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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Playing Cech up

March 5, 2009

t1_cech_all1Apparently Chelsea have identified lack of competition for the No 1 jersey as the main reason behind Petr Čech‘s alarming drop in form. Some reports have even suggested that the club are considering selling the Czech international in the summer. Any suggestion that the former Golden Gloves winner might move on is probably just making mountains over molehills, but without a doubt Carlo Cudicini‘s exit to Tottenham in January has left a gapping whole on Chelsea‘s team sheet – one that even the sprawling figure of Hilário can’t fill.

But just who is up to the task of taking on the Euro 2004 semi-finalist? Well, looking within the Premiership, there are a couple of first-class goalkeepers warming the substitutes bench at Manchester City and Sunderland. Joe Hart and Craig Gordon are arguably the two most promising young goalkeepers in Britain. Both are extraordinary, athletic players who have been frustrated at club level by the call for experience over promise – which is doing neither of their international careers any good. Whether they would have any better chance of making the first team deputising for Čech is another question. And neither Hart or Gordon fits the profile of Chelsea‘s usual, continental and glamorous headline signings.

Looking further afield, Chelsea‘s new manager Guus Hiddink could do worse than fast-tracking the career of his young ward in the Russia set-up, Igor Akinfeev. Aged just 22, Akinfeev has already notched up 29 caps and 136 appearances for his club CSKA Moscow. He was the youngest ever footballer to play in goal for Russia at the tender age of 18, and has a record of success at the highest level – he played in Euro 2008 and at one stage went 362 minutes in the Champions League without conceding a goal. Taking Hiddink a little out of his comfort zone, Hugo Lloris has excelled since moving to French champions Olympique Lyonnais in the summer and has since broken into the national team under Raymond Domenech. Another of the finest prospects in European football, Lloris was born eight months after Akinfeev and cost Lyon a cool €8.5 million – but Chelsea would have little trouble doubling up on that fee to bring the Frenchman to Stamford Bridge.

Of course there are cheaper options. It feels like half of the Premiership have been circling Espanyol‘s Cameroonian keeper Carlos Idriss Kameni, while Olympique de Marseille‘s Steve Mandanda would come with a lower price tag than compatriot Lloris. Whoever comes in, it’s worth remembering that when Čech came in he was by no means considered first choice ahead of Cudicini. And if the popular Italian (at one stage he was tipped for a call-up to the English national team) could lose his place so easily, perhaps Čech isn’t the “untouchable” he was under José Mourinho.

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Manchester United have stopped needing to try

March 2, 2009

carlingcup2008_945758I’ve been writing this blog now since January. And since the New Year, Manchester United have amassed 13 victories, scored 30 goals and kept 11 clean sheets. They are the reigning Premiership champions, the reigning European champions, the reigning Club World Cup champions and – now – the reigning Carling Cup champions. And I haven’t written about them once.

Why? Because Manchester United are boring. Not boring like an Arsenal side who have gone four Premiership games (three at the Emirates) without scoring a goal. After all, this is a team oozing with quality. They’ve got Cristiano RonaldoCarlos Tévez, Wayne Rooney and Dimitar Berbatov up front without even accounting for players like Ryan Giggs, Anderson or Paul Scholes – and by the end of that roll call of attacking talent you’re half way through their team sheet.

Rather, Manchester United are boring like Roger Federer used to be boring. Predictable, relentless victory is the mark of the truly great in sport. But it isn’t half as fun as scraping a last minute victory against Wigan. For goodness sake, even Chelsea are more entertaining to watch these days, if for no other reason than at any point they might throw away the lead, sack their manager or decide to decamp to Moscow. Manchester United, by contrast, can field their youth team in an English cup final and still be so good that the opposition manager would back them over his own side: “I have to be honest,” says Tottenham manager Harry Rednapp, “we were not that confident with our penalty-takers really and you looked over there and they had very confident penalty-takers.”

Of course I am jealous of Manchester United. It’s not so long ago, supporting José Mourinho‘s Chelsea, that I was more or less in the same boat. But I also remember all too well that look on the faces of United’s fans this morning. No joy. No linking arms and merrily dancing a jig. Barely even a half-hearted gloat throw the way of their Tottenham counterparts. Just a hunger for more. Ask Federer, or Chelsea fans, for that matter – winning trophy after trophy just makes the first one you lose harder to bear.

