown the door, it was a lack of league success that caused fans and the club’s senior management team alike to throw their toys out of the pram. And Benítez wasn’t the only man they thought would be up to the job.

Meet Alan Curbishley, the other front runner to replace Houllier back in 2004. As a quick bio, Curbishley is currently in line at the dole queue after solid if unspectacular spells at Charlton Athletic and West Ham. Unlike Benítez, who arrived at Liverpool on the back of two La Liga successes with Valencia, he has never won a trophy in the game’s senior echelons. But he does, arguably, have one of the best track records of consistent league performances in Premiership, turning Charlton into a serial top flight club and restoring West Ham‘s Premier League credibility.

Also featured on that short-list of bygone days, Steve McLaren, the former Middlesborough and England manager. And now, it would seem, a man who is finally proving he is capable of steering a club to the top of its league with FC Twente, currently second in the Dutch Eredivisie ahead of Ajax, PSV and Feyenoord. Of course, these days McLaren is regarded somewhat as tarnished goods after falling victim to the ultimate trap, being an Englishman at the helm of the English national team (a danger Curbishley only just avoided).

Last but not least were the Celtic past and present axis of power, Martin O’Neill and Gordon Strachan. These are the only two names on that five year old short-list that wouldn’t invoke horror and even physical illness in Liverpool fans today. In fact, the Northern Irisham and Scot have amassed three league titles apiece with the Glasgow club, while O’Neill has restored his reputation as the Premiership‘s hottest managerial property of late with Aston Villa.

Would any of these men have restored Liverpool to their place at the Premiership‘s top table? Possibly. But without a flicker of doubt, not one of them has Rafa’s European credentials. And that means Benítez will be able to name his price to stay at Liverpool this summer, while his would-have-been competitors can only look on enviously at the resources and infrastructure at his disposal.

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Premiership cuts its nose off to spite its face

March 9, 2009

 
The days of the great British colonial empire may have faded into sepia, along with the fortunes of our national football, rugby and cricket teams. But there is still one realm where we continue to rule the waves – European club football. After last season’s Champions League final (effectively a showcase for the top two teams in the Premiership), this year’s last 16 once again features four English clubs in excellent positions to progress after their first round ties. But is the Premiership about to become the victim of its own success? As well as becoming the sport’s biggest importers of talent, the Premiership veraciously exports players and coaches to clubs in Europe at a breakneck pace. Of the four opponents waiting for Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal later this week, three are managed by former Premier League managers (Claudio Ranieri at Juventus, Juande Ramos at Real Madrid, and, of course, José Mourinho at Inter Milan). And all four of this week’s Champions League opponents are similarly studded with players who have plied their trade in the Premiership, know all about its top clubs and – most importantly of all – understand how to stop them. Here are my pick of the ex-Premiership stars who stand between our British boys and a prolonged jaunt on the continent.

Patrick Vieira, Inter Milan, formerly Arsenal
patrick-vieiraPatrick Vieira won three Premiership titles at Arsenal and captained the club to an unbeaten season in 2004, so he knows better than most how to shut Man United out of a game. Sir Alex Ferguson is a noted admirer of the Frenchman and tried to secure his services after Juventus’ relegation in 2006. Vieira has been in and out of the Inter team this season thanks to injury and his fractious relationship with Mourinho, but if he is thrown into action against Man United he still has the legs, lungs and drive to change the shape of a match.

Arjen Robben, Real Madrid, formerly Chelsea
arjen-robben1As a Chelsea fan, Arjen Robben represents all the hopes and dreams that came with the Roman Abramovich revolution. His pace, creativity and eye for goal led to a string of matches in Mourinho’s first season with club that were – to my mind – the epitome of everything I always wanted Chelsea to be. I even remember describing him as Gianfrano Zola‘s natural successor – that’s how good Robben was. Years of long-term injury have somewhat curtailed his development, but at the peak of his form I still believe he is the only player capable of challenging Cristiano Ronaldo‘s claim to be the best wide man in the game. Liverpool will doubtless be a little envious of his turn of pace and ability to create something out of nothing.

john-arne-riiseJohn Arne Riise, Roma, formerly Liverpool
You could ask any Premiership club fan about their memories of John Arne Riise, and virtually every one would have a story about one of his trademark left-footed, long-ranged and unstoppable goals. In all, he scored one in every nine starts for Liverpool – an extraordinary ratio for a left back. I always believed he was treated harshly at Liverpool, who rarely made the most of his precocious talents. Fortunately, fate has been a little kinder on the Norwegian at Roma, where he has marked his arrival on Serie A this season with a first goal for the club against league leaders Internazionale.

Olof Mellberg, Juventus, formerly Aston Villa
olof-mellbergUp until last weekend, ex-Liverpool hard man Mohamed Sissoko would have been a good shout as Juventus’ player to watch on Tuesday. But injury has put the Malian midfielder’s season on ice, so up steps Aston Villa‘s very own former iceman. The Swede has added some much needed bite to Juventus’ back line this season, which will come as no surprise to Villa fans who still lament the affable defender’s departure last season. Last season, under Mellberg’s stewardship, Aston Villa gained a credible home win against Chelsea and draw their away match 4-4. That’s last 16 cup-tie winning form.

