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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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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Football in the recession

June 21, 2009

hammer_to_piggy_bankAny regular followers of this blog will know that updates have been few and far between since May. As the football season has reached its dramatic climax and the transfer window has reopened, the world of work has come under an enormous and ever increasing amount of pressure from the recession. My day job is looking after the marketing for a company called FreshMinds, and our recruitment arm has been at the coal face of the heavy hit job market. So there’s been plenty in the office to keep me busy.

Why then, you might ask, is the transfer market still so robust? While there are announcements of mass redundancies, record levels of unemployment and fewer opportunities for 20-something graduates, the likes Kaká, Cristiano Ronaldo and even Gareth Barry can expect enormous pay rises and staggering signing on fees for their respective transfers to Real Madrid and Manchester City. “Vulgar” – that’s how England and Manchester United legend Sir Bobby Charlton has described Ronaldo’s £80 million transfer fee. And in the context of the wider economy, that’s exactly how the summer silly season feels.

Of course, there are good reasons for this almost counter-cyclical reaction to the recession in football. Firstly, the financial clout of clubs like Manchester City, Chelsea and now even Sunderland is funded through the personal wealth of just one individual. Yes, Roman Abramovich has seen his fortune hit to the tune of more than three billion pounds. But he still has an estimated £7.7 billion – or enough to buy 96 Cristiano Ronaldos or 642 Gareth Barrys. Now Real Madrid is a different kettle of fish, because the Spanish club is built around a membership model with the president (the closest equivalent to an owner) elected by the fans. So the cash for Kaká and Ronaldo has not come from Florentino Pérez‘s back pocket. Indeed, the source of their new found wealth isn’t entirely clear. However, it’s probably safe to assume that it’s derived from a mix of leveraged debt, government backing and Pérez’s promise of an epic volume of shirt sales.

We are also very lucky in this country to have fans who value the sport so highly that they are willing to sacrifice a great deal else in order to support their teams in the Premiership, Championship and league. Even in the midst of the deepest recession since the Second World War, preliminary sales of season tickets have remained pretty healthy, while the top Premier League teams can expect sell outs at the vast majority of their games. As a result, these clubs are able to generate a huge regular income to entice new players and pay the existing ones. What’s more, they are also able to attract wealthy backers (queue Abramovich, the Glazer family and Ellis Short) as going financial concerns.

Admittedly, there are signs that the good times are coming to an end. Setanta‘s failure to pay the Premier League for television rights is an indication that the appetite to watch football is no longer enough to sustain a business. Then there’s the plights of Southampton, Leeds United and notably Luton. Leeds are an interesting example, not least because they suffered their darkest days during the height of the boom – perhaps a better example of financial mismanagement than a victim of the credit crunch. Newcastle take note. But for every Man City or Real Madrid out there, it is worth bearing in mind there’s probably also a clutch of smaller football clubs on the edge. With less of their games on show after the near collapse of Setanta, and fewer opportunities for young British footballers, the true impact of the recession is likely to be felt much more in the grass roots of the game than at football’s top table.

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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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Zola’s West Ham project begins to bear fruit

March 1, 2009

Gianfranco Zola‘s West Ham moved up to seventh in the Premiership after disposing of Mark Hughes‘ expensively assembled Manchester City project at Upton Park this afternoon.

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The two clubs could hardly have been run more differently this season. Zola has built a team moulded in his image – at its best free flowing and beautiful, at its worst a little diminutive on the pitch. Hughes, on the other hand, has failed to stamp his personality on Manchester City with the same degree of success as at Blackburn Rovers or with Wales. Blackburn were a team that had a solid foundation built around big-hearted and just generally big players like Christopher Samba, Ryan Nelson and Roque Santa Cruz. On paper, Richard DunneMicah Richards and company looked to be made of the same stuff. Instead, they have proved to be more like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man – seemingly huge but actually soft, vulnerable and all too easily defeated by a bit of total protonic reversal. Or, in Manchester City‘s case, Jack Collison.

Then there’s the small matter of money. West Ham are a club teetering on the brink of annihilation, while Manchester City have a virtually bottomless pit of dirhams for transfer fees and exorbitant wages. Hughes spent January splashing the cash, bringing in Wayne BridgeNigel de Jong and Craig Bellamy for a combined fee of over £40 million, while West Ham‘s biggest achievement in the transfer window was keeping hold of most of their star players (Bellamy excluded, of course).

Then finally – and crucially – there’s the difference on the pitch, underlined by West Ham‘s 1-0 win over Manchester City on Sunday. The Hammers were dominant throughout, with their one January signing Savio Nsereko instrumental in Collison’s goal and Scott Parker adding real bite to all the delicate touches being exchanged in midfield. Based on this performance, it should come as no surprise that Chelsea have been linked with an approach for Zola where just eight months ago they lost out on Hughes as their first choice to replace Avram Grant. At the moment West Ham and City are chalk and cheese. And I think Roman Abramovich might just have a taste for expensive Italian gorgonzola.

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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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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