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Javier Aguirre the man for Portsmouth?

February 18, 2009

aguirre_spain_soccer_do811David James has come out twice this week to voice his support for Sven-Göran Eriksson‘s candidature to be the new Portsmouth manager. James appears to be preoccupied with the idea of a former England manager taking the hot seat at the south coast club. But other than his status in a group of alumni that includes Glenn Hoddle and Steve McLaren (neither of whom, I note, have earned a vote of support from the former Liverpool goalkeeper), does Eriksson’s CV really match up to the job?

The Swede’s success has come almost exclusively at clubs with extravagant budgets, in particular at a Lazio backed by millionaire investor Sergio Cragnotti, who plunged some £274 million into the team to buy players like Pavel Nedvěd and Christian Vieri. At Manchester City, he spent a small fortune on a cluster of players including Elano, Valeri Bojinov, Benjani Mwaruwari and Gelson Fernandes – none of whom were able to acclimatise to the Premier League quickly enough or gel well enough to keep Eriksson in his job.

So rather than turn to a former England don, perhaps Portsmouth should be looking to one of Sven’s predecessors in his incumbent position at Mexico. Javier Aguirre led the Central American side to victories over Croatia and Ecuador as well as a creditible draw with Italy in the 2002 World Cup before a heartbreaking loss to rivals USA in the second round. But it is his subsequent achievements in club management that really stand out. On a shoe string budget Aquirre led unfashionable Spanish team Osasuna to a Champions League spot ahead of Juande RamosSevilla in 2006, before taking them to the UEFA Cup semi-finals a year later (ironically losing out to Sevilla).

A more recent but less successful spell with Atlético Madrid still secured the La Liga side a top four and Champions League place for the first time in 12 years. Yet despite setting a new record for goals scored at home, the Mexican has found himself deemed surplus to requirements at the Vicente Calderón. Atlético‘s loss could prove Portsmouth’s gain – even before losing his job, Aguirre announced his ‘dream’ to manage in the Premiership to ESPN programme, Futbol Picante. He may not be the flashy big name that David James has been dreaming of, but Aquirre could bring back to Portsmouth precisely what they have been missing since Harry Redknapp‘s defection to Tottenham – a voice of experience. Not of managing England, perhaps, but of taking little fancied football clubs to new heights.

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Once more into the Bridge, dear friends

February 10, 2009

scolari4_33796tLuiz Felipe Scolari‘s transformation from the amiable Brazilian who first greeted the English media in June to the humbled and humbugged coach who was sacked by Chelsea yesterday afternoon was perfectly epitomised by his reaction to Sunday’s 0-0 draw with Hull City. The man who had handled footballs harshest critics, the national papers, with such aplomb in the summer could no longer bear to face their hacks after the 15th and 16th points of the season were dropped at Stamford Bridge. Instead, Ray Wilkins was thrust in front of the cameras. If Scolari could no longer manage to charm the pants off the people who make the real decisions in the Premiership, the media, then he was no longer worth his £6 million a year.

So what are the criteria for Chelsea‘s next manager, and who can possibly live up to the job? The general consensus seems to be that the next coach has to deliver results both in the Premiership and – crucially, given the gap between Chelsea and Manchester United in the Premiership table – in Europe, which arguably presents Chelsea with their best chance of silverware this season. On those grounds, it seems that Roberto Mancini has been discounted for his failure to get Inter Milan to perform in the Champions League. But I actually disagree. I don’t think Roman Abramovich, Chelsea‘s billionaire backer, craves success or even trophies. Instead, he dreams of being popular and loved – not just by Chelsea supporters, but by fans of the beautiful game across the globe. That means aesthetically pleasing, “total football”. It means lots and lots of goals and attacking verve. But most of all, I think it means resuming the project Scolari started back in June – building a relationship of jovial back-and-forth, even co-dependence with Britain’s press. That means one man in particular is on Abramovich’s radar – while another holds the hearts of the supporters.