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What do you Hiddink?

February 19, 2009

hiddink1Guus Hiddink faces his first big challenge as Chelsea coach against high-flying Aston Villa on Saturday. The importance of this fixture against the club immediately above Chelsea in the Premiership has doubtless not been lost on the new Dutch manager. But can any result turn Chelsea into winners after the circumstances that have beset the London club over the past two weeks?

I don’t think so. Even if Hiddink can mastermind victory over Villa by springing a surprise or two (for example thrusting Michael Mancienne into the action), I don’t believe one win – or even a piece of silverware – can undo the long-term damage Scolari’s sacking has done to the club. For starters, Hiddink isn’t just a part-time replacement for a full-time manager. Along with Scolari, Chelsea dismissed Flavio Teixeira, Darlan Schneider and Carlos Pracidelli from their backroom team. So Hiddink is a part-time replacement for a manager, an assistant manager, a fitness coach and a goalkeeping coach. And given the short term nature of his contract, Hiddink seems both unlikely and unwilling to bring in any additional support – despite the availability of a ready-made assistant like, say, former Chelsea star Gus Poyet.

Then there’s the problem of preparing for the summer transfer window. Last season, before Luiz Felipe Scolari arrived at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea had already splashed out £16.3m on José Bosingwa. Neither Scolari or his predecessor Avram Grant has been able to stamp their mark on a squad that has lost key peripheral players including Claude Makélélé and Wayne Bridge in the past six months. Makélélé’s loss in particular has had a visible impact on the team, with his replacement Deco so clearly unfit for task that Scolari was forced to look to German Bundesliga and Brazil flop Mineiro for back up. With news breaking today that Hiddink intends to bring Russian crony and CSKA Moscow winger Yuri Zhirkov to Stamford Bridge – regardless of whether or not he is still manager by the time the player arrives – there is surely a possibility that his successor will be lumbered with yet another unwanted new arrival with allegiances to the former regime.

Of course, it is not Hiddink’s job to worry about these details. After all, he has enough on his plate holding down his five jobs (at last count). Rather, they are problems for his successor – Carlo Ancelotti perhaps? Which is a great shame, because Hiddink is absolutely the right man to take Chelsea to the next level, namely Premiership and European success on a consistent basis. But no manager can deliver all that in a fist full of months: just ask Sir Alex Ferguson, who took three years to assert his vision on Manchester United. Or even Hiddink himself, who was given just seven months to turn around Real Madrid in 1998. And, for the record, couldn’t.

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The View from the Terraces World XI

February 11, 2009

It seems that the closest thing football blogs get to a chain letter is circulating through the ether at the moment – a challenge to name the best eleven players in the world. So the witty writers at Off the Post have passed that challenge on to me. And this is what I’ve come up with, based on current form rather than reputation:

Goalkeeper: Edwin van der Sar, Manchester United and Holland

evds3Since joining Manchester United in 2005, the 38-year-old Van der Sar has recaptured the form that helped him win the Champions League and the title of Europe’s best goalkeeper in 1995. Has strung together a record breaking 13 clean sheets for Manchester United this season. Has filled Peter Schmeichel‘s enormous boots.

Also ran: Petr Čech, Chelsea; Iker Casillas, Real Madrid

Right back: Dani Alves, Barcelona and Brazil

dani-alvesThe world’s most expensive right back made his name in Juande Ramos‘ double-UEFA Cup winning Sevilla side, and Alves has done his reputation no harm by joining a Barcelona team rejuvenated under Josep Guardiola. A rampaging right wing back in the true Brazilian mode, he would make it into most teams.

Also ran: Maicon, Inter Milan; Sergio Ramos, Real Madrid

Left back: Philipp Lahm, Bayern Munich and Germany

lahmemLahm kicked off the 2006 World Cup with the tournament’s opening goal, and despite competition from compatriot and fellow international Marcell Jansen for the left back berth at Bayern Munich has retained his place. Not since Roberto Carlos has the game seen such a consistent performer at left back.

Also ran: Ashley Cole, Chelsea; Gianluca Zambrotta, AC Milan

Centre back: Nemanja Vidić, Manchester United and Serbia

nemanja-vidicThe easiest pick in this eleven, Vidić has been the bedrock of Manchester United‘s unparalleled success in the Premiership and in Europe over the past two seasons. Arguably the Premiership‘s best ever centre half, the Serbian is big and strong but surprisingly agile and is an obvious choice for a brawny centre half.

