An all American hero

July 3, 2009

Clint_Dempsey_celeb_779981aHe conquered European champions Spain with two delicate touches of his right foot, then came within a whisper of masterminding the downfall of world football’s Goliath – mighty, magnificent Brazil – in the final of the Confederations Cup. So who is this footballing Adonis? Argentina’s beloved Leo Messi? Italy’s striking prodigy and former Manchester United youngster Giuseppe Rossi? No, it was a United States and Fulham midfielder as humble as American pie – Clint Dempsey.

His name might sound like something out of a spaghetti western, but Dempsey’s goal and assist against a Spanish side unbeaten in 35 games belatedly announced the 26-year-old’s arrival on the international stage. His opener against Brazil in the final then sealed his new found fame. The USA may have gone on the surrender their 2-0 lead, but Dempsey can rightly lay claim to being one of the tournament’s real discoveries. And, arguably, its best player (although officially he was pipped to the post by Brazil’s Kaká and Luís Fabiano).

If you think back to the 2002 World Cup, you’ll remember that Senegal’s incredible journey to the semi-finals prompted then Liverpool manager Gérard Houllier to pluck El Hadji Diouf and Salif Diao from obscurity and inflict them upon the Premiership. Now the Confederations Cup is no World Cup. Before that 2002 World Cup, Japan surprised everyone by reaching the final of the 2001 Confederation Cup on home soil, with Hidetoshi Nakata the star. But far from being headhunted by one of Europe’s top clubs, he was ditched by AS Roma and ended up at Bolton before retiring in 2006. Actually, in that respect the ultimate conclusions of his and El Hadji Diouf’s careers have not been so different.

So what next for Dempsey? Reports today have seen him linked with Everton, and he could definitely do a job operating on the opposite flank to Mikel Arteta at Goodison Park. But having watched him play for Fulham at Cravan Cottage a couple of times last season, I actually think the American is capable of performing on a bigger stage. If nothing else, his goals against Spain and Brazil have proved he has a big game mentality – and against Spain in particular, he really inspired the American team and spearheaded their shock result.

Perhaps Liverpool can be convinced to take another post-international tournament punt to bring in Dempsey. Certainly, at £4 million, he would be a fairly economical alternative to Valencia‘s David Silva – on the bench when the American embarrassed his team mates in South Africa. Failing that, I have no doubt that Roy Hodgson would be over the moon to keep a giant killer on his books as he looks to propel Fulham through their inaugural Europa League campaign.

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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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A little bit of history repeating

May 7, 2009

thierry-henry-barcelona-001Another Champions League semi-final, another season of near misses all but complete for Chelsea fans. Even victory over Everton in the FA Cup would do little to make up for another 12 months of thwarted dreams. I never thought I would say this, but I can almost sympathise with Didier Drogba‘s reaction. The man who behaved so despicably in the final last year with his petulant slap can look upon his latest disciplinary slip with a manly pride. Not because the referee was wrong (he was, but it’s an impossible job and the harsh justice was distributed evenly, as Éric Abidal will tell you). Rather, because, like me, Drogba was enraged by the latest in a string of cruel twists of fate that started in Monaco five years ago.

That day, former Chelsea man Didier Deschamps oversaw 10 man Monaco as the French club hit two late goals to seal a 3-1 first leg win on the way to a 5-3 aggregate win. A year later and Luis García‘s ghost goal put Liverpool through to the final. Last year, it was John Terry‘s penalty miss that spelled out tragic disaster. And last night, 10 man Barcelona and their Spanish wizard Andrés Iniesta chiseled out the latest chapter in this liturgy of failure. Like a romantic hero, Chelsea seem destined to always fall at the last hurdle – their tragic flaw in character a willingness to implode at the most inopportune moments. Except, unlike a romantic hero, everybody hates us.

To be fair, there is something refreshing about the line-up for the Champions League final. For the first time I can remember, the two finalists have been consistently playing Europe’s best football over the course of the season. It’s also the first time this century that both finalists top their respective domestic leagues. But that will come as little comfort to any Chelsea fan, particularly after their heroics (yes, that word again) over two legs against a Barcelona team that has scored more than 100 league goals this season.

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Manchester United’s war of three fronts

March 19, 2009

Manchester United know all too well just how much can change in a Premiership week. Seven days ago Sir Alex Ferguson‘s side had an air of invincibility, able to drop players like Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Dimitar Berbatov from the line-up against Liverpool while bookies paid out on bets that Manchester United would win the Premiership title. Two slip-ups (admittedly both chronic) from their most consistent player of the season, a red card and four Liverpool goals later and all of a sudden the picture looks very different indeed. To win the much aspired to quintuple, Manchester United will have to overcome top four Premier League opposition in at least two competitions – with either Chelsea or Arsenal coming up in the FA Cup if United can edge past Everton, and Arsenal‘s visit to Old Trafford still to come in the league. Manchester United will almost certainly have to lock horns with their domestic rivals in the Champions League to boot, with half of this year’s remaining contestants coming from the Premiership.

