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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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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Another reason to love José Mourinho

March 12, 2009

jose-mourinhoMy sense of grief at the thought of not spending more time in the company of a certain Mr. José Mourinho after his Inter Milan side crashed out against Manchester United last night has already abated. Not because I won’t miss the lovable Portuguese rogue. But because José is determined not to go down without a fight. Literally.

First, Mourinho does the gallant thing. Blame Italy, the country he will be returning to, and not Inter Milan or even Manchester United. Next, heap praise on his victorious rivals, claim they’re on for a clean sweep of trophies and all the time make sure that he – and not Manchester United – are the centre of attention. And then, as if that wasn’t quite enough, he punches a United fan in the face outside Old Trafford. I know I should be shocked, appalled even, but the truth is that this most recent act of incomprehensible insanity is precisely Mourinho’s crowning glory in my eyes. Just like watching Phil Brown sitting Hull down in the middle of the pitch to give them a half-time team talk dressing down, or Zinedine Zidane headbutting Marco Materazzi, it is precisely Mourinho’s violent unpredictability that makes him so enigmatic – enticing even.

The reality is that management at the top of the Premiership has become dull, sterilised even. Arsène Wenger‘s idea of losing his cool is signing a player who, shock horror, isn’t from France (queue Andrei Arshavin). While Rafa Benítez enjoys publically crumbling into pieces, he still does so in a quiet kind of way, while Chelsea have ditched Luiz Felipe Scolari for a more sanitised alternative. Even Sir Alex Ferguson, once famed for his outbursts and for kicking a boot at David Beckham, has mellowed. Now when he gets really angry, he simply buys a cheaper bottle of red wine from Oddbins to share with the opposition’s manager.

Mourinho once questioned if Barcelona‘s Lionel Messi was prone to over egging challenges in matches: “‘Can Messi be suspended for acting? Barcelona is a very cultural city. You know all about theatre. You have theatres of high quality.” At the time it was a controversial comment. Looking back at it now, it feels like a poignant reminder of precisely the kind of theatre the Premiership has lacked in Mourinho’s absence. Come home soon, José.

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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


What do you Hiddink?

February 19, 2009

hiddink1Guus Hiddink faces his first big challenge as Chelsea coach against high-flying Aston Villa on Saturday. The importance of this fixture against the club immediately above Chelsea in the Premiership has doubtless not been lost on the new Dutch manager. But can any result turn Chelsea into winners after the circumstances that have beset the London club over the past two weeks?

I don’t think so. Even if Hiddink can mastermind victory over Villa by springing a surprise or two (for example thrusting Michael Mancienne into the action), I don’t believe one win – or even a piece of silverware – can undo the long-term damage Scolari’s sacking has done to the club. For starters, Hiddink isn’t just a part-time replacement for a full-time manager. Along with Scolari, Chelsea dismissed Flavio Teixeira, Darlan Schneider and Carlos Pracidelli from their backroom team. So Hiddink is a part-time replacement for a manager, an assistant manager, a fitness coach and a goalkeeping coach. And given the short term nature of his contract, Hiddink seems both unlikely and unwilling to bring in any additional support – despite the availability of a ready-made assistant like, say, former Chelsea star Gus Poyet.

Then there’s the problem of preparing for the summer transfer window. Last season, before Luiz Felipe Scolari arrived at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea had already splashed out £16.3m on José Bosingwa. Neither Scolari or his predecessor Avram Grant has been able to stamp their mark on a squad that has lost key peripheral players including Claude Makélélé and Wayne Bridge in the past six months. Makélélé’s loss in particular has had a visible impact on the team, with his replacement Deco so clearly unfit for task that Scolari was forced to look to German Bundesliga and Brazil flop Mineiro for back up. With news breaking today that Hiddink intends to bring Russian crony and CSKA Moscow winger Yuri Zhirkov to Stamford Bridge – regardless of whether or not he is still manager by the time the player arrives – there is surely a possibility that his successor will be lumbered with yet another unwanted new arrival with allegiances to the former regime.

Of course, it is not Hiddink’s job to worry about these details. After all, he has enough on his plate holding down his five jobs (at last count). Rather, they are problems for his successor – Carlo Ancelotti perhaps? Which is a great shame, because Hiddink is absolutely the right man to take Chelsea to the next level, namely Premiership and European success on a consistent basis. But no manager can deliver all that in a fist full of months: just ask Sir Alex Ferguson, who took three years to assert his vision on Manchester United. Or even Hiddink himself, who was given just seven months to turn around Real Madrid in 1998. And, for the record, couldn’t.

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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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