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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Ribéry steals the show

February 26, 2009

20070919elpepidep_51The Champions League last 16 has been built up as the clash of four of the game’s great managers. In Milan on Tuesday literally millions of neutrals tuned in to see José Mourinho resume hostilities with Manchester United‘s Sir Alex Ferguson, while yesterday fans at the Bridge welcomed back Claudio Ranieri and watch the Tinkerman pit his wits against new Chelsea manager Guus Hiddink. Both games ended in good results for their respective Premiership representatives. But the highlight of the first leg matches, at least, was not the elaborate play acted out by these forceful characters before and immediately after the final whistle. It was the performances on the pitch by two players from among the less well heralded teams left in the competition.

I’ve spoken on this blog before about my admiration for Bayern Munich‘s midfield maestro Franck Ribéry, and the Frenchman duly delivered yet again with two goals and two assist in the German team’s 5-0 away demolition of Sporting Lisbon. His opening goal in Lisbon was a joy to behold as Ribéry barged past two defenders before coolly slotting home. But it was clear throughout the 90 minutes that the former Marseille and Galatasary man was pulling all the strings for Bayern, linking up with big Italian front man Luca Toni with devastating effect. On the basis of this performance, it would be no exaggeration to say that Bayern Munich look like genuine contenders this year and will take some beating in the quarter finals – as long as they can keep the key attacking trio of Ribéry, Toni and Miroslav Klose fit and in form.

Another of the dark horses of the competition, Olympique Lyonnais, ran the game against Pep Guardiola‘s much fancied Barcelona side and were unlucky to have to settle for a draw. Lyon are a side 20070919elpepidep_5jam packed with talent, from powerful midfield duo Jérémy Toulalan and Jean II Makoun to coveted striker Karim Benzema. However it was an old hand who weighed in with a game changing contribution, and not for the first time. Lyon captain Juninho Pernambucano is still one of football’s best kept secrets despite nearly 100 goals in over 300 appearances for the seven times French champions. On Tuesday Barcelona fell victim once again to the Brazilian’s incredible free kicks – in 2007 he scored against the Spanish side with an effort from 45 metres out, while Bayern Munich and Real Madrid are also among his victims. Juninho has now scored 43 direct free kicks in all competitions for Lyon, and could justifiably claim to be the natural successor to David Beckham‘s dead ball specialist crown.

While most of the 72,000 people who have bought tickets for the final in Rome will be hoping to see the like of Cristiano RonaldoKaka or Lionel Messi gracing the field, after this week’s matches I would be more than content to see Ribéry and Juninho battle it out for the title of most underrated playmaker in Europe.

See one of Juninho’s trademark free-kicks