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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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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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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Javier Aguirre the man for Portsmouth?

February 18, 2009

aguirre_spain_soccer_do811David James has come out twice this week to voice his support for Sven-Göran Eriksson‘s candidature to be the new Portsmouth manager. James appears to be preoccupied with the idea of a former England manager taking the hot seat at the south coast club. But other than his status in a group of alumni that includes Glenn Hoddle and Steve McLaren (neither of whom, I note, have earned a vote of support from the former Liverpool goalkeeper), does Eriksson’s CV really match up to the job?

The Swede’s success has come almost exclusively at clubs with extravagant budgets, in particular at a Lazio backed by millionaire investor Sergio Cragnotti, who plunged some £274 million into the team to buy players like Pavel Nedvěd and Christian Vieri. At Manchester City, he spent a small fortune on a cluster of players including Elano, Valeri Bojinov, Benjani Mwaruwari and Gelson Fernandes – none of whom were able to acclimatise to the Premier League quickly enough or gel well enough to keep Eriksson in his job.

So rather than turn to a former England don, perhaps Portsmouth should be looking to one of Sven’s predecessors in his incumbent position at Mexico. Javier Aguirre led the Central American side to victories over Croatia and Ecuador as well as a creditible draw with Italy in the 2002 World Cup before a heartbreaking loss to rivals USA in the second round. But it is his subsequent achievements in club management that really stand out. On a shoe string budget Aquirre led unfashionable Spanish team Osasuna to a Champions League spot ahead of Juande RamosSevilla in 2006, before taking them to the UEFA Cup semi-finals a year later (ironically losing out to Sevilla).

A more recent but less successful spell with Atlético Madrid still secured the La Liga side a top four and Champions League place for the first time in 12 years. Yet despite setting a new record for goals scored at home, the Mexican has found himself deemed surplus to requirements at the Vicente Calderón. Atlético‘s loss could prove Portsmouth’s gain – even before losing his job, Aguirre announced his ‘dream’ to manage in the Premiership to ESPN programme, Futbol Picante. He may not be the flashy big name that David James has been dreaming of, but Aquirre could bring back to Portsmouth precisely what they have been missing since Harry Redknapp‘s defection to Tottenham – a voice of experience. Not of managing England, perhaps, but of taking little fancied football clubs to new heights.

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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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Mexico’s Golden Generation

February 4, 2009

10_24409tSven-Göran Eriksson‘s decision to become head coach of the Mexican football team last year after successfully rebuilding his reputation as a club manager at Manchester City may have seemed a little eccentric. But for all his failings, as both England manager and Premiership boss Sven has been nothing if not cooly analytical. Even his infamous selection of Theo Walcott for the 2006 World Cup was a carefully calculated gamble (albeit one that didn’t pay off).

Mexico is a country that is on the verge of a major break through on the international football scene. The Under-17s helped the country to win it’s first major global competition at the 2005 FIFA World Championship. They beat a much fancied Brazil side including Manchester United‘s Anderson and Arsenal midfielder Denílson in the final after thrashing a similarly talented Dutch side 4-0 in the last four. This week Sven announced the senior squad for Mexico’s international derby against the United States, and four of the World Championship juniors of 2005 have made the step up (with two more unavailable through suspention). So how are Mexico’s “Golden Generation” progressing under the Swede’s tutelage?

Guillermo Ochoa

The 23-year-old goalkeeper and one of the elder statesmen of the World Championship side, Ochoa was also in Mexixo’s 2006 World Cup squad as a back-up goalkeeper. Despite making over 150 appearances for his club side Club América, has struggled to fill the boots of goalkeeping legend Oswaldo Sánchez (who at 35 is still kicking around) and establish a regular spot in the senior international side.

 Omar Esparza

A talented right back who scored the second goal in the Under 17s 3-0 defeat of Brazil in the 2005 finals, two years after that game Esparza helped Mexico’s Under-20 side to a World Cup quarter final. Made his first senior appearance in August, and could well be the next player from that World Championship team to move to Europe, although he’ll need to bulk up before then.

Giovanni Dos Santos

Even before Dos Santos walked on to the pitch wearing the red, white and green of Mexico he had footballing pedigree. The son of Brazilian footballer and soccer school founder Zizinho, both Giovanni and brother Jonathan came from Barcelona stock. Set up half of all the goals scored by Mexico in the World Championship, he was named the tournament’s second best player. Has failed to make his mark at Tottenham since a summer move and has been linked to Chelsea and Portsmouth – but whoever lands him has an awfully big talent on their hands.

Carlos Vela

Top scorer in the World Championship with five goals, Vela earned himself a move to Arsenal after the tournament. Although we haven’t seen a great deal of him in the Premiership as yet, defenders in La Liga will be all too familiar with his attacking trickery after 64 appearances in Spanish football with Salamanca and OsasunaArsène Wenger brought Vela on in the game against West Ham last weekend, and if used a little less sparingly the Mexican has the talent to keep Arsenal‘s new signing Andrei Arshavin on the bench.

Certainly, if Sven can blend the new generation of players with more established stars like Barcelona‘s Rafael Márquez and former VfB Stuttgart midfielder Pável Pardo, the journey from England manager to Scandinavia’s man in Mexico could look more like a promotion than a career red herring.

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Oops, he did it Cygan

January 27, 2009

_42036994_cygan_gettyYou can count the number of bad transfer moves Arsène Wenger has made at Arsenal on one hand. Even if you have been in a freak avocado stone accident and lost three fingers and a thumb.

The name Pascal Cygan must still make Wenger flinch. The great French coach could probably justify the exorbitant fee spent on José Antonio Reyes as a long-term investment that never quite panned out. There are a bunch of people in the City who would doubtless understand and probably now have the time to listen. But the €3 million he spent on his cumbersome compatriot would look dodgy even on the books of Lehmann Brothers.

In Wenger’s defence, Cygan has always disguised his flaws well – behind awards, including France’s Etoile d’Or for his “consistent” performances at Lille, and behind trophies, inexplicably including a Premiership title in 2003-4. It wasn’t until you actually saw him try to run, or kick a football, or turn in a small space, that his failings as a player became apparent.

This weekend, another coach was left red in the cheeks by a Cygan masterclass in defending. Villareal‘s eminent Chilean coach Manuel Pellegrini, who has used Cygan sparingly during his three years at the club – just 42 times, in fact – paid the ultimate price for selecting the former Arsenal man against Osasuna this Saturday. With Pellegrini’s side leading 1-0 thanks to a fine first-half goal from former Manchester United man Giuseppe Rossi, Cygan fluffed a routine clearance in his own six-yard box to allow rival player Dady to seal an away draw for La Liga‘s bottom club.

You can watch the highlights from the game here, including Rossi’s sublimely taken goal. Cygan is in yellow – apparently when he left Arsenal Wenger insisted he never be allowed to wear red again. The memories were just a bit too painful.