Thursday, August 11, 2011



Aside from the usual questions, such as Who can stop Barcelona in Europe, and How long before Arsenals form utterly collapses, and Can Ibrahmovic win another League title this Season, many of the most intriguing stories in European football in the 2011-12 Season appear connected to big clubs recently given cash injections by big-money foreign purchasers. Then there are the risky transfers of young South American talent and the new Managerial appointments. Some clubs combine a few or all of these elements...

New money means a new project, new players and most startlingly, a new Coach. Spanish legend Luis Enrique, a fine player for both Real Madrid and Barcelona in his time, has been brought in to introduce some Barcelona-style magic to the Roman giants. He guided Barcelona B to third place in the Spanish Second Division in a role last occupied by one Pep Guardiola, playing football of similar style and tactical basis as that played by the European Champions.
The aim, then, will be to play beautiful possession football, and finish as high up as possible in a Serie A which looks wide open this Season. Champions Milan will start as favourites, but their weaknesses were exposed by Tottenham Hotspur in the Champions League last Season, and late wobbles hurt Napoli and Udinese, who both could have increased the pressure on an awkwardly broken-backed, if talented, Milan side. This year Inter are in transition, Napoli and Udinese will have Champions League distractions, Lazio have strengthened and Juventus have a host of new signings to bed in.
Roma face the new Season with their established performers - the likes of Totti, Pizarro and DeRossi - ageing but still classy, a few high-maintenance, high-earners transferred out (Vucinic, Riise, Mexes) and some exciting young talent to debut in Serie A. Most obvious is the undoubted talent of Bojan Kirkjic, taken from Barca with much still to prove. Then there is Erik Lamela. The young Argentine prodigy was awesome for a struggling River Plate last Season, and he may find the rhythms of Serie A much to his liking, once he's settled in. More experience was added in the shape of the wily, cynical old Gabriel Heinze, from Marseille, and goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenberg, from Ajax. How Luis Enrique persuades such a group to trust his Catalan brand of passing football in such a radically different League should be fascinating...

Legendary Holland centre forward Ruud van Nistelrooy, who has scored goals at every club he has played for, on a free transfer, but with presumably huge wages. Diminutive wunderkind attacking midfielder Diego Buonanotte, from River Plate for €4.5M. Exciting Spanish International playmaker Santiago Cazorla, attacking lynchpin for the stylish Villarreal side of the last few years, for €21M. Wily, experienced French International holding midfielder Jeremy Toulalan from Lyon, for €11M. Joaquin, Spanish International winger, from Valencia for €4.2M. Isco, a 19 year old winger of dazzling ability and potential, from Valencia for €6M. Big centre half Sergio Sanchez, from Sevilla, for €2M. Spanish International left back Nacho Monreal, from Osasuna, for €6M. Cultured, vastly experienced Dutch centre-half Joris Mathijsen from Hamburg for €2.5M.
And with a single summer of purchases, Malaga have made themselves players in La Liga. Funded by their Qatari Owner Sheikh Abdullah Al Thani, and coached by the sage Manuel Pellegrini, who did so well with modest means at Villarreal before being mistreated at Real Madrid for the crime of not being able to dislodge Barcelona from the top of the table, their new signings address every department of the team. Already possessed of a couple of exciting attackers - Julio Baptista, whose late- season form in 2010/11 basically guaranteed them a mid-table finish and young Uruguayan Seba Fernandez and Venezuelan Rondon - the additions of Buonanotte, Isco and Cazorla in particular suggest that Malaga may be one of the venues in Spain this Season for exciting attacking football. The experience of Van Nistelrooy, Toulalan, Mathijsen and Joaquin should help everybody settle in and pre-Season form has been dazzling. If it doesn't work out, well, they can just go and buy ten more players...

Very much the sleeping giants of French, if not European football, PSG have been waking up and stretching their limbs over the last couple of Seasons after years of underachievement, serious crowd trouble and flirtation with relegation. More Middle Eastern investment has meant the return of hero Leonardo as a sort of smoother-than-smooth project director, and he has overseen the acquisition of lots of exciting new players, with young French talent like striker Kevin Gamiero (€11M from Lorient), winger Jeremy Menez (€8M from Roma) and defensive midfielder Blaise Matuidi (€10M from Saint Etienne) joined by, most notably the brilliant young Argentine playmaker Javier Pastore, who cost €43M from Palermo. Pastore is worthy of the hype surrounding him, and once he finds his feet and gels with his teammates, PSG will present a serious threat in France to the likes of Lille and Marseille. Whether the solid coach Antoine Kombouare will still be there when success comes is another matter. Once a teammate of Leonardo, and making slow but steady progress at the club before it was bought out, he is tactically rigid, and falls out with players. PSG want success, and the want it now. Slow and steady likely will not do.

