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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Farewell Pavel

February 27, 2009

NedvedAt the end of the season we will bid goodbye to one of football’s greatest ever exponents.  I would always argue that Zinedine Zidane‘s legacy deserves a place alongside Pele and Diego Maradona in the roll call of the game’s best ever players. But I would also say that Pavel Nedvěd is a better player than Zidane. Not a better footballer – Zidane could do things with a ball that would make Manchester United‘s Cristiano Ronaldo look like a chump. But in my opinion Nedvěd could exert his control over a match and lift his team almost physically in a way that Zidane never could.

A perfect example of the great Frenchman’s limitations was the 2006 World Cup final. Zidane poured so much of his heart and soul into that pitch that I half suspect even the Italian team wanted him to win. Every spectator knew they were watching the best and the most tragic moment of Zidane’s career – the natural born winner struggling to drag his team across the finish line. And, in the end, failing. The sorcerer turned thug and in the blink of an eye Zidane had simultaneously brought about his demise and cemented his legendary status in the game. France lost in a penalty shoot out, with Zidane both hero and villain.

Which is all very poetic. And I am not saying that had Nedvěd put on a blue shirt and run out for France that day he could have changed the result. However, while Zidane had a habit of making all the other players around him look inferior, Nedvěd has the canny knack of raising his entire team’s game. His great tragedy is that he has never won the major trophy he deserved – or even had the same chance Zidane was afforded to blow that major trophy (although to be fair Zidane won plenty).

Zidane played for Juventus in two Champions League finals, losing both. When the Frenchman defected to Real Madrid (where he finally claimed the trophy in his first season), his €41 million replacement from Lazio was instrumental in helping Juventus reach another dramatic European showdown against AC Milan in 2003. But unlike his predecessor, Nedvěd never got the chance to shine on one of the game’s biggest stages. The midfielder was suspended after picking up a decisive yellow card in the semi-finals, where Zidane’s new club Real Madrid were the victims.

Admittedly, the Czech does have one more chance – overturn Chelsea striker Didier Drogba‘s goal in Turin in the next fortnight and the dream is still alive. Yet I expect that won’t happen. Great players, much more than simply good ones, have a habit of being – at the last – undone.

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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