Galatasaray’s “sporting project”

July 15, 2009

Frank_RijkaardWhile Florentino Pérez has been busy attempting to revenge his fantasy football frustrations (“why won’t The Sun let me have Cristiano RonaldoKaká and Karim Benzema!?”) on Real Madrid, another of Europe’s less glamorous elite clubs has been undoing a “sporting project” of their own.

Galatasaray, the most successful club in the history of Turkish football, recently appointed one of the world’s most successful coaches in Frank Rijkaard – one of the few people in footballing history to have won European and national titles in Holland, Italy and Spain as a player and as a manager. Alongside him, assistant coach John Neeskens, who helped mastermind Guus Hiddink‘s 2006 World Cup heroics with Australia and has worked on and off with Rijkaard for the last 11 years. The pair have been charged with rebuilding a club that beat Arsenal and then Real Madrid in the UEFA Cup and subsequent European Super Cup in 2000, but has since lost their stars like Hakan Şükür, Cláudio Taffarel, Gheorghe Popescu and Gheorghe Hagi.

So what have the dynamic Dutch duo then to arrest the decline that saw Istanbul rivals Beşiktaş pinch the Turkish Süper Lig last year as Galatasaray stumbled to fifth? Well, the team they have inherited is made up mostly of talented domestic players. Aside from some familiar faces to fans of the Premiership – namely Harry Kewell, Milan Baroš and Tobias Linderoth – Brazilian playmaker Lincoln had been their only international player of note. But Rijkaard has been quick to lure a couple of experienced internationals to beef up the Turkish club.

After 11 years playing in Spain’s top flight with Real Mallorca and Atlético Madrid, Argentinean goalkeeper Leo Franco has been recruited to fill the long empty boots of his fellow South American Taffarel. A veteran of the 2006 World Cup, Franco has 21 caps for his country and played more than 300 La Liga games during his reign in Spain. He also representd a great bit of business, having moved on a free after his contract with Atlético expired at the end of June. Yet there is no doubting that Rijkaard is willing to splash the cash, having forked out over £10 million to land former Lyon wide man Kader Keïta. A powerful attacking presence on the right wing, the Ivory Coast international spent two years with the French club – helping them to a record seventh consecutive title in 2008 – and should provide the perfect counterfoil to Kewell’s guile on the opposite wing.

Don’t expect Galatasaray’s activity in the transfer market to stop there, either. In the last few weeks they have been linked to Dutch internationals Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and John Heitinga, West Ham‘s Lucas Neill, and two more Lyon players, Ghana skipper John Mensah and French star Sidney Govou. Whether or not any of these players join Rijkaard’s crusade to Istanbul, expect Galatasaray to join Manchester City in the hunt for a seat at football’s top table next season.

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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 Bridge too far?

June 12, 2009

Carlo AncelottiA few eyebrows will doubtless be raised by Chelsea‘s decision to appoint an exotic continental manager with a poor grasp of English just six months after sacking an exotic continental manager with a poor grasp of English. Accusations were certainly cast about Luiz Felipe Scolari‘s ability to control the dressing room given his alarming accurate impression of an overweight Andrew Sachs in Fawlty Towers. But will Carlo Ancelotti be able to do any better at Stamford Bridge?

Yes, Ancelotti has the European club football credentials that Scolari never had. But it is hard to escape the notion that he is Serie A‘s answer to Rafa Benítez – an extraordinary manager in Europe, woefully unable to reproduce that success at home. In eight years at AC Milan, Ancelotti won the Serie A crown just once. And that from a club with 17 league titles to their name. To be fair, over the same period he also reached three Champions League finals, winning two of them (with that one memorable defeat coming at the hands of Liverpool on that evening in Istanbul). Now there is nothing Chelsea fans, players and management desire more than victory in Europe – Didier Drogba‘s reaction to their last gasp defeat by Barcelona in this year’s semi-final says everything you need to know about that painfully empty shelf in Chelsea‘s trophy cabinet. However, Liverpool supporters will tell you about how frustrating it can be to be kings of Europe and paupers of the Premiership.

So if Ancelotti is to join José Mourinho and, now, Guus Hiddink in Chelsea‘s managerial good books, what are the three things he can do to get fans and players on side before the season starts from scratch in August?

Sign Carlos Tévez – Like the Argentineans, Chelsea fans have loved short, stocky, smiling assassins ever since Gianfranco Zola. As effective as Nicolas Anelka and, towards the latter end of last season, Drogba have been, neither is lovable. Tévez, on the other hand, has the perfect blend of work ethic and sublime skill. The £30 million fee would be well spent in these days where most football club’s transfer budgets wouldn’t buy Joey Barton‘s image rights.

Develop youth – Huddink came to Stamford Bridge with the promise of bringing fresh, local blood into the squad. Despite all his achievements at Chelsea, finding the next John Terry proved a challenge too many for the charismatic Dutchman. Jack Cork has demonstrated some promise at Watford last year, while Scott Sinclair is capable of moments of genius (or at least moments of blinding pace and a couple of good feet). But with millions invested in the youth set-up under Frank Arnesen, Ancelotti needs to start seeing results from the academy if he is to create a Chelsea for the future rather than another generation of aging footballers beginning to look past their prime.

Build a strong back room staff – There can be absolutely no doubt that Steve Clarke‘s departure for West Ham dealt a serious blow to Chelsea‘s title ambitions last year. Ray Wilkins is a sound coach, but the club are still in need of a defence specialist to get the most out of the likes of Alex, Branislav Ivanović and Michael Mancienne (who could be the long-term answer to Ancelotti’s search for talented youth). If rumours are to be believed, Paolo Maldini could be that man. Now there’s no greater emblem of modern football and everything Ancelotti built at AC Milan. But if the big Italian is looking for a fresh start, Marcel Desailly is available, speaks Italian, knows Ancelotti and has the bright blue of Chelsea running through his veins.

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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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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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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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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?