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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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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Premiership cuts its nose off to spite its face

March 9, 2009

 
The days of the great British colonial empire may have faded into sepia, along with the fortunes of our national football, rugby and cricket teams. But there is still one realm where we continue to rule the waves – European club football. After last season’s Champions League final (effectively a showcase for the top two teams in the Premiership), this year’s last 16 once again features four English clubs in excellent positions to progress after their first round ties. But is the Premiership about to become the victim of its own success? As well as becoming the sport’s biggest importers of talent, the Premiership veraciously exports players and coaches to clubs in Europe at a breakneck pace. Of the four opponents waiting for Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal later this week, three are managed by former Premier League managers (Claudio Ranieri at Juventus, Juande Ramos at Real Madrid, and, of course, José Mourinho at Inter Milan). And all four of this week’s Champions League opponents are similarly studded with players who have plied their trade in the Premiership, know all about its top clubs and – most importantly of all – understand how to stop them. Here are my pick of the ex-Premiership stars who stand between our British boys and a prolonged jaunt on the continent.

Patrick Vieira, Inter Milan, formerly Arsenal
patrick-vieiraPatrick Vieira won three Premiership titles at Arsenal and captained the club to an unbeaten season in 2004, so he knows better than most how to shut Man United out of a game. Sir Alex Ferguson is a noted admirer of the Frenchman and tried to secure his services after Juventus’ relegation in 2006. Vieira has been in and out of the Inter team this season thanks to injury and his fractious relationship with Mourinho, but if he is thrown into action against Man United he still has the legs, lungs and drive to change the shape of a match.

Arjen Robben, Real Madrid, formerly Chelsea
arjen-robben1As a Chelsea fan, Arjen Robben represents all the hopes and dreams that came with the Roman Abramovich revolution. His pace, creativity and eye for goal led to a string of matches in Mourinho’s first season with club that were – to my mind – the epitome of everything I always wanted Chelsea to be. I even remember describing him as Gianfrano Zola‘s natural successor – that’s how good Robben was. Years of long-term injury have somewhat curtailed his development, but at the peak of his form I still believe he is the only player capable of challenging Cristiano Ronaldo‘s claim to be the best wide man in the game. Liverpool will doubtless be a little envious of his turn of pace and ability to create something out of nothing.

john-arne-riiseJohn Arne Riise, Roma, formerly Liverpool
You could ask any Premiership club fan about their memories of John Arne Riise, and virtually every one would have a story about one of his trademark left-footed, long-ranged and unstoppable goals. In all, he scored one in every nine starts for Liverpool – an extraordinary ratio for a left back. I always believed he was treated harshly at Liverpool, who rarely made the most of his precocious talents. Fortunately, fate has been a little kinder on the Norwegian at Roma, where he has marked his arrival on Serie A this season with a first goal for the club against league leaders Internazionale.

Olof Mellberg, Juventus, formerly Aston Villa
olof-mellbergUp until last weekend, ex-Liverpool hard man Mohamed Sissoko would have been a good shout as Juventus’ player to watch on Tuesday. But injury has put the Malian midfielder’s season on ice, so up steps Aston Villa‘s very own former iceman. The Swede has added some much needed bite to Juventus’ back line this season, which will come as no surprise to Villa fans who still lament the affable defender’s departure last season. Last season, under Mellberg’s stewardship, Aston Villa gained a credible home win against Chelsea and draw their away match 4-4. That’s last 16 cup-tie winning form.

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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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Liverpool’s new kid on the block?

February 13, 2009

Any Liverpool fans who have seen the reports linking the club to Barcelona junior Gerard Deulofeu should start to get excited. The starlet has enormous potential and has already attracted attention from Premiership rivals Chelsea and Arsenal. But more than that, he comes from the same stock as Cesc Fàbregas and former Manchester United youngster Gerard Piqué, who is now back at Barcelona after a £7 million move and making a name for himself. Here’s a taster of what we’re in for if Deulofeu does move to the Premiership:

Why would Deulofeu move away from the La Liga leaders? Well English football does have a pretty good track record of developing raw talent and, crucially, blooding players at a much younger age than on the continent. Three players currently in the Premiership instantly spring to mind. The aforementioned Fàbregas is the stand out example after becoming the beating heart of an Arsenal midfield that has rarely looked short of pace, power and creativity even in the aftermath of Patrick Vieira‘s transfer away from the club. Another Arsenal fledgling, Gaël Clichy, assumed first team duties after Ashley Cole moved across the capital and has never looked back. More recently, Sir Alex Ferguson plucked Rafael da Silva from the youth system at Brazilian club Fluminense and handed him a run in the first team – landing Rafael a reputation as one of the finest young full backs in world football and increasing the anticipation surrounding the return from injury of his twin brother Fábio.

That said, they haven’t all been successful, and Liverpool has been one of the culprits of mishandling youthful potential. The French cousins Anthony Le Tallec and Florent Sinama-Pongolle, signed from Le Havre in 2001, made just 55 appearances between them in the course of a combined nine years. And the two strikers amassed a measly four goals in that entire time. Chelsea wasted an astonishing £4 million on then 16-year-old Serb Slobodan Rajković in 2005, while even Arsenal have made their mistakes with serial Serie A and Championship flop Arturo Lupoli.

Deulofeu beware – the grass isn’t always greener in a far off land, although we do get an awful lot more rain to water it.

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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


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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