Monday, December 21, 2009

Forever and Ever

Its always uniquely satisfying to see a young player whose talent you have admired from early in his career blossom and start to fulfil some of his potential. That strange sense of ownership a fan can have with a player is unavoidable and only sharpens the pleasure of seeing him do well.

Tomorrow night Argentina play the Johan Cruyff managed-Catalonia National team (which counts such stars as Carlos Puyol, Victor Valdes, Bojan, Xavi, Cesc Fabregas and Gerard Pique amongst its ranks) in a friendly in Barcelona. Argentine Coach Diego Maradona is currently suspended from any public football-related activities by FIFA due to his foul-mouthed tirade at the press in the immediate aftermath of his sides win over Uruguay and qualification for the World Cup, but he did pick the squad for the game, and as is now-habitual, he named a couple of players he hasn't used before (one of the startling features of Maradona's reign so far has been the sheer quantity of players selected and used, if only briefly). Wonderboy playmaker Javier Pastore has been a firm favourite of the Argentine press for the last year due to his elegant, incisive performances for Huracan, but Maradona had previously ignored him. His summer transfer to Palermo and recent good form seem to have altered this and he has received his first call-up. But the player whose selection is most satisfying to me is Ever Banega.

Banega came up through the youth teams at Boca Juniors and made his senior debut in February 2007 at just 18. Replacing a Real Madrid-bound Fernando Gago in the traditional Number 5 position in defensive midfield he distinguished himself to such an extent that some Boca fans were upset that the return of former Boca legend Juan Roman Riquelme to the club might harm Banega's development. Instead, Banega and Riquelme dovetailed beautifully as Boca won the Copa Libertadores - South America's equivalent to the Champions League - in 2007. After less than a year as a regular in Boca's first team, Banega was transferred to Valencia for €18 million. But he arrived at a club on the brink of disaster, riven with financial difficulties and internal politics. He didn't help himself with a widely circulated internet chatroom sex video and his early performances weren't good enough to help him break into a team with a lot of competition for places in midfield. After only half a Season, he went on loan to Atletico Madrid, where again he was unable to establish himself in the first team, generally making appearances from the bench and contributing little.

A return to Valencia in the summer meant that he was at the centre of much transfer speculation. He was linked to a host of British clubs - Everton were seemingly closest - but new Valencia coach Unai Emery seems to rate Banega more highly than his predecessors did, and he has arguably been the side's midfield lynchpin so far this Season, finally recapturing his Boca form in Europe and earning his International recall. He has previously played twice for the Senior National team after winning caps at every single youth level, playing in the Olympic Gold Medal-winning team and captaining the Under 21 team in the tournament at that level in Toulon in May. The prospect of him linking up in central midfield with Pastore, or indeed with Angel Di Maria or Mario Bolatti, could prove an exciting glimpse into the future for Argentine football fans.

Banega's most obvious quality is his passing ability, evident from his Boca debut. He is admirably two-footed, though he favours his right, possesses great touch and control, and is adept at mixing up his game with a variety of long and short balls. He never seemed a classical Number 5 at Boca, surging from deep with the ball (he is deceptively pacy) more than a Mascherano or Redondo would and obviously fond of the playmaker role behind the forwards, from where he can inflict real damage with his vision and precise, incisive through-balls. Currently he alternates at Valencia, carrying much of the creative threat from midfield (especially in the recent absence of David Silva) but also doing his share of defensive work. His positional sense is perhaps a weakness, but he compensates with his pace and a nice ability to time a clean tackle. He formed such an effective duo with Riquelme because he knew when to time his runs forward, and when to hold and because he could always deliver the ball accurately to the Playmaker, often first time. Like Riquelme, he is capable of utterly dictating the pace of a game, and when he is playing well, everything goes through him. Another slight weakness may be a slightly immature need to always attempt the perfect defence-splitting pass, but then who can blame him when he is so evidently capable of doing just that?
But he is the best sort of Argentine midfielder - always open and hungry for possession, generally aware of what he wants to do with the ball before he receives it, blessed with the technical ability to execute his intent, and driven by a fierce competitive spirit which means that he is usually in the thick of the battle.

His recent rejuvenation at Valencia doesn't really surprise me. He was always plainly a great talent, and it was just a question of when he would prove that. Hopefully Maradona will let him start tomorrow night and he will prove it in the National shirt too.

A few YouTube highlights:

A general compilation of flicks and tricks:

Banega showing his class, and range of passing, for Boca against Milan in the World Club championship final:

Nothing quite as lovely as a nicely done nutmeg, and there is one at 1:46 in this video, which is otherwise a selection of some perfect through-balls and nice short pass and move play:

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