Welcome to my football blog. I'll be covering most of the key issues and stories which dominate top level English and European football over the coming months, and so if you love this fantastic sport as much as I do, I hope you'll appreciate reading and responding to what I've got to say.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Time for City to prove they are bigger than Tevez

Even with only half an hour remaining in a raucous Allianz Arena and his expensively-assembled team trailing by two goals, having been comprehensively outplayed by an impressive Bayern Munich side, Roberto Mancini still felt entitled to believe all was not yet lost.

After all, he still had a considerable ace up his sleeve: last season's top scorer, captain and talisman, the man who despite all his off-the-field issues and questionable temperament had dragged his team-mates out of a hole numerous times in the past, was sitting on the bench ready to try and rescue them again.

But Carlos Tevez had other ideas. Still seething at his club's refusal to allow him a 'dream' return to former club Corinthians in the summer, his pride insulted with the withdrawal of the club captaincy and relegation to mere squad status, he refused to answer his manager's call.

In a single moment, all the good work the Argentine had done since arriving at Eastlands in the summer of 2009, helping transform City from Premier League afterthoughts to Champions League qualifiers and bringing major silverware back after a 35 year absence, was undone.

He had abandoned his team in their hour of need. With a roll of the eyes and shrug of the shoulders, City's hero became their pariah.

After the match, Mancini was unequivocal in asserting that Tevez's career at the club is over. The pair have clashed many times before, but never like this.

"He has wanted to leave for the last two years," the furious Italian told reporters. "For two years I have helped him, and now he has refused to play.

"This can never happen at a top club that one player can refuse to help his team-mates in an important match like tonight.

"Do you think at Bayern Munich a player would ever behave like this? At Milan? At Manchester United? No. That is the answer. It is the same for everyone.

"If I have my way he will be out. He's finished with me."

Mancini conceded the final decision over Tevez's future is not his to make, but City's owners must back their manager when deciding how to handle the affair in the coming days.

To do any less would be to make his position almost untenable, and the Italian's departure at this crucial stage would destroy the team's promising development so far this term.

But there is also the more fundamental point that Mancini is right. A club with aspirations to join Europe's top table cannot, under any circumstances, tolerate behaviour which undermines the authority of the manager and, even more importantly, inhibits the team.

The baggage which inevitably comes with Tevez means he was only a worthwhile investment for City whilst he maintained the professionalism on the pitch for which he has always been known and respected. Last night in Munich he betrayed the only part of his character which ever did him credit.

Moreover, City are fast approaching the stage where they no longer need their troubled but talented striker. Tevez may have considered himself bigger than the Manchester City he signed for in 2009, but he is most certainly not bigger than the club with whom he last night burned his bridges.

City now possess the infrastructure and playing talent to establish themselves for years to come as one of the dominant forces in the Premier League and, despite their hitherto inauspicious debut, the Champions League too. They possess these things with or without Tevez.

In fact, the Argentine has now revealed himself to be the biggest obstacle to City achieving their long-term goals. His unprofessionalism and selfish attitude have created a poisonous atmosphere around Eastlands which could seriously undermine the team's efforts if he is allowed to remain.

Therefore, the time is right for City to discard him. If he truly did refuse to play on Tuesday then he is in breach of contract, in which case the club should be able to dismiss him without paying compensation and, should they choose, even battle him in the courts for damages.

The main argument against releasing Tevez from his contract is that making him a free agent would simply mean giving him what he's wanted all along - an easy route out of Manchester.

But City's concern at this juncture should not be the petty desire to take their revenge on a player who has caused them a great humiliation, intentional or not, on the very biggest of stages.

For what would it achieve to make Tevez rot in the reserves until January or longer?

It would ensure only that the issue rumbles on, distracting the club from the more important business of winning matches and unfairly deflecting attention from their achievements.

The biggest clubs do not allow individual players either to hold them to ransom or become an embarassing sideshow. Tevez is guilty on both counts.

If City wish to be considered among Europe's finest, they will dump him and move on to bigger and better things.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

European Football's Rising Stars 2011/12

It’s that time again, folks. Just like last year, I’ve scoured Europe and picked five top prospects from each of the continent’s biggest leagues (England, Spain, Italy, Germany), as well as five of the best of the rest.

But this is not simply a list of the best young players in Europe. It is rather a list of the young players who I feel will be able to take a big step forward in their careers this season, whether it be those looking to secure a move to a big club or those who are already at one and are looking to break into the first team.

Last year’s list was a bit hit and miss. For every Jack Wilshere, Javier Hernandez or Javier Pastore, there was a Sofiane Feghouli, Khouma Babacar or Diego Contento. Who? Exactly.

But hopefully I’ll fare better this time.

Finally, before we start, special thanks goes to Shaun Ottway, Nice Touch For A Big Man’s resident German football expert, for helping me identify the brightest young Bundesliga talents.

And so, without further Adu (little Rising Stars joke there…ahem), here is this year’s list…

Premier League

Aaron Ramsey, Arsenal

Were it not for a cruel twist of fate, Aaron Ramsey would probably already be star.

The 20-year-old midfielder was blossoming into an important member of the Arsenal squad before a challenge from Stoke City’s Ryan Shawcross in a Premier League match last February left his leg broken in two places.

Nine months of inactivity followed, but since he returned to action last November, Ramsey appears determined to make up for lost time and show the Gunners exactly what persuaded boss Arsene Wenger to pay Cardiff £5million to bring him to the Emirates Stadium at the tender age of 17.

Armed with superb technique, great vision, two good feet and an eye for goal, Ramsey has all the tools he needs to make a big impact on Arsenal’s trophy quest this season. Now Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri have left, he’ll have to.

Kieran Gibbs, Arsenal
Another Arsenal prospect blighted by frequent visits to the treatment table, left-back Kieran Gibbs has nonetheless shown more than enough ability to justify the “next Ashley Cole” tag he has been saddled with ever since making his senior debut for the Gunners as a 17-year-old.

He may still be a little unrefined defensively, but Gibbs’ rich promise is there for all to see. Injuries aside he is a superb athlete, and so comfortable on the ball that England Under-21 coach Stuart Pearce has not hesitated to thrust him into the centre of midfield on several occasions.

