An all American hero

July 3, 2009

Clint_Dempsey_celeb_779981aHe conquered European champions Spain with two delicate touches of his right foot, then came within a whisper of masterminding the downfall of world football’s Goliath – mighty, magnificent Brazil – in the final of the Confederations Cup. So who is this footballing Adonis? Argentina’s beloved Leo Messi? Italy’s striking prodigy and former Manchester United youngster Giuseppe Rossi? No, it was a United States and Fulham midfielder as humble as American pie – Clint Dempsey.

His name might sound like something out of a spaghetti western, but Dempsey’s goal and assist against a Spanish side unbeaten in 35 games belatedly announced the 26-year-old’s arrival on the international stage. His opener against Brazil in the final then sealed his new found fame. The USA may have gone on the surrender their 2-0 lead, but Dempsey can rightly lay claim to being one of the tournament’s real discoveries. And, arguably, its best player (although officially he was pipped to the post by Brazil’s Kaká and Luís Fabiano).

If you think back to the 2002 World Cup, you’ll remember that Senegal’s incredible journey to the semi-finals prompted then Liverpool manager Gérard Houllier to pluck El Hadji Diouf and Salif Diao from obscurity and inflict them upon the Premiership. Now the Confederations Cup is no World Cup. Before that 2002 World Cup, Japan surprised everyone by reaching the final of the 2001 Confederation Cup on home soil, with Hidetoshi Nakata the star. But far from being headhunted by one of Europe’s top clubs, he was ditched by AS Roma and ended up at Bolton before retiring in 2006. Actually, in that respect the ultimate conclusions of his and El Hadji Diouf’s careers have not been so different.

So what next for Dempsey? Reports today have seen him linked with Everton, and he could definitely do a job operating on the opposite flank to Mikel Arteta at Goodison Park. But having watched him play for Fulham at Cravan Cottage a couple of times last season, I actually think the American is capable of performing on a bigger stage. If nothing else, his goals against Spain and Brazil have proved he has a big game mentality – and against Spain in particular, he really inspired the American team and spearheaded their shock result.

Perhaps Liverpool can be convinced to take another post-international tournament punt to bring in Dempsey. Certainly, at £4 million, he would be a fairly economical alternative to Valencia‘s David Silva – on the bench when the American embarrassed his team mates in South Africa. Failing that, I have no doubt that Roy Hodgson would be over the moon to keep a giant killer on his books as he looks to propel Fulham through their inaugural Europa League campaign.

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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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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