Marcelo "El Loco" Bielsa makes a long-awaited return to European Club Football after his brief stay at Espanyol in 1998, when he left to take over the Argentina National team after just three games. This time he's at Athletic Bilbao, a club with it's own philosophy and an academy to rival that of Barcelona, and indeed, Bielsa has one of the most exciting young squads in Spain at his disposal, containing the likes of the classy holding player Javier Martinez and towering centre-forward Fernando Llorente (both part of the World Cup winning squad), tricky, aggressive little forward/winger Iker Muniain, and new signing Ander Herrera, an imaginative, technical playmaker with vision and a work ethic. As he showed with Chile, Bielsa works well with young, flexible players, who are open to his methods and have the stamina for the hard work required, and he is already drilling Athletic in his attacking play, using Martinez as a centre back and attacking midfielder DeMarcos as a wing-back of sorts. Bilbao face Mourinho's Real Madrd in their first game, a fascinating clash of football thinkers which should be great to watch. But then, I would expect to say that of all Bielsa's Athletic Bilbao games this season. It's good to have him back in Europe. Let's hope it lasts.

Another exciting Football Thinker, Andre Villa-Boas doesn't duck any challenges. Having led Porto through an incredible Season where they went unbeaten in their domestic League, won both it and the Portugeuse Cup, then added the Europa League for good measure, he might have been tempted to stay put and see how his exciting team would do in the Champions League. But instead he accepted the poison chalice of trying to please Roman Abramovich at Chelsea, where only a League Title and/or Champions League triumph will be deemed acceptable. All that and he has to deal with the abhorrent personality of John "I quite fancy being Chelsea manager some day" Terry and the ageing legs and huge egos of Lampard, Drogba, Cole and Malouda, while trying to retrieve Fernando Torres from the depths of himself and give youthful prospects like Josh McEachran and exciting signings like Lukaku a chance to settle and play. And he only has to see off the might of the two Manchester clubs, a resurgent Liverpool and a still-dangerous Tottenham and Arsenal.
But he is the real deal. A great talker, an expert motivator, his Porto team blew teams away all last Season, and he seemed to know exactly when to tweak personnel and or formation. If anybody can do all of the above, AVB, as the Englsh Press already appear to have named him, he can.

Sporting have had a difficult last ten years. After winning the Portugeuse Championship in 2000, they have had to watch in the years since as the other two members of the "Big Three", Porto and Benfica, have swallowed up all of the titles. In the last few years, little Braga have overtaken them with a second place finish and a Europa League Final appearance. They have to console themselves with the manner in which graduates of the Sporting academy and youth systems dominate the National team (Ronaldo, Nani and Moutinho, most notably) while hoping for the return of good times. Well, this Summer there were big changes in the hope of making those changes happen. Domingos Paciência, the Coach who brought Braga to second place and that Europa League final, has been hired, and virtually an entire team of new players purchased. Some of those many signings are extremely exciting: Fabián Rinaudo, a tough, savvy defensive midfielder from Gimnasia in Argentina, Ricky van Wolfswinkel, the lanky, prolific young Dutch centre forward from FC Utrecht, Diego Capel, the unpredictable Spanish winger, from Sevilla, Diego Rubio, the exciting Chilean wunderkind striker, from Colo Colo and Jeffren, the young forward/ winger, from Barcelona.
Paciência is plainly a capable Coach, but it will take a monumental effort to overtake both the Porto team still in place and Benfica, strengthened with some astute summer signings.


Maxi Moralez to Atalanta
Arguably the best player in Argentina over the last two years or so, the little playmaker has played in Europe before. A 2008 move from Racing Club to FC Moscow lasted 6 months and 8 games and possibly came too early. His return to Argentina led to Velez Sarsfield and a crucial role in two title triumphs. How good is Moralez? So good that he was perhaps the best player in the 2007 U-20 World Cup winning side that also starred the likes of Aguero, DiMaria, Banega, DiSanto and Zarate. Small but pacy, blessed with vision and the technical ability to exploit it, a skilled dribbler with the ability to score from distance, he can dictate games but also decide them, and if he performs to his potential at Atalanta, then it won't be long before a bigger club comes in for him.