With Gael Clichy having departed for Manchester City this summer, Gibbs now has the opportunity to battle young Frenchman Armand Traore for the Gunners’ first choice left-back berth. If he can keep himself fit, it won’t be much of a contest.

Daniel Sturridge, Chelsea

Manchester City are only now beginning to realize what a costly mistake it may have been to let Daniel Sturridge leave for Chelsea for a fairly nominal fee in 2009.

After suffering from a lack of first team opportunities at Stamford Bridge, he went on loan to Bolton for the second half of last season, showcasing the clever movement, vision and clinical finishing which marks him out as one of the most talented young strikers in England.

Now back at Chelsea after again catching the eye in this summer’s European Under-21 Championships, Sturridge is looking for his chance. Even in spite of the Blues’ rich attacking resources, the feeling is he’ll get it.

Kyle Walker, Tottenham Hotspur

Unlike many others on this list, Kyle Walker has only really come to the fore in the last twelve months.

The 21-year-old initially failed to make an impact when he arrived at White Hart Lane in 2009, and instead it was a trio of loan spells – at former club Sheffield United, QPR and most recently Aston Villa – which helped turn this promising young right-back into a top prospect.

Walker is a strong, quick, agile defender who provides a potent attacking threat with his rampaging runs down the right flank. On the rare occasions his defensive positioning lets him down, his searing pace usually gets him out of trouble.

He should get his chance at Spurs this season but, even if he doesn’t, a host of other Premier League clubs would be willing to give him the platform he needs. Either way, he’s one to watch.

Chris Smalling, Manchester United

Along with Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez and Rafael, Chris Smalling could make a strong case for being Manchester United’s most improved young player last season - not bad going for a defender who, up until three years ago, was plying his trade outside the professional ranks with non-league Maidstone United.

The 21-year-old then continued his impressive form for England at the European Under-21 Championships this summer, forming a formidable centre-back pairing with new clubmate Phil Jones in spite of the team’s disappointing overall showing in the tournament.

Fast, strong, reliable in the air and with an impressive reading of the game, Smalling conjures memories of a young Rio Ferdinand. Fitting then, that he should be the old man’s successor for club and country.

With Ferdinand’s body continuing to be ravaged by injury, expect the changing of the guard to begin this season.

La Liga

Iker Muniain, Athletic Bilbao

Hailed in some quarters as “The Basque Messi”, this young jewel in Athletic Bilbao’s ranks has a long, long way to go if he is to truly justify a comparison to the Argentine phenomenon, but his promise is there for all to see.

At 16, Muniain became Athletic’s youngest ever senior player. Only a week later, he became their youngest ever scorer, and later the youngest ever scorer in La Liga. Now 18, the tricky winger has already cemented his place as one of the first names on the team sheet.

Having achieved everything he has in his career significantly ahead of time, it’s no surprise Muniain is a little cocky. The nickname “Bart”, given to him by his teammates, is just as much due to his brash, cheeky persona as to any physical resemblance to the Simpsons character.

But his talent is equally obvious. He has superb balance, skill and dribbling ability, allied with the awareness which is fast becoming the hallmark of Spanish midfielders. If he continues to progress at such a spectacular rate this season, expect a top club to come calling.

Joel Robles, Atletico Madrid

It turns out Atletico Madrid might not miss David De Gea that much after all – and not because Belgian teenage sensation Thibaut Courtois has arrived on loan from Chelsea.

It’s because the club feels it already has the new Manchester United stopper’s natural successor waiting in the wings. Joel Robles, or more simply Joel, is a 21-year-old who already possesses a 6ft 5in frame and the knowledge of how best to use it between the sticks.

He spent last year learning from De Gea in the reserves and, while only two senior appearances to date is not exactly a wealth of experience, Joel is not lacking in confidence and already feels ready to establish himself as the latest off the conveyer belt of top Spanish goalkeeping talent.

Joel will likely start the season as Atletico’s number one and, although he knows there is no margin for error with Courtois and forgotten man Sergio Asenjo watching from the shadows, he’s relishing the challenge.

Thiago Alcantara, Barcelona

Son of Brazilian World Cup winner Mazinho, Thiago has some seriously big footballing boots to fill. Luckily for him, he’s got so much talent they’re bursting at the seams.

The 20-year-old is right up there with Jack Wilshere as the brightest young midfield talent in world football. The only reason he isn’t already a first team regular at club level is because the club in question happens to be Barcelona, and the first teamers Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets.

Nevertheless, he will get his chance this season, even now Cesc Fabregas has arrived at the Nou Camp. An outstanding showing at the European Under-21 Championships has already propelled him towards stardom, and a superb pre-season cannot have failed to catch the eye of Pep Guardiola.

Technically exceptional, relentlessly aware and blessed with a touch of genius, Thiago has the air of a footballer destined for greatness. What’s more, there’s no better club to help him get there.

Sergio Canales, Valencia (On loan from Real Madrid)

Sergio Canales has the opportunity to take a season of frustration out on an entire league of Spanish defences this year.

The young playmaker burst onto the scene with Racing Santander late in 2009, and his sensational brace in his side’s 2-1 away at Sevilla had the whole of La Liga sitting up and taking notice. Real Madrid quickly swooped to sign the youngster but, instead of loaning him out to get experience, declared he would form part of the first team squad.

A season of few opportunities followed for Canales, and his lightning progress has been halted. Now at Valencia, however, he has the opportunity to rediscover his spark and remind everyone why he was once considered the brightest young talent in Spain.

Somewhat similar to David Silva in terms of his elegant left-footed style, Canales may well be tasked with shouldering the creative burden of a depleted but still talented Valencia team. This should be his season to shine.

Pablo Piatti, Valencia

Pablo Piatti is more experienced than his age would suggest. At 22, the Argentine winger already has 150 senior appearances to his name across two leagues.

He made a stunning entry into professional football, making his debut for Argentine giants Estudiantes at the age of 17 and playing a key role as the club won the national championship.

But having moved on to Europe and Almeria only a season later, Piatti was perhaps guilty of chasing the big time too early in his career, and it has taken him a long time to make his mark in Spain.

But there were signs of his talent beginning to blossom in La Liga last season in spite of his side’s eventual relegation, most notably a sublime match-winning brace away at Sevilla, and Valencia have since been moved to take a chance on him.

Now at the Mestalla, Piatti knows this could be his one and only chance to become one of European football’s biggest names. It is one he is more than capable of taking.

Serie A

Stevan Jovetic, Fiorentina

Two years ago, Stevan Jovetic was fast becoming one of the hottest young properties in Europe.

In 2008, Fiorentina had fended off interest from the likes of Manchester United and Real Madrid to sign the young Montenegrin from Partizan Belgrade (where he had become the club’s youngest ever captain) and within a year they were beginning to reap the dividends.

Jovetic played a starring role as Cesare Prandelli’s exciting Viola side reached the quarter-finals of the Champions League the next season, scoring classy braces against Liverpool and Bayern Munich. He appeared set to make further strides last season, before a cruciate knee ligament injury ended his campaign before it had even begun.

Fit again at last, Jovetic has the opportunity to pick up where he left off two years ago. If he does, there’s no limit to what he can achieve.

Luc Castaignos, Inter

Luc Castaignos scores goals. It’s just what he does. Deadly in the penalty area but fast and skillful enough to do damage from anywhere in the final third, it’s no surprise he has been compared to a young Thierry Henry.

The 18-year-old has netted 15 times in 30 appearances for Feyenoord since making his first team debut in September 2009 and, although it pays to treat Eredivisie scoring records with a sense of caution (Afonso Alves, anyone?), those numbers are impressive for one so young.

He’s also impressed at youth level for Holland, finishing joint-top scorer in the 2009 Under-17 European Championships to help his team to the final, and has since scored nine goals in his first 14 appearances at Under-19 level.

Now at Inter, Castaignos will face stiff competition for first team opportunities. But with Samuel Eto’o chasing the roubles in Russia and new Nerazzurri boss Gianpiero Gasperini favouring an attack-minded 3-4-3 formation, he should get a chance to show what he’s about.

Philippe Coutinho, Inter

The wider footballing world may not yet be aware of just how good Coutinho is, but Inter certainly are. So aware, in fact, that they paid €4million to snap him up from Brazilian side Vasco Da Gama back in 2008, when he was just 16.

The flamboyant young playmaker was allowed to stay and mature in Brazil for a further two years before finally arriving at the San Siro last summer, where he was promptly hailed “The future of Inter” by both club president Massimo Moratti and then coach Rafa Benitez.

It didn’t take long for Coutinho to begin to justify those boasts. Having been gradually eased into the squad, he played a key role in the Italian giants’ remarkable Champions League last 16 comeback against Bayern Munich and featured more prominently in the second half of the Serie A campaign.

This tricky, exciting and two-footed Brazilian should become a regular in the Inter starting XI this season, especially if Wesley Sneijder leaves for Manchester United. A special talent.

Bojan Krkic, Roma

It’s hard to believe Bojan is still only 20.

In four seasons at Barcelona the striker racked up over 100 appearances and averaged a goal every four games – a statistic which becomes more impressive when you consider he made his debut at 16 and was often employed either as an impact substitute or out of position on the wing.

Despite his obvious promise, Bojan couldn’t find a way to cement his place in the Blaugrana starting XI. But not quite making the cut in the best team in the world is no dishonour and, now at Roma, he finally has the opportunity to show everyone the full extent of his talent.

With Luis Enrique as the new coach, the Giallorossi appear to be attempting to implement the Barca model in Italy. As a La Masia graduate, Bojan can be central to that. And if he sets Serie A alight, the Catalans might decide to exercise the buy-back clause in his contract.

Erik Lamela, Roma

Having a big money price-tag slapped on your head and being charged with assuming the creative burden shouldered for so long and with such distinction by Francesco Totti at Roma is a lot for any 19-year-old to handle.

But then, Erik Lamela is no ordinary 19-year-old. Having made his debut for River Plate in 2009 at the age of 17, he had established himself as the creative hub of one of South America’s most illustrious clubs within a year.

Like every other hot young Argentine prospect of the last few years, Lamela has been compared to Lionel Messi but, in terms of style, as an advanced playmaker he has far more in common with the likes of Kaka or Javier Pastore.

Tall, fast, skillful and cool in front of goal (as this cheeky rabona finish illustrates), Lamela has all the ability he needs to emulate the successes enjoyed by either of those two against the tight, organized defences of Serie A.


Andre Schurrle, Bayer Leverkusen

Last season was a big one for Andre Schurrle. The young striker’s superb return of 14 league goals helped his team, unfashionable Mainz, to an unexpected 5th place finish in the Bundesliga. It also justified a big summer move to Leverkusen, and also enabled him to break into the German national side.

When the 20-year-old came on alongside Mario Gotze in a friendly against Sweden last November, the pair became the first capped players to have been born in reunified Germany. Such a moment seemed to herald the dawning of a new chapter in the country’s football history, and if the likes of Schurrle and Gotze are anything to go by, it looks a promising one.

Schurrle has made the transition onto the international stage look easy, bagging three goals in his first six appearances, including a superb strike in the German's friendly victory over Brazil.

Strong enough to play as a central striker but fast, skilful and intelligent enough to also be effective on the flanks, Schurrle looks sufficiently equipped to trouble defences with both club and country for many years to come. And this season he will get to showcase his skills in the Champions League.

Mario Gotze, Borussia Dortmund

When an 18-year-old scores in a full international, you get the feeling he could be a bit special.

When that international happens to be against Brazil and caps a man-of-the-match performance, you realize you could be dealing with what Germany legend Mathias Sammer describes as one of the best talents his country has ever produced.

It is not yet clear whether Gotze will ultimately kick on and live up to all the hype. But what is clear is that while his virtuoso display against the Samba Stars was sensational, it was not all that surprising.

After all, the playmaker had already inspired his club, Dortmund, to their first Bundesliga title since 2002, scoring six times and providing 15 – yes, 15 – assists along the way.

Gotze is an exceptional talent. Technically sublime, he has both the vision to see weaknesses in the opposition and the ability to exploit them, be it either with a killer pass or a mazy dribble which leaves defenders slipping and sliding in his wake.

What’s more, with Dortmund in the Champions League this year, Gotze can showcase his genius to a much wider audience. Big clubs should be queuing up for him now, but they certainly will by the end of the year.

Ilkay Gundogan, Borussia Dortmund

Gundogan was a big reason why Nurnburg defied expectations to finish 6th in the Bundesliga last season, and why the summer departure of Nuri Sahin to Real Madrid might not be as big a blow to Dortmund as first feared.

In many ways, Gundogan and Sahin are quite similar. Both are products of Germany’s Turkish immigrant population, and both are midfielders blessed with great skill and technical gifts.

But Gundogan is more versatile, able to be effective both in the deep-lying playmaking role vacated by Sahin and in the hole behind the strikers. His responsibilities will largely lie in deeper areas this term, and he has the opportunity to become the creative hub of the brightest young team in Europe.

Shinji Kagawa, Borussia Dortmund

Not much was expected of Shinji Kagawa when he arrived in Dortmund from J-League giants Cerezo Osaka for the paltry sum of €350,000 last summer, but he’s now one of the club’s most prized assets.

The young Japanese attacking midfielder started last season on fire for Dortmund, showcasing outstanding skill, dribbling ability, work rate and an eye for goal. Before a match against the club’s bitter rivals Schalke, he predicted he’d score twice. He did, and Dortmund won 3-1.

Unfortunately an injury sustained while representing his native Japan at the Asia Cup brought a promising campaign to a premature end. In his absence, Mario Gotze came to the fore in the Borussians’ midfield, and now it is the young German rather than Kagawa who is the name on everyone’s lips.

But, barring any further misfortune, the 22-year-old should be able to grab his fair share of the limelight this term.

Marco Reus, Borussia Monchengladbach

Marco Reus was, to all intensive purposes, the reason why Gladbach weren’t relegated from the Bundesliga last season. The winger’s ten goals and nine assists ensured his side amassed enough points to face a two-legged playoff for their top flight status rather than direct relegation, which they then won.

Fast, skilful and a superb dribbler, Reus is refreshingly direct when running with the ball, meaning he can rarely be accused of lacking an end product. He also appears to thrive on the responsibility of being the main man at Gladbach.

After carrying a struggling team last term, it’s surprising to say the least that Germany’s top clubs haven’t fallen over themselves to try and sign a 22-year-old who has quickly established himself as one of the country’s brightest young attacking talents.

But Reus is clearly far too good for Gladbach and, if he carries on performing at this high level, it surely won’t be long before a big club comes to the same realization.

Best of the rest...of Europe

Christian Eriksen, Ajax

Staff at Ajax consider him the best young player they’ve seen at the club since Wesley Sneijder and Rafael Van der Vaart. The Danish press have hailed him “the new Michael Laudrup”. Whatever else he may be, Christian Eriksen is certainly a player to get excited about.

The 18-year-old was the youngest player to feature at the World Cup in South Africa, but it was only really last season the wider footballing community got to see what he is all about.

Having broken into the Ajax first team in the latter half of the previous campaign, Eriksen was given the responsibility of being the team’s main creative force last term. He responded by propelling the Dutch giants to the Eredivisie title.

Eriksen also came the attention of English football fans when he produced a man-of-the-match performance for Denmark in a 2-1 defeat to the Three Lions back in February, drawing praise from the likes of Rio Ferdinand and Frank Lampard.

He may not be the quickest player on this list, but Eriksen is a playmaker full of class and invention, able to see gaps almost before they appear as well as chip in with a goal or two himself. Another outstanding year at Ajax should see him able to move on to bigger and better things.

Xherdan Shaqiri, Basel

Given his exploits over the past 18 months, it is a mystery as to why Xherdan Shaqiri hasn’t already been snapped up by a major European club.

Certainly, the 19-year-old midfielder has already shown he possesses all the ability required to shine on a bigger stage. He is no stranger to English football fans, having scored a screamer for Switzerland against the Three Lions in a Euro 2012 qualifier last September.

Shaqiri also played a key role as the Swiss Under-21s reached the final of this summer’s European Championships. At club level he’s already been an integral member of the Basel side which has won the Swiss league for two years running.

Much in the image of Arjen Robben or Lionel Messi early in his career, Shaqiri is a right-winger who loves to cut in on his stronger left foot, where he can either beat several men with his superb dribbling ability, play a killer pass or unleash an explosive shot from range.

He can be a touch individualistic at times, but this is probably a result both of his youth and of the fact that he is already a big fish in a small pond at Basel.

Shaqiri is clearly good enough to be playing in one of Europe’s major leagues, and another good season in Switzerland should leave his potential suitors in no doubt.

Alan Dzagoev, CSKA Moscow

With Andrey Arshavin’s star having apparently been on the wane in the last couple of seasons, it’s good news for Russian fans that a new talent is emerging in the country.

Alan Dzagoev has been highly-rated ever since making his debut for CSKA Moscow in 2008, but now, at 21, he appears ready to take the next step in his career and secure a move to a big European club.

The young playmaker is quite similar to Arshavin in style – both are quick, skilful, direct runners with the vision to pick out a killer pass and the ability to strike a ball well with either foot, as Dzagoev showed with this left-footed stunner against Manchester United in 2009.

Arshavin himself has hailed Dzagoev as his successor in the Russian national team, and a big move appears a matter of when rather than if. The 21-year-old has already indicated the Premier League is his preferred destination, and Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich is thought to be keen.

Eden Hazard, Lille

As far as prospects go, Hazard is just about the worst-kept secret in Europe. Last season the young Belgian inspired Lille to their first French championship title in 57 years, and also the French Cup as part of an historic Double. Now he is coveted by every top club in the continent.

Hazard’s achievements are extraordinary for a 20-year-old. He already has over 100 appearances to his name for Lille and 20 full international caps for Belgium. He also became the youngest ever winner of the Ligue 1 Player of the Year award as a result of his part Lille’s title triumph last term.