Also ran: John Terry, ChelseaLúcio, Bayern Munich

Centre back: Fabio Cannavaro, Real Madrid and Italy

fabioAnother golden oldie and the first and only defender to win the FIFA World Player of the Year in 2006. Cannavaro is one of the most gifted footballers of his generation, relying on technique and impeccable timing to steer Real Madrid and Italy to success. At 35, he still has time to eclipse Paola Maldini as his country’s most capped player.

Also ran: Alessandro Nesta, AC Milan; Rio Ferdinand, Manchester United

Right wing: Franck Ribéry, Bayern Munich and France

riberyRibéry edges out Cristiano Ronaldo because the Manchester United man has failed to rediscover the form of last season. The Frenchman, on the other hand, has become a global superstar at Bayern Munich with nearly a goal every other game for the club. Is likely to be the summer transfer window’s most hotly contested trinket.

Also ran: Cristiano Ronaldo, Manchester UnitedMaxi RodríguezAtlético Madrid

Left wing: Lionel Messi, Barcelona and Argentina

lionel-messi-bacelona-1-zaragoza-0-10862If football be the food of love, Messi is a really orgasmic dessert. The man who lends Barcelona their attacking verve, he is a playmaker who is capable of dictating the pace of the game and a South American capable of giving former team mate Ronaldinho a crisis of confidence. Were it not for Ronaldo’s goals, would be FIFA World Player of the Year.

Also ran: Samir Nasri, ArsenalÁngel Di María, Benfica

Centre midfield: Gareth Barry, Aston Villa and England

article-0-01d2fa4200000578-875_468x485On form, the best midfielder in the Premeirship after lifting Aston Villa into third in the league. Reminds me of the great rugby union player Neil Back, who would often be invisible for the course of a match, but whenever you watched the replay you realised just how often he touched the ball.

Also ran: Jérémy Toulalan, Lyon; Lassana Diarra, Real Madrid

Attacking midfield: Andrés Iniesta, Barcelona and Spain

andres_iniestaAfter injuring his leg in November, Iniesta needed just ten minutes to score on his return for Barcelona. Combines creativity, a fantastic passing range and genuine humility to make one of the most popular players in the sport. Behind his youthful looks and pleasant demeanor, however, lies the heart of a winner.

Also ran: Xavier Hernández, Barcelona; Frank Lampard, Chelsea

Striker: Fernando Torres, Liverpool and Spain

torres-spainWith three goal in total and one apiece in injury time in his last two matches for Liverpool, Torres has underlined his importance at club level. On the international scene, he has to vie for attention with compatriot David Villa, who narrowly loses out on selection for this eleven despite his showing at the European Championship.

Also ran: David Villa, Valencia; Nicolas Anelka, Chelsea

Striker: Karim Benzema, Lyon and France

GTY_GYI0051449246At 21 the youngest player in this eleven, Benzema has already notched up 71 goals in 119 performances for Olympique Lyonnais. Nominated the best player in France last year, it won’t be long before he is pipping Messi and Ronaldo for world titles – and that little trio could be inspiring European football for the next ten years.

Also ran: Zlatan Ibrahimović, Inter Milan; Robinho, Manchester City

More Best XIs here

Up for the challenge


One cap wonders

January 30, 2009

It’s all right for some people. With England‘s friendly international against Spain just around the corner, David Beckham has moved half-way across the globe and reproduced his finest form, all in the hope of securing a record equaling 108th cap. But in the shadow of Beckham, fans of the Premiership‘s less fashionable clubs and even some gossip columnists will be beginning to speculate about which players Fabio Capello will be handing an international debut.

Surely Aston Villa‘s James Milner – England’s most capped Under-21 international with 40 matches under his belt and eight goals – is due a promotion to the senior team? Perhaps Capello is set to spring another surprise after including Michael Mancienne in his last squad – in which case, the midfield duo of Tottenham‘s Tom Huddlestone and West Ham‘s Mark Noble have been impressing in the junior ranks. However, the fear for all of these players is that they sucumb to the fate of the “one cap wonder” – players called up on the back of exceptional form or circumstance to fill a void in the national team, or simply as a misjudged experiment. Recent candidates include Portsmouth flop David Nugent, while Jimmy Bullard has a lot of hard work to do at Hull to avoid being similarly derided. 

So I’ve put together a team of recent players to fall into the “one-cap” trap since the Premiership‘s inception in 1992. I have been careful to leave out the footballers who are likely to add to their tally, with the likes of Robert GreenBen Foster and Gabriel Agbonlahor left off the list (sorry Phil Jagielka, but that’s just my opinion). I have also missed out Francis Jeffers (who has a record of one goal in one game for England) and Michael Ball, because some wasted talent is a little too hard to stomach. To see players like Chris Sutton (a Premiership winner with Blackburn) and former UEFA Champion’s League semi-finalist Lee Bowyer in the team is certainly food for thought.

pitch-cb

I would love any thoughts or opinions about the respective qualities of the players above, and why any manager – and particularly such a venerable old hand as Terry Venables – would allow David Unsworth onto an international football pitch. I mean, seriously?