The problem is that against the rest of the Premiership top four, Manchester United have struggled this season – recording a solitary victory over Chelsea. The table below, looking at how the top four have performed against each other, clearly shows that Liverpool and Arsenal are laughing when it comes to seeing off similarly well-equipped opposition:

untitled-1Manchester United avoided the big four en route to their Carling Cup and (of course) Club World Cup victories. And from the look things, that was a good thing too. But they definitely won’t be so lucky in the FA Cup, and more likely than not they won’t escape this year in the Champions League either. So what are the three big factors that could turn the 2008-2009 season into a year of missed opportunities for Fergie’s men?

1. Rafa’s new contract. A good week at Liverpool by any standards – four goals a game against Real Madrid and United, followed by manager Rafa Benítez finally signing on the dotted line to commit to the club’s long-term future. A repeat of their 2005 European triumph would just put the icing on the cake.

2. Essien’s back. Chelsea have lacked bite in midfield this season without Michael Essien, and Deco has proved no replacement. The Ghanaian scored at the weekend to issue a timely reminder to Chelsea‘s rivals that the London club are a different proposition with him presiding over the centre of the pitch, and combined with Duth coach Guus Hiddink‘s nous there should be no stopping Chelsea.

3. Arsenal have discovered a bit of mental fortitude. Arsène Wenger said it himself after the Roma match, but Arsenal have lacked the strength of mind to turn 0-0 draws into more meaningful results. Queue an epic penalty shoot-out victory against canny Italain opposition and a hard fought (literally fought) win over Hull and Wenger’s boys are back in action.

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Who are Hiddink’s youths?

February 21, 2009

kakuta_nana_lEarlier this week Guus Hiddink warned his senior players that he was more than happy to give their places to talent coming up through the Chelsea ranks. Which, in reality, means giving Michael Mancienne and Franco Di Santo a chance to start the odd game in Chelsea‘s remaining Premiership fixtures. But after four years of heavy investment in the club’s youth set-up spearheaded by Danish head talent scout Frank Arnesen, are Mancienne and Di Santo really all Chelsea have to show for their money?

The youth team have just been knocked out of the FA Youth Cup by Liverpool, so the early signs aren’t great. However, there are some real gems in among the mediocrity. The captain, Liam Bridcutt, is a midfielder with a look of grit and determination that will get fans of Dennis Wise drooling. Currently on loan at Watford, the 19-year-old has been brought in by former Chelsea coach Brendan Rodgers for the struggling Championship team’s relegation battle, a sign in and of itself of Rodgers belief in the youngster’s force of personality.

Then there’s Gaël Kakuta, a Frenchman who was voted Academy’s Scholar of the Year last year in his debut season with the club after joining from Lens. With a sharp left foot and eye for goal, he could well be the long term successor to Thierry Henry‘s Premiership legacy – if he stays fit, that is. Which currently isn’t looking all that likely after Kakuta broke a leg and ankle in training earlier this month. At 17, the striker is well ahead of the curve in terms of development and has all the time in the world to make a full recovery. However Hiddink doesn’t have that luxury.

It’s worth pointing out that other, more widely recognised names are still hanging in and around the periphery of the first team. Ben Sahar – currently on loan at Dutch Eredivisie side De Graafschap – seems much older than his 19-years with a handful of Chelsea run-outs and 13 caps for Israel already under his belt. Ryan Bertrand has just broken into Stuart Pearce‘s England Under-21s after amassing more than 40 games for Norwich City over two separate loan spells. With Wayne Bridge now out of the equation, the attacking left back may just find himself in the first team mix next season.

But I suspect he won’t, that Sahar will be sold to one of many suitors and that it will be two or three years before we begin to see the first glimmers of Kakuta’s promise in the Premiership. Why? Because yes, these are players are good, but they probably aren’t as good as – say – Everton‘s teenage stars Dan Gosling and Jack Rodwell. And perhaps more importantly, they aren’t as needed. Yes, Hiddink could probably pick Bridcutt in the heart of his midfield against Aston Villa this afternoon. Or he could  pick Germany captain and footballing superstar Michael Ballack. And as the old saying goes, nobody ever got sacked for picking Ballack.

Watch Kakuta in action: