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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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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A little bit of history repeating

May 7, 2009

thierry-henry-barcelona-001Another Champions League semi-final, another season of near misses all but complete for Chelsea fans. Even victory over Everton in the FA Cup would do little to make up for another 12 months of thwarted dreams. I never thought I would say this, but I can almost sympathise with Didier Drogba‘s reaction. The man who behaved so despicably in the final last year with his petulant slap can look upon his latest disciplinary slip with a manly pride. Not because the referee was wrong (he was, but it’s an impossible job and the harsh justice was distributed evenly, as Éric Abidal will tell you). Rather, because, like me, Drogba was enraged by the latest in a string of cruel twists of fate that started in Monaco five years ago.

That day, former Chelsea man Didier Deschamps oversaw 10 man Monaco as the French club hit two late goals to seal a 3-1 first leg win on the way to a 5-3 aggregate win. A year later and Luis García‘s ghost goal put Liverpool through to the final. Last year, it was John Terry‘s penalty miss that spelled out tragic disaster. And last night, 10 man Barcelona and their Spanish wizard Andrés Iniesta chiseled out the latest chapter in this liturgy of failure. Like a romantic hero, Chelsea seem destined to always fall at the last hurdle – their tragic flaw in character a willingness to implode at the most inopportune moments. Except, unlike a romantic hero, everybody hates us.

To be fair, there is something refreshing about the line-up for the Champions League final. For the first time I can remember, the two finalists have been consistently playing Europe’s best football over the course of the season. It’s also the first time this century that both finalists top their respective domestic leagues. But that will come as little comfort to any Chelsea fan, particularly after their heroics (yes, that word again) over two legs against a Barcelona team that has scored more than 100 league goals this season.

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Who are Europe’s top marksmen?

March 28, 2009

Marc Janko

Last season Manchester United‘s Cristiano Ronaldo took no prisoners as he slotted, slammed and stroked 31 goals past the Premiership‘s goalkeepers. In doing so, he became the first winger in history to earn the European Golden Shoe for the continent’s top goal scorer in 2007-8. This season form and fitness have contrived to take the Portuguese winger out of the race to retain his coveted title – so who are the main contenders to usurp his thrown?

German Bundesliga – Grafite

In reality, Grafite currently shares top spot in the Bundesliga scoring charts with Vedad Ibišević, the Bosnian striker who led newly promoted 1899 Hoffenheim to the summit of German football before rupturing his anterior cruciate ligament to prematurely end his season. So VfL Wolfsburg‘s Brazilian striker has had his chance to shine, becoming one of European football’s hottest properties with 18 goals. Wolfsburg are one of four sides in contention for this season’s domestic title, and Grafite seems sure to profit from former Bayern Munich coach Felix Magath‘s tight regime. After all, Grafite knows exactly what it takes to slay Wolfsburg’s title rival giants – he was part of the São Paulo side that beat Liverpool in the 2005 FIFA Club World Championship.

Italian Serie A – Zlatan Ibrahimović and Marco Di Vaio

Head to head at the top of Serie A‘s scoring charts are Inter Milan legend Zlatan Ibrahimović and Bologna frontman Marco Di Vaio. While Zlatan needs no introductions (he was described by manager José Mourinho as the best player in the world earlier this season, and is certainly its highest paid), Di Vaio is one of football’s journeymen. In fact, at 32 Bologna is his ninth club – an ominous statistic, although his former employers have included such luminaries as Lazio, Juventus, Valencia and Monaco, so life at the game’s top table should come as nothing new to the Italian.

Spanish La Liga – Samuel Eto’o

Barcelona‘s Samuel Eto’o has to be a frontrunner for the Golden Shoe after 25 goals so far this season as the needle point of new coach Josep Guardiola‘s expansive brand of football. Interesting or unexpected? Well, no. But kudos to the Cameroonian striker for retaining his place after rumours of an exodus at Barcelona in the summer and for taking his goal tally at the club past the 100 mark this season, to 102 from just 135 league appearances.

French Ligue 1 – André-Pierre Gignac

Is it possible to sound more French? I suspect not… and André-Pierre Gignac is living up to the country’s history of producing extraordinary goal scorers with 18 this season. The 23-year-old has blossomed after replacing Bolton‘s Johan Elmander in the Toulouse team this season, earning a call up to the national side for the first time. Behind him in the scoring tables is Paris Saint-Germain‘s Guillaume Hoarau, who earned a move to the capital after a return of 28 goals last season with Le Havre.

The Premiership – Nicolas Anelka

Nicolas Anelka finally looks to have found his place in life at Chelsea under first Luiz Felipe Scolari and then Guus Hiddink. He has all the qualities of the perfect forward – speed, positioning and a fizzing right foot, even if he does appear to lack motivation on occasion. But with just 15 goals, he is hardly a contender for Ronaldo’s mantle, demonstrating the paucity of top strikers in the Premiership this season.

The Verdict

The likeliest winner from Europe’s five biggest leagues looks to be Samuel Eto’o as the first from any of the divisions to pass the 20 goal mark. But this season there may just be a small chance of one of the continent’s less illustrious leagues springing a surprise. Players in the so-called lesser leagues earn fewer points for every goal they score, so the last player to overcome this weighting system was Sporting Clube de Portugal‘s Mário Jardel (who went on to play for Bolton and contend for the separate title of the Premiership‘s most overweight player ever). This year, Red Bull Salzburg player Marc Janko will have to do even more by outscoring Eto’o in the Austrian Bundesliga to win the title. And he might just do it. Janko kicked off the season with five goals in two games and by December had scored 45. With only league goals counting, he will have to improve on a tally of 33 in 27 matches, although to date he has scored five hat tricks this season and four in one game as a second-half substitute against SCR Altach to help Salzburg win 4-3 and demonstrate that anything is possible.

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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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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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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