Guus Hiddink has been consistently linked with the Chelsea job since José Mourinho was shown the door in September 2007. From the land that invented “total football”, Hiddink has an impressive CV that spans six different clubs across three countries not to mention managing the national teams of his native Holland, South Korea, Australia and Russia. With South Korea and Australia, he grasped the imagination of millions by leading teams of little fancied underdogs to magical World Cup runs. What’s more, in his latest job with Russia, he has built strong links with the Russian Abramovich and cemented his reputation for combining flair with a solid foundation. But his only stint with a club the size of Chelsea, at Real Madrid in the 1990s, lasted less than one barren season. And the key players from his current side who he may have earmarked to join him at Stamford Bridge nine months ago, namely Roman Pavlyuchenko and Andrei Arshavin, have already made the trip across to London to join rivals Tottenham and Arsenal respectively.

Whoever Abramovich turns to, there is only one man the fans want to see in the job – and only one man who could deliver Chelsea‘s owner with the adoration he has been longing for. And he is also plying his trade on the other side of the Thames at a rival club. West Ham‘s charismatic manager and Chelsea‘s best ever player Gianfranco Zola is the only name in football that could guarantee Abramovich popularity. Popularity, but not results. Even die-hard Arsenal and Manchester United fans wouldn’t be able to stop a little smile sneaking out over the thought of Zola at the helm at Stamford Bridge, assisted by Steve Clarke and perhaps even Roberto Di Matteo. Though admittedly that smile would only get bigger if the untested trio failed to deliver results. It may not happen yet, but sooner or later Zola is the appointment Abramovich is going to have to make to secure his legacy at Chelsea as the club’s guardian angel and not just some crackpot dictator.

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Mexico’s Golden Generation

February 4, 2009

10_24409tSven-Göran Eriksson‘s decision to become head coach of the Mexican football team last year after successfully rebuilding his reputation as a club manager at Manchester City may have seemed a little eccentric. But for all his failings, as both England manager and Premiership boss Sven has been nothing if not cooly analytical. Even his infamous selection of Theo Walcott for the 2006 World Cup was a carefully calculated gamble (albeit one that didn’t pay off).

Mexico is a country that is on the verge of a major break through on the international football scene. The Under-17s helped the country to win it’s first major global competition at the 2005 FIFA World Championship. They beat a much fancied Brazil side including Manchester United‘s Anderson and Arsenal midfielder Denílson in the final after thrashing a similarly talented Dutch side 4-0 in the last four. This week Sven announced the senior squad for Mexico’s international derby against the United States, and four of the World Championship juniors of 2005 have made the step up (with two more unavailable through suspention). So how are Mexico’s “Golden Generation” progressing under the Swede’s tutelage?

Guillermo Ochoa

The 23-year-old goalkeeper and one of the elder statesmen of the World Championship side, Ochoa was also in Mexixo’s 2006 World Cup squad as a back-up goalkeeper. Despite making over 150 appearances for his club side Club América, has struggled to fill the boots of goalkeeping legend Oswaldo Sánchez (who at 35 is still kicking around) and establish a regular spot in the senior international side.

 Omar Esparza

A talented right back who scored the second goal in the Under 17s 3-0 defeat of Brazil in the 2005 finals, two years after that game Esparza helped Mexico’s Under-20 side to a World Cup quarter final. Made his first senior appearance in August, and could well be the next player from that World Championship team to move to Europe, although he’ll need to bulk up before then.

Giovanni Dos Santos

Even before Dos Santos walked on to the pitch wearing the red, white and green of Mexico he had footballing pedigree. The son of Brazilian footballer and soccer school founder Zizinho, both Giovanni and brother Jonathan came from Barcelona stock. Set up half of all the goals scored by Mexico in the World Championship, he was named the tournament’s second best player. Has failed to make his mark at Tottenham since a summer move and has been linked to Chelsea and Portsmouth – but whoever lands him has an awfully big talent on their hands.

Carlos Vela

Top scorer in the World Championship with five goals, Vela earned himself a move to Arsenal after the tournament. Although we haven’t seen a great deal of him in the Premiership as yet, defenders in La Liga will be all too familiar with his attacking trickery after 64 appearances in Spanish football with Salamanca and OsasunaArsène Wenger brought Vela on in the game against West Ham last weekend, and if used a little less sparingly the Mexican has the talent to keep Arsenal‘s new signing Andrei Arshavin on the bench.

Certainly, if Sven can blend the new generation of players with more established stars like Barcelona‘s Rafael Márquez and former VfB Stuttgart midfielder Pável Pardo, the journey from England manager to Scandinavia’s man in Mexico could look more like a promotion than a career red herring.

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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?