He has not been short of attractive offers this summer, but Hazard is in no rush to leave France. Nor are Lille likely to sell him yet, especially having already lost one key attacker in Arsenal new boy Gervinho.

Instead, he will stay and spearhead the Ligue 1 champions’ title defence and maiden Champions League campaign, hopefully once again showing the pace, flair and sublime technique which has earned him his burgeoning reputation. If he does, a big money move is a certainty next year.

Steven Defour, Porto

Some footballers are just born to lead, and Steven Defour is the perfect example. Having become the cornerstone of his Racing Genk side at just 17, the midfielder was picked up by Standard Liege where, after just one season, he was made the club’s youngest ever captain at 19 years of age.

Far from being intimidated by the responsibility, Defour thrived, leading Standard to their first Belgian league title in 25 years and being awarded the Golden Shoe award for most valuable player. The next year, he helped his side repeat the feat.

Defour’s exploits didn’t go unnoticed among Europe’s elite clubs. Sir Alex Ferguson is known to be a long-time admirer, and even wrote the midfielder a letter wishing him a speedy recovery when he broke his foot late in 2009.

The injury appears to have slowed the momentum of Defour’s rise and cooled interest in him, but Portuguese champions Porto felt confident enough to give him a chance. They’re unlikely to regret their decision.

Now with the Champions League as his stage, Defour can once again show the work rate, creativity and leadership qualities which made him one of the most coveted young midfielders in Europe.

Friday, 12 August 2011

Premier League Predictions 2011/12

Even aside from Mario Balotelli, there are many reasons to be excited about the upcoming Premier League season.

The £38million signing of Sergio Aguero appears to have strengthened Manchester City’s claim to be considered genuine title contenders, but United’s stirring comeback victory in last Sunday’s Community Shield suggests Sir Alex Ferguson and his latest crop are going to make their “noisy neighbours” fight for every inch of the success they hope to achieve.

There is a fresh buzz around Chelsea, where a progressive young manager with an illustrious – if short – track record is looking to revive the aging limbs of the 2010 champions and inspire them to recapture former glories. Is Andre Villas-Boas the new “Special One”? Time will tell.

The Red half of Merseyside is also awash with optimism ahead of the new campaign, with Liverpool legend Kenny Dalglish backed by Fenway Sports Group to the tune of almost £100million and charged with the task of trying to form the club’s first title-winning side since 1990.

In north London, however, the mood is not quite so positive. The solitary arrival of Brad Friedel has done little to convince Tottenham fans that their club is capable of breaking back into the top four, while rivals Arsenal are bracing themselves for the seemingly inevitable departures of Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri and manager Arsene Wenger faces up to the most testing season of his Gunners reign.

The promoted trio of QPR, Norwich and Swansea enter the season with confidence and the promise of attacking football. Will they surprise and thrive against their more established opponents, or be worn down by long and arduous Premier League campaigns? Whatever their fates, the battle at the bottom promises to be even closer than the one at the top.

Over the course of the season all these issues will be settled, but until then observers like me have to content ourselves with idle predictions. Without further ado, then, here are my thoughts on what lies in store for all 20 Premier League teams…

1st - Manchester United

It’s hard to look beyond last season’s champions for the big prize again this time around. Sir Alex Ferguson may have lost a wealth of experience in retired duo Edwin van der Sar and Paul Scholes, but replacing them at Old Trafford is a crop of formidably talented young players.

David De Gea looks an extremely capable, if slightly raw, successor to the big Dutchman between the sticks. Tom Cleverley, back from a productive loan at Wigan Athletic last term, is ready to add energy and guile to the United midfield, while Danny Welbeck and Federico Macheda will further bolster an already rich array of attacking talents.

Ashley Young and Phil Jones provide further strength in depth. If Wesley Sneijder completes a much-touted move from Inter Milan, United’s claim to a 20th league title will become even harder to dispute.
2nd - Manchester City
Last season, there was a feeling among many observers – including this one – that while City enjoyed their most successful campaign in recent memory, it could have been so much more, if only Roberto Mancini had been willing to take the handbrake off his talented team.

The same applies this year. Sergio Aguero’s arrival is a powerful statement of intent from the Eastlands hierarchy, but also one which will be in vain if Mancini once again falls into the trap of thinking one point is better than none. Fortune favours the brave, and never more so than in this league.

There is a worry that City’s domestic aspirations could be derailed by a maiden Champions League campaign, in much the same way as Tottenham’s were last year. But Mancini has a far greater depth of resources at his disposal than Harry Redknapp, and this should ensure his side can challenge on all fronts.
3rd - Chelsea
Andre Villas-Boas may be the new name over the manager’s door at Stamford Bridge, but not much else has changed. This remains largely the same squad, aging and arguably lacking in hunger, which began to creak badly last season and put paid to Carlo Ancelotti’s hopes of building on a superb Double-winning first season in charge.

Moreover, there remains the same owner, one who plans in months rather than years and who refuses to countenance failure, even if it is his own. While the signings of Romelu Lukaku and Oriol Romeu hint at some form of long-term planning at the club, there is no reason to suggest it has been extended to the role of manager.

It is impossible to escape the feeling that should Villas-Boas’ Chelsea go on a bad run and – God forbid – fail to win the Champions League, rumours hinting at his inevitable exit will begin to surface. It is not an atmosphere which is conducive to success.
4th - Arsenal
I’m willing to bet Arsene Wenger has never felt under so much pressure.

Gunners fans, exasperated by the continuing wait for a trophy, have been pushed to the point of rebellion by the Frenchman’s continuing stubbornness to act decisively in the transfer market and a significant hike in season ticket prices.

The boos reverberating around the Emirates Stadium during the eponymous friendly tournament a couple of weeks ago are the most significant and worrying development to date in the relationship between Wenger and the fans.

If no more new faces come in and, worse, Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri leave, the Gunners boss will be under huge pressure to get off to a good start to the season. If the team falters, he could for the first time face concerted calls for his resignation.
With or without Fabregas and Nasri, Arsenal are still not capable of winning the title. It is my belief, however, that they will hang on to fourth place from Liverpool and Spurs – just – even if they lose the midfield duo.
5th - Liverpool
Liverpool ended last season strongly, but the performances yielded from a team under no pressure can be misleading. The weight of expectation will accompany Dalglish’s efforts this time around, and despite some eye-watering summer spending, his team is not ready to mount a concerted title charge.

The level of understanding forged between expensive strike duo Andy Carroll and Luis Suarez will be key to the success they do have, however. If the pair can hit it off, they will worry any defence in the country.

Despite some notable additions, Liverpool’s midfield is still not the equal of any of the four sides ahead of them, and captain Steven Gerrard’s persistent injury problems are a cause of growing concern. The Reds also lack a top centre-back to complement ever-committed local boy Jamie Carragher.

A work in progress then, but should still push Arsenal hard for fourth.
6th - Tottenham Hotspur
Even if they do manage to prevent star man Luka Modric leaving for Chelsea, Tottenham’s lack of significant activity in the transfer market makes it hard to see them improve on last season’s showing.

Spurs fans will hope Brad Friedel will prove a more reliable presence between the sticks, but the real problems lie up front.

Neither Jermaine Defoe, Roman Pavlyuchenko nor Peter Crouch have the class to capitalize on the quality of service provided by a stellar midfield, and this is borne out by the trio’s modest goal returns last term.

Unless ‘Arry works his magic in the last hours of the transfer window, I fear sixth is as good as it will get for Tottenham.
7th - Fulham
Fulham may not have caught the imagination in the transfer market this summer, but then they don’t need to.

They possess a very capable, settled first team squad which has secured consistent top half finishes for both Roy Hodgson and Mark Hughes, and there is no reason why they won’t repeat the feat under new man Martin Jol.

Jol is a good fit for Fulham. The expansive passing style the Dutchman became known for at Spurs will go down well at Craven Cottage, and is a pretty seamless continuation of how the side have been playing for a number of years now.

Fulham are a shoe-in for the top-half and, if they can keep star striker Bobby Zamora fit, should come top of the “best of the rest” league outside the top six.
8th - Everton
David Moyes just cannot catch a break. I’m willing to bet he’s never even been lucky enough to find a tenner lying discarded in the street, never mind a spare £10million to spend on a striker.

Once again, new signings have been conspicuous at Goodison Park only by their absence as beleaguered owner Bill Kenwright continues his fruitless search for fresh investment in the club.

Yet Moyes has become quite adept at swimming against the tide of Premier League spending. His hard-working, experienced and loyal squad of players have had more than enough about them in recent seasons to maintain a consistent top half presence, and I don’t expect that to change this year.
9th - Stoke City
Tony Pulis’ much-maligned side finally began to receive some long overdue credit last season by reaching the FA Cup final. Their reward is an inaugural Europa League adventure this time around, and it is one I suspect they will enjoy without experiencing a decline in their domestic form.

The job Pulis has done over the past three seasons has been nothing short of magnificent, bringing Stoke into the top flight and establishing them as mid-table regulars.

In doing so, he has made positive, and indeed necessary, changes to the way the team plays. They are now, if no more subtle, then at least a little more diverse in their approach, and in the Britannia Stadium they possess one of the Premier League’s genuine fortresses.
10th - West Bromwich Albion
Last season was about Roy Hodgson’s redemption. This one is about consolidation. After finding themselves in the heady heights of mid-table rather than a desperate relegation scrap last term, West Brom’s task this year is simply to make sure the good times continue.

As far as that aim is concerned, the early signs are promising. The key components of last season’s surprise packages have been retained and bolstered with several shrewd additions. Ben Foster is literally a safe pair of hands in goal, while Zoltan Gera will add quality and energy to the midfield.

But perhaps most importantly, Shane Long has arrived from Reading to hopefully lessen the scoring burden last season placed almost entirely on the outstanding Peter Odemwingie. In summary, the Baggies should have more than enough class to enjoy a trouble-free season.
11th - Aston Villa
It’s safe to say the mood has been better around Villa Park.

After a season in which they had to endure Martin O’Neill’s shock departure five days before the start of the campaign and a prolonged flirtation with the relegation zone under successor Gerard Houllier before January signing Darren Bent’s timely arrival lifted them to a respectable mid-table finish, Villa fans could have been forgiven for thinking the bad times were over.

They still might be, but owner Randy Lerner has taken a huge – as well as hugely unpopular – gamble in appointing Alex McLeish to take charge of the team for the new campaign. McLeish only had the length of the city to travel to assume his new post, having previously been in charge of arch-rivals Birmingham City. As if that wasn’t bad enough, he’d just got them relegated.

Villa fans have also looked on with dismay as first team stalwarts Ashley Young, Stewart Downing and Brad Friedel have departed. The replacements – Charles N’Zogbia and Shay Given – are capable enough, but McLeish knows he will have to get off to a fast start this season, or the Villa Park faithful could make his position untenable very quickly.

With or without McLeish, Villa’s admittedly depleted squad still has enough about it to stay clear of any trouble.
12th - Sunderland
It’s all change at Sunderland this summer, with seven players exiting the Stadium of Light and eight coming in, as Steve Bruce looks to improve on the squad which showcased European form in the first half of last season and relegation form after the turn of the year.

Increasing squad depth has been Bruce’s main aim, to avoid the fatigue and injuries which led to his side’s spectacular slump last term. Steed Malbranque is the only senior player to depart, while the new arrivals are almost all of proven Premier League quality.

Manchester United duo John O’Shea and Wes Brown will add experience and steel to the Mackems’ occasionally brittle backline, while Craig Gardner and David Vaughan will contribute drive and energy to the midfield.

Up front, Connor Wickham and Korean Ji-Dong Won promise future rather than immediate impact, so the scoring burden will continue to rest largely on the shoulders of the mercurial Asamoah Gyan.
13th - Newcastle United
To say the transfer strategy which Mike Ashley and co. have pursued this summer is strange is like saying Manchester wasn’t top of Carlos Tevez’s list of potential summer holiday destinations.

