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.
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