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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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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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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Danny boy

January 23, 2009

SOCCER-EUROPE-SUPERCUP/Meet the €30 million man who might just make Andrei Arshavin‘s protracted move to Arsenal finally materialise. Danny Alves has played five games for Portugal, had never appeared in European competition before this season and was the third biggest transfer of 2008 after Dimitar Berbatov and Robinho.

So what possessed Zenit Saint Petersburg to make Danny the most expensive player in Russian Premier League history? His record at former club Dynamo Moscow had been impressive if not awe inspiring. But it was the seemingly inevitable impending transfer of club colleague Arshavin last summer that forced Zenit’s hand. Faced with losing their most prized asset in the wake of his glorious performances at Euro 2008, Danny was brought in to take over the creative torch in their midfield.

However, Arshavin was then priced out of a move to any of the long list of admirers from the Premiership, La Liga and Serie A, and Zenit were left with two attacking midfielders in their team. The result is good news for Arsenal, but even better news for Danny. Arshavin has clearly been deemed surplus to requirements by the club in light of Danny’s impressive form. The Portuguese finished second in the Premier League scoring charts with 10 goals, and was named man of the match on his debut in the UEFA Super Cup win against the champions of Europe, Manchester United. In the Champions League earlier this season he was again named man of the match as he helped tame Juventus, while Danny capped the season with a first goal for Portugal against Brazil. In short, he well and truly stole his Russian counterpart’s thunder.

It does beg the question of whether Arshavin has the mental fortitude at the age of 27 to blend his mercurial talents with the likes of Tomáš Rosický, Samir Nasri and Robin van Persie. And, perhaps more to the point, if Arsenal are chasing the wrong Zenit playmaker.

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