Some of the additions boss Alan Pardew has made to his squad look shrewd. Midfielder Yohan Cabaye, signed from French champions Lille, is a full France international and should add a touch of assurance and class to the Toon midfield. Demba Ba impressed last season in a poor West Ham team, and looks to have all the attributes to be a success in the Premier League.

But these new signings, along with wingers Gabriel Obertan and Sylvain Marveaux, have done nothing to persuade the club’s fans that the £35million received for Andy Carroll in January will be reinvested.

Instead, other key players have been discarded. Club captain Kevin Nolan has been allowed to leave for West Ham, Jose Enrique has followed Carroll to Liverpool and Joey Barton has felt exasperated enough by developments at the club to make his feelings known to the world on Twitter.

With the spine of this team having been ripped out and replaced, it’s almost impossible to predict Newcastle’s fate with certainty, but I’m willing to bet there are still quite a few teams worse than them in the top flight.
14th - Bolton Wanderers
Owen Coyle was rightly commended for his achievements with Bolton last season. For a long time his side looked capable of both qualifying for Europe through the Premier League and reaching the FA Cup final, all the while showcasing a style of football which went some way towards rehabilitating the image of the club in the eyes of football purists.

But then it all fell apart. A 5-0 thrashing in the FA Cup semi-final against Stoke had a devastating effect on squad morale, and the Trotters lost each of their last six games to slump to 14th.  The bad news for this campaign is they don’t look capable of improving on that showing this time around.

Coyle has wisely guarded against the possibility of a serious injury of the kind which midfielder Stuart Holden suffered against Manchester United last season with the acquisitions of Nigel Reo-Coker from Aston Villa and Darren Pratley from newly-promoted Swansea, and winger Chris Eagles is an exciting signing from Burnley.

But it’s up front where the problems lie. Top scorer Johan Elmander has departed for Galatasaray, while there will be no repeat of Daniel Sturridge’s sensational loan spell at the end of last season. Coyle is still trying gamely to bolster his attacking options before the end of the month, but if he doesn’t, a lack of goals could seriously inhibit Bolton’s progress.
15th - Wolverhampton Wanderers
Given Mick McCarthy’s men stayed up only by the skin of their teeth on the final day last season, it may appear strange for me to have predicted Wolves to finish as high as 15th this term.

Except, that is, when you consider that Blackburn finished 15th last year and yet were still involved in the relegation scrap until the very last day. I expect this year’s tussle at the bottom to be just as open.

McCarthy has gone for quality rather than quantity in the transfer market this summer. Roger Johnson, who proved himself one of the top flight’s most reliable defenders at Birmingham, has come in and assumed the captain’s armband, while Jamie O’Hara has returned to Molineux on a permanent deal.

But like Bolton, Wolves’ problems lie not with keeping goals out, but with putting them in at the other end. Last season’s top scorer Steven Fletcher notched 10 in the league, but he needs more support from the likes of Doyle, Ebanks-Blake and more attack-minded members of the midfield. If he doesn’t get it, Wolves could be in for another struggle.
16th - Blackburn Rovers
This outrageous and hilarious club advert might have you believe otherwise, but all is certainly not rosy at Ewood Park.

There still appears to be tension left over from the sacking of Sam Allardyce last season and the team’s subsequent flirtation with relegation, and the mood has not been helped by the sale of homegrown gem Phil Jones to Manchester United.

Key defender Christopher Samba has also had his head turned by reported interest from Arsenal, and his departure would be even more devastating to the club’s ambitions.

Despite some big promises from the Rovers’ hierarchy, the highest profile arrivals at Ewood Park so far this summer are striker David Goodwillie from Dundee United and defender Bruno Ribeiro from Vitoria Setubal. Both are unknown quantities in the Premier League, and it is as yet unclear how much they will be able to contribute to a team which presently fails to excite.

Perhaps only Newcastle and QPR are more shambolicly-run than Blackburn in the Premier League, but nevertheless my feeling is they will survive again – just.
17th - Norwich City
This season is the latest chapter of an amazing story for Norwich. Only two years ago the Norfolk-based club were in League One, reeling from a 7-1 opening day demolition at the hands of Colchester City.

Fortunately for Norwich, however, the manager who inflicted that thrashing soon agreed to assume the reins at Carrow Road, and now Paul Lambert has become the first manager to reach the Premier League with back-to-back promotions since Joe Royle with Manchester City a decade ago.

Now both Lambert and his players face their toughest test yet. Norwich have roared into the Premier League with much the same squad which secured them passage out of England’s third tier, and the learning curve at this level will be steep.

But the Canaries’ biggest asset is their manager. Paul Lambert is proving himself to be one of the most promising managerial talents in Britain and, with him at the helm, I can see Norwich’s success story continuing for at least one more year.
18th - Swansea City
There are many reasons to hope Swansea do survive in the Premier League this season.

Those who value the novelty of having a Welsh team in England’s top flight for the first time ever will of course wish them well, while those who heralded Brendan Rodgers’ men the best footballing side in the Championship last year will hope their expansive approach once again pays dividends this time around.

But as romantic the idea is, I just can’t see it happening. Firstly, the loss of several key players is almost certain to have an effect. Darren Pratley, Dorus De Vries and Fabio Borini were all key components of the team whose late charge secured the Premier League dream last year.

Their replacements – Michael Vorm, Danny Graham and Leroy Lita – are not of proven top flight calibre, and the disruption caused by this turnaround in core personnel may mean Swansea’s vaunted passing game is not quite as fluid as it needs to be in order to save them.
19th - Wigan Athletic
That Wigan are entering their seventh consecutive season in the Premier League is in itself an incredible achievement worthy of praise, but it’s hard to see them being granted an eighth.

The Latics have demonstrated tremendous survival skills in numerous relegation battles over the years, but the yearly exodus of key players from the DW Stadium has stretched the squad to breaking point. The departure of Charles N’Zogbia to Aston Villa could be the straw which ends up breaking the camel’s back if the money received from the deal is not reinvested wisely.