Steven Defour to Porto
The Belgian midfielder moved from Standard Liege alongside his club mate, the young French centre-half Eliaquim Mangala, after years of persistent links to Manchester United. An all-round midfielder, he has a great engine, good range of passing, tackles well and seems to think tactically. He has left his homeland at a good stage in his development, and this Season will be crucial if he is to fulfil his potential. First up, making himself a fixture in a talented Porto midfield, where he will compete with Moutinho, Belluschi,and Guarin for a place..

Gokhan Inler to Napoli
This transfer had been mooted for the last two Seasons. The one thing Napoli's impressive team lacked last Season was a truly commanding midfielder, and Inler is just that. He might be the final piece in the puzzle, and the key to a title Season by the Neapolitan giants.

Arturo Vidal to Juventus
Juve got Vidal - a versatile, industrious, dominant midfielder or defender - from Bayern Leverkusen right out from under the noses of Bayern Munich who had been linked to him for much of last Season. He is one of the transfers of the summer and Serie A should be a doodle for him.

Djibril Cisse/ Miroslav Klose to Lazio
Voila, Lazio buy themselves a new, prolific, incredibly experienced strike force in Just a few weeks. Already scoring in pre-Season and the Europa League Qualifiers, they will play in front of the awesome Brazilian playmaker Hernanes, who sometimes seemed to single-handedly keep Lazio in last seasons title race. He will notch up lots and lots of assists, and they will score lots and lots of goals, I fancy...

Sergio Canales to Valencia
A casualty of Real Madrid's stockpiling of talent - he competed with Kaka, Ozil and Granero for a single place in Mourinho's team - Valencia have bought Canales to be the player they have lacked since David Silva left for Manchester City: the schemer between the lines, the supplier of through-balls, the king of assists. They also nabbed the penetrators little Argentine winger Pablo Piatti from Almeria, and thus their attacking line-up looks rejuvenated and exciting again this year.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Latin Wonderkids 2

When I did my first "Latin Wonderkids" post a few years ago, all of the players I chose were playing in South America. In the months since, all of them bar one moved to Europe. The one who didn't had already been and returned before I wrote the piece. Young South American talent doesn't stay long in South America, and you can probably expect to see every one of the players listed below in European football over the next year or two.

Juan Manuel Iturbe of Cerro Poteno (Argentina)

Born in Argentina to Paraguayan parents, this tricky little forward has been dubbed the "Paraguayan Messi". An unfair comparison for any player, that, and yet from his appearances for Argentina in the South American U20 Championship and for Cerro Porteno in this years Copa Libertadores, it's almost understandable. Short and stocky yet with a brilliant ability to surge past players with a burst of sudden, unmatchable acceleration, the Messi comparisons stem from his habit of drifting in from the wing and combining clever one-twos with dribbles and feints. He can also finish off those moves, and his play is as reminiscent of Carlos Tevez as it is of Messi. The circumstances of his birth meant that he was eligible to play for either Argentina or Paraguay, and he opted for Argentina after appearing for different youth teams for each Country through his teens. European clubs have been sniffing around him for a couple of years, and he has already signed a pre-contract agreement with Porto, which means he officially becomes their player when he turns 18 in June. Any knowledge of Porto's transfer dealings with South America suggests that they know their business, and if that's not enough, here's some Iturbe in action:

Erik Lamela of River Plate (Argentina)

That the current River Plate first team is thriving and playing some sparkling, fluid attacking football is down mainly to the brilliance of the generation of players recently produced by the Clubs academy. Playmaker Manuel Lanzini, centre forward Gabriel Funes Mori and winger Roberto Pereyra all look to be potentially fantastic talents, but the undoubted star at the centre of this constellation is 19 year old Erik Lamela. He gained some noteriety when Barcelona tried to buy him as a 12 year old, forcing River's Chairman to offer his family financial incentives to remain in Buenos Aires. His emergence into the Senior squad has suggested Barcelona were wise to try to grab him early, as his value will only grow from now on. Possessed of an elegance and sweetness of movement which belies his lanky frame, Lamela can play on the left, but his most effective role appears to be as an enganche or playmaker. His long legs give him terrific pace, enabling him to drift effortlessly past tackles, and his left foot is a magic wand; he is already taking most of River's set-pieces and is the hub around which some lovely passing moves revolve, prompting and moving with intelligence and subtlety. River have already given him the Number 10 shirt formerly worn by such legends as Enzo Francescoli, Pablo Aimar and Ariel Ortega, which isn't bad company. But with a host of European clubs circling it seems unlikely he'll get to wear it for too long...

Lucas of Sao Paolo (Brazil)

His full name is Lucas Rodrigues Moura da Silva, so, ensuring maximum confusion when he shares a pitch with fellow Brazilian Lucas Leiva, of course he's called Lucas. He's an entirely different player, however, a stocky, quick little attacking midfielder who began his career at Corinthians before moving to Sao Paolo, where he has been compared to Kaka. That's more due to position than style, but he is as explosive as that Brazilian playmaker. He dazzled at the South American Under 20s, scoring a hat-trick in a dazzling 6-0 destruction of eventual Runners-Up Uruguay. He combines aggressive eruptions of dribbling with slide-rule passes, making him terrifying in the final third. Brazil's problem over the next decade may well be how to accomodate both him and the more widely known and equally gifted Ganso. Not a bad problem to have, admittedly.

Gio Moreno of Racing Club de Avellaneda (Colombia)

Colombian playmaker Moreno is a fantasy player, the sort who does unbelievable things, a luxury player who never bothers defending- never bothers with any of the "negative" aspects of the game - but the sort who can turn a Match in an instant. He's the kind of player who makes you remember why you love football. Elegant, technically perfect, athletic and gifted with superb imagination and vision, Colombia's National team ought to be built around him for the next ten years. His first Season with Racing Club in Argentina instantly confirmed his promise - here was a player seemingly worthy of comparison to the Leagues MVP, Juan Roman Riquelme, and bearing some similarities as a player - and he has been consistently linked with Porto among several big European clubs. A serious injury early in the Season has ruled him out for the remainder, severely damaging Racing's hopes but probably ensuring he stays in Argentina for another Season at least.

Diego Rubio of Colo Colo (Chile)

This 17 year old Chilean striker has goals in his blood. Son of former Colo-Colo forward Hugo Rubio, his brothers both play professionally in Chile and legendary striker Ivan Zamorano (ex-Real Madrid and Inter Milan) is his Godfather. So it's perhaps no surprise that he has scored five goals in his first three appearances for Colo Colo, and that there have already been calls for his selection for the Chilean squad. I've only seen highlights so can't really comment on his style as a player, but you can't argue with this impact or the finishing in this clip:

Ruben Botta of Tigre (Argentina)

This 21 year old attacking midfielder has risen to prominence this year back in Argentina at Tigre, after a baffling spell on-loan at FK Ventspils in Latvia. He came through the youth system at Boca Juniors, and can play both as playmaker and on the left side of midfield. He is exciting and inventive on the ball, with an eye for the spectacular and he seems to be growing into his talent, a good sign in a creative player:

Ivan Pillud of Racing Club de Avellaneda (Argentina)

Pressure? Try the Coach of your National Team invoking comparisons to a living legend and claiming that you can replace him. Thats what Argentina Coach Sergio Batista did when he discussed 24 year old Right Back Pillud in the same breath with Javier Zanetti. But watching Pillud for Racing Club this Season, the comparisons make sense. In a 3-4-3 formation which demands most from its wing-backs, he is a force of nature up and down the flank, displaying attacking threat, defensive sense and quite awesome stamina. He debuted at Tiro Federal in the Argentine Second Division, moved briefly to Newells Old Boys before a big transfer to Europe and Espanyol. There he barely played, and went back to Racing on loan last year. After early injury problems he has been a revelation, and is a contender for a spot in the Argentina Squad for the Copa America this Summer.

Raul Ruidiaz of Universitario (Peru)

Universitario Desportes are one of Lima's, and by extension Peru's big two alongside Allianza Lima, and their big homegrown success over the last few seasons has been 20 year old Ruidiaz, a forward heavily linked with Udinese, who probably see him as a replacement for bound-for-a-bigger-club Alexis Sanchez. The similarity there would be Ruidiaz's penetrative dribbling ability and recent nose for goal. Far from the finished article, he shows undoubted talent and promise, and a move to the right European club in a year or two might be just the thing for his development.

Bryan Carrasco of Audax Italiano (Chile)

Almost a Brazilian-style full-back in that he can play purely in defence, as a winger or as a marauding Wing-back, Chilean Carrasco has gained some notoriety of late due to a ridiculous simulation during a Chile-Ecuador U-20 Qualifying fixture a few months ago where he slapped himself in the face with an opponents hand then dived to the ground clutching himself. Vile as that behaviour may be, Carrasco is an exciting, enterprising defender, strong and fast, confident on the ball and hard in the tackle. Tottenham Hotspur have been consistently linked with him, but at 20, he's only been in the Audax Italiano Senior team since the start of this Season and perhaps needs a little more experience before he makes such a move.

Santiago Garcia of Nacional (Uruguay)

Stocky, explosive 20 year old Uruguayan striker Garcia has scored 39 goals in 69 games for Nacional of Montevideo as well as 5 in 9 for the Uruguayan U20 team. It's a matter of time before he is fighting for a place in the senior squad alongside Forlan, Suarez and Cavani, and probably only a matter of time before he's playing in Europe, too.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Magico Magico

Dept of Great Players You've Never Heard Of

Pity the ludicrously talented footballer not born in a traditional football power.

A short but telling list:
George Best (Northern Ireland), Ryan Giggs (Wales), Dejan Savicevic (Montenegro), Michael Laudrup (Denmark), Enzo Scifo (Belgium), Hugo Sanchez (Mexico), George Weah (Liberia), Gheorgi Hagi (Romania), Kenny Dalglish (Scotland), Teofilo Cubilas (Peru). I could go on and on.

But if those Gentlemen were somewhat unlucky to be denied the chance to ever earn the rank of undisputedly Great - I'm assuming Greatness comes through a combination of talent and achievement - by originating from Nations unlikely to ever contest a World Cup Final, at least most of them played at World Cups or for major Clubs, winning major honours, playing in Cup Finals, scoring legendary goals in famous games.

Fans of Cadiz, a smallish club from a lovely City in Andalucia in Southern Spain, still claim that the greatest player they ever saw came from an even smaller Football Nation, and never won a single major title in his career. His name was Jorge Alberto González Barillas. They shortened that to "Magico" Gonzalez. He came from El Salvador.

He would spend his peak years as a Footballer at Cadiz, playing there for almost a decade between 1982 and 1991, with only a brief and Ill-fated spell at Valladolid in 85/86 interrupting his time there. His problem, aside from his Salvadorean Nationality, was his love of nightlife, clubs and drinking, which meant he was sometimes in no condition to play in games. When he did play, he was a dazzling, Maradona-esque talent, his exquisite touch and dribbling combining with surging acceleration. Cadiz fans worshipped him, and he was similarly adored in Salvador, having led the National Team to their first World Cup a finals appearance in 1982. Don't believe the hype? Just take a look at him in action:

Another player revered by fans at his club but largely unknown to the rest of the world is Vassilis Hatzipanagis. Born to Greek Political Immigrants in Uzbekistan in the USSR in 1954, he played first for Pakhtakor of Tashkent before returning to his parents homeland to spend the next sixteen years of his career representing Iraklis of Salonica, for whom he played 281 times, scoring 62 goals. His long, curly hair and spectacular dribbling ability earned him Maradona comparisons, and such was his popularity with Iraklis supporters that the club were afraid to sell him despite interest from numerous sides from Europe's more glamorous leagues. He had represented the USSR at Under-21 level, and after choosing Greece as his senior International side and dazzling Athens in a solitary appearance in the white shirt in a friendly against Poland in 1976, FIFA informed him that he could no longer play for Greece.

Despite this, Greeks still regard him as their greatest player of all time, and he was part of a World XI which played the New York Cosmos in 1984 alongside the likes of Keegan, Beckenbauer and Kempes, which gives some idea of the respect those in the know had for him. So, the "Greek Maradona"? Perhaps:

The player Chileans regard as their greatest of all time is a Central defender, Elias Figueroa. He was Captain of Chile for almost sixteen years, played in three World Cups (1966, 1974 and 1982), won numerous individual awards (South American Player of the Year Three years in a row from 1974 to 1976) and dozens of titles and cups with the likes of Penarol, Internacional of Porto Allegre and Palestino.

Most often compared to Franz Beckenbauer, he was a supremely modern defender: he read the game expertly, was hard in the tackle, dominant in the air, and superbly composed and skillful on the ball. Many South Americans rate him as perhaps the greatest South American Defender of All Time.
Defenders are harder to make montages for, but heres one anyway:

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