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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Zola’s West Ham project begins to bear fruit

March 1, 2009

Gianfranco Zola‘s West Ham moved up to seventh in the Premiership after disposing of Mark Hughes‘ expensively assembled Manchester City project at Upton Park this afternoon.

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The two clubs could hardly have been run more differently this season. Zola has built a team moulded in his image – at its best free flowing and beautiful, at its worst a little diminutive on the pitch. Hughes, on the other hand, has failed to stamp his personality on Manchester City with the same degree of success as at Blackburn Rovers or with Wales. Blackburn were a team that had a solid foundation built around big-hearted and just generally big players like Christopher Samba, Ryan Nelson and Roque Santa Cruz. On paper, Richard DunneMicah Richards and company looked to be made of the same stuff. Instead, they have proved to be more like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man – seemingly huge but actually soft, vulnerable and all too easily defeated by a bit of total protonic reversal. Or, in Manchester City‘s case, Jack Collison.

Then there’s the small matter of money. West Ham are a club teetering on the brink of annihilation, while Manchester City have a virtually bottomless pit of dirhams for transfer fees and exorbitant wages. Hughes spent January splashing the cash, bringing in Wayne BridgeNigel de Jong and Craig Bellamy for a combined fee of over £40 million, while West Ham‘s biggest achievement in the transfer window was keeping hold of most of their star players (Bellamy excluded, of course).

Then finally – and crucially – there’s the difference on the pitch, underlined by West Ham‘s 1-0 win over Manchester City on Sunday. The Hammers were dominant throughout, with their one January signing Savio Nsereko instrumental in Collison’s goal and Scott Parker adding real bite to all the delicate touches being exchanged in midfield. Based on this performance, it should come as no surprise that Chelsea have been linked with an approach for Zola where just eight months ago they lost out on Hughes as their first choice to replace Avram Grant. At the moment West Ham and City are chalk and cheese. And I think Roman Abramovich might just have a taste for expensive Italian gorgonzola.

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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.

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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?


In defence of Sparky

January 22, 2009

mark_hughes_498041aMark Hughes will be breathing a sigh of relief this evening. You see, the man who signs his pay cheque – Manchester City chief executive Garry Cook – believes he is nothing less than “competent”. High praise indeed for the manager who took Wales to the brink of a first major international tournament and revitalised former club Blackburn Rovers.

Just eight months ago Hughes was being chased by arguably the two richest clubs in world football, Manchester City (a formidable financial force even in the days of Shinawatra) and Chelsea. He now looks on the brink of falling victim to the curse of the equivalent of football’s “get-rich-quick-scheme”. Chelsea have been through four managers under Roman Abramovich, while nearby neighbours QPR have turned over the same number in just over a year since Flavio BriatoreBernie Ecclestone and Lakshmi Mittal become stakeholders. Would it be such a surprise if Man City were to swing the axe after the Kaka debacle and with the club hanging in Premiership mid-table limbo?

If Hughes is sacked, it has to be based on results and not his profile as a manager. After all, Hughes is not some young coach who has been picked from obscurity and thrust into the limelight. He has played at Manchester United, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Chelsea, winning a plethora of titles and twice being named PFA Player of the Year. Before arriving at Man City, he had turned round the fortunes of Welsh football and stamped his name and style on the game in Lancashire. He also has an unparalleled record of helping waning stars reignite that missing spark. Under Hughes, Craig Bellamy scored a goal every other game compared to a career average of just 0.34 goals per game, while Robinho‘s scoring average has doubled at Manchester City thanks to 11 goals in 16 games. Then there’s Benni McCarthy, Roque Santa Cruz and David Bentley, all of whom feature on the list of Blackburn‘s top 20 Premiership scorers of all time.

Hughes is staking his career, at least at the top eschalons of the game, on that ability to spot a bargain – and I suspect the purchases of Bellamy and Wayne Bridge will vindicate his transfer policy in time. Whether the Welshman will still be at the helm of Man City to see the fruits of his labour remains a very different question.

Hughes’ management career First 11

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