Roberto Martinez’s decision to turn down the Aston Villa job this summer speaks well of both him and of the family culture which exists at Wigan, but I fear he may regret it come May.
20th - QPR
QPR’s title triumph in the Championship last season was all the more astonishing for the fact it was achieved against a backdrop of utter turmoil at all levels of the club.

The credit for the triumph must go entirely to Neil Warnock – QPR’s 10th different manager in four seasons – who shook off constant speculation about his own position and the threat of a points deduction for fielding an ineligible player to guide the club back to the top flight for the first time since 1997, and in doing so secure the seventh promotion of his career.

The Rangers board, which consists of F1 giants Flavio Briatore and Bernie Ecclestone and one of the world’s richest men in Indian steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal, has done nothing to either make Warnock feel secure in his role or back him in the transfer market. All of the club’s summer acquisitions have been players passed up by other Premier League clubs and brought to Loftus Road for nominal fees.

As a result, Warnock must do the best he can with a squad of Championship players heavily reliant on the gifted but hugely temperamental Adel Taarabt. While the Moroccan playmaker clearly has talent, there remain serious questions over his attitude and ability to deal with adversity.

If a new culture of stability and investment doesn’t take hold at Loftus Road soon, I fear QPR’s return to the Premier League could be a brief and miserable one.

Friday, 1 July 2011

Copa America 2011 Preview: Players to Watch

The Copa America gets underway this evening, and it promises to be one of the most exciting and least predictable editions of the tournament for many years.

Of course, the bold claim I’ve just made could well be proved spectacularly wrong by a succession of tedious, low-scoring draws and a relatively easy ultimate triumph for one of the ‘big two’, hosts Argentina or defending champions Brazil.

But somehow I don’t think so.

Both of South America’s heavyweights are in varying stages of transition as they build towards the 2014 World Cup, while the likes of Uruguay, Chile and Paraguay have all come on leaps and bounds. The talented but inconsistent Colombia could also cause a shock or two if it takes their fancy.

This depth of quality should make for an exciting tournament, and in this spirit I’ve selected six players from six of the main contending nations who I think are most capable of lighting up the competition. Have a read and let me know your views.
Argentina - Lionel Messi
The most obvious choice on this list. Messi, the best player in the world, is compulsive viewing every time he takes to a football field.

The diminutive playmaker’s phenomenal form over the past three seasons has earned him two consecutive Fifa Ballon d’Or awards and a place in the pantheon of the game’s all-time greats.

The only thing which comes anywhere close to resembling a blott on his magnificent copy-book of achievements is a relative lack of success at international level.

But at just 24, Messi has plenty of time to change that, and a Copa America on home soil could provide the perfect platform for him to finally deliver.
Colombia - Radamel Falcao
Falcao enters this tournament in the form of his life.

In the last two seasons the striker has netted an astonishing 75 times in 83 appearances for Porto, winning five trophies in two seasons with the Portuguese giants.

Falcao’s record at international level is somewhat less impressive, with a return of just seven goals from 28 games, but this is largely down to the failure of a succession of national team coaches to find a system which gets the best out of him.

Heavily linked with a move to join former boss Andre Villas-Boas at Chelsea this summer, it also remains to be seen whether all the speculation over his future will adversely affect the 25-year-old’s performances on the pitch.

Nevertheless, if he gets a chance in the box, expect him to take it.
Brazil - Neymar
There is almost nothing to say about Neymar which hasn’t already been said. Hands down the hottest young prospect in world football, the 19-year-old attacker is already being coveted by the likes of Real Madrid, Barcelona, Chelsea and Manchester City.

What’s more, the Santos youngster’s talent fully justifies the level of hype which surrounds him. Neymar helped drive his team to victory this season in the South American Champions League, the Copa Libertadores, even scoring in the second leg of the final against Penarol.

He has also established himself as a key component of the exciting young Brazil side which Mano Menezes hopes to battle-harden with Copa America and Olympic experience in time for the 2014 World Cup, impressing European football fans with a match-winning display in a friendly victory over Scotland back in March.

There are still huge question marks over the cocky young man’s ego and temperament, but nothing a series of world-class performances over the next month won’t answer.

Whatever happens, you won’t be able to take your eyes off him.
Paraguay - Lucas Barrios
Barrios built on an impressive showing at last summer’s World Cup in South Africa by firing Borussia Dortmund to their first league title since 2002 last season, and will be hoping to round off a fantastic campaign by at least helping Paraguay to the latter stages of the Copa.

The naturalised Argentine is a scoring machine, averaging over a goal a game at club level. His penalty area instincts do not seem to have dimmed on the international stage either, with five goals a handsome return from his first 12 appearances.

With his pace, skill and clever movement in the final third, Barrios is capable of troubling any defence in the tournament. Let’s hope he does.
Chile - Alexis Sanchez
Another name on the lips of Europe’s best and richest, Sanchez last season made the transition from exciting but unrefined youngster to top talent with world-class potential.

The 22-year-old contributed 12 goals from midfield to help Udinese finish 4th in Serie A and qualify for the Champions League for only the second time in their history.

Whether drifting inside from the right flank or starting in the free role behind the striker, Sanchez’s pace, skill and clinical finishing are dazzling, and clever movement between the opposition’s defensive lines often enables him to receive the ball in space in the final third.

Sanchez has all the ability to light up this year’s Copa. Only time will tell whether the protracted nature of his summer move to Barcelona will affect his focus, but both Chile fans and neutrals will be hoping it doesn’t.
Uruguay - Edinson Cavani
Cavani was an absolute revelation last season, netting an incredible 26 times in Serie A to fire Napoli into the Champions League for the first time since the tournament itself was called the European Cup and a certain Diego Maradona was plying his trade at the San Paolo.

Big, strong and lethal anywhere in sight of goal, ‘El Matador’ showed signs of his class at last summer’s World Cup in South Africa, although it was his strike partners who garnered most of the headlines – Forlan for his talismanic performances, and Suarez for that handball.

But now, having blossomed into one of the most feared frontmen in European football, Cavani is ready to take centre stage in this Uruguay team. And with Forlan providing the ammunition from deep and Suarez a willing runner, he’s likely to get plenty of service.