Thursday, June 30, 2011

INFTH Top 100: Numbers 52 and 51

52. Federico Balzaretti- 2010/11 was a less than stable season for Palermo, but at least they got to enjoy the fabulous play of Federico Balzaretti. A typical modern full back, Balzaretti is keen on bombing up the left wing, but is also responsible enough to keep opposition players firmly under lock and key.

A magnificent attacking full back, Balzaretti provided seven assists to Palermo's Serie A cause last season, helping the team dressed in pink to an eighth place finish. Along with Cassani on the opposite side, Balzaretti was one of the league's stand out full backs, and has been tipped by many for a starting place at Euro 2012.

Internationally, 10/11 was a breakthrough season for Balzaretti, he made four appearances for the Italian National Team, a side now coached by his boss at Fiorentina; Cesare Prandelli. Obviously, the club connection helps, but there is no doubting that Balzaretti was worthy of his call-ups, the Italian was truly impressive throughout the campaign.

Rumors this summer have linked the newly wed full back to a move to the capital, to join up with the revolution at AS Roma. Such a transfer does seem like a logical next step in Balzaretti's career, the new DiBenedetto run Roma will be able to promise him Champions League football in the future, something more or less unattainable at Palermo.

51. Cesc Fabregas- It is only after a difficult 2010/11 that Fabregas has fallen this low on the rankings, his guile and inspiration in midfield was not enough to save Arsenal from another trophyless season.

A World Cup winner, Cesc Fabregas entered the 10/11 Premier League season off the back of a seemingly endless transfer saga, with Barcelona chasing his signature all summer long. Though the Catalans' chase eventually proved futile, there was no doubt that the Spaniard's head had been turned.

With only three goals in the Premier League, 10/11 did not meet Fabregas' usual goal scoring standards, though the midfielder did contribute to eleven assists to the cause. Injury problems dogged Fabregas throughout the duration of the Arsenal's campaign, limiting him to only twenty-five appearances out of a thirty-eight game season.

Internationally, Fabregas remains unable to break into the Spanish starting eleven, the Barcelona and Real Madrid axis of Xavi, Busquets, Iniesta and Alonso has scuppered any chances of him obtaining a starting role for Vincente Del Bosque's World champions.

As per usual, since the end of the season Cesc Fabregas has been continually linked to a return to Barcelona, though this time it seems as though an agreement has been reached, with reports yesterday indicating that the Spaniard could seal the deal tomorrow.

Sunderland Rebuilding...Again

Over the last couple of season, Sunderland have been one of the most disappointing clubs in English football. Consistently strong in the opening months of the season, the Black Cats always fall off after Christmas, and end up fighting against relegation. Last year, the team proved themselves capable of beating Chelsea three-nil, yet vulnerable to more than just the odd off day; see under the first Tyne-Wear derby of 10/11.

Over the past couple years, Sunderland have brought in seventeen players, a level of transfer activity which is as unhealthy for the team as it is for the club's finances. Upfront is where most of the money seems to be going; Darren Bent, Frazier Campbell, Asamoah Gyan, Benjani, David Healy, Dwight Yorke, Michael Chopra, Daniel Welbeck, Kenwyne Jones and Stephane Sessegnon have all come in or gone out over the past two seasons, a group which has been added to further by the signings of Conner Wickham and Ji Dong-Won this week.

With this constant merry go round of players, it is no surprise that Steve Bruce's team struggle for consistency; too often do they purchase in excess during the January transfer window, and too often do they use the summer as an excuse for a total face lift of the starting eleven.

Already this summer, Sunderland have splashed out on two members of Birmingham's relegated midfield, Sebastian Larsson and Craig Gardner will both expect to start next season, presumably they will be Bruce's alternatives to the failed Sulley Muntari experiment and the departing Jordan Henderson. How a Champions League winner and a man who has attracted interest from some of the top clubs in England can be adequately replaced by two players incapable of keeping their former team in the division escapes me.  Moreover, that is half of the midfield changed from last season, and with Lee Cattermole unlikely to avoid red card trouble for any substantial run of games, one further central player will be rotating in and out.

For a team like Sunderland, the only way to advance is to keep a core group of players together for the long haul, and while that is difficult with big clubs constantly poaching, surely Niall Quinn and Steve Bruce could be doing a little bit better. Had Henderson been part of a midfield built for the long term, and not one featuring players like Steve Bruce's creative band aid Bolo Zenden, then maybe the England international would have considered staying, so as to help Sunderland advance. 

There are clubs in football who have perfected the rebuilding and replenishing cycle, Portuguese giants FC Porto seem to have learned to deal with the departures of important players, but they wield a certain financial clout which Sunderland can't come close to matching. The Porto model is one that works for them, consistent qualification for major European competition insures that the team can recruit top level talent, while Sunderland can only replace stars with three or four mediocre players.

It seems like year after year, Sunderland are just rotating out average players for other average players, forcing themselves into a perpetual state of renewal that has kept the team's progress stagnant. Every time the side looks to have made an advancement, they take a step back, something clearly demonstrated by the arrival of Gyan and departure of Bent.

Going into the new season, there is nothing new about Sunderland's transfer exploits, star players have been offloaded, and replaced by quantity not quality; next year could be another frustrating season for fans of Sunderland AFC.

Messi Ready For International Greatness

It is a subject which polarizes opinion, prompts fits of nostalgia and starts arguments between football fans around the World. Messi's ascent to the top of the modern game is undoubted, but whether he has surpassed that and moved above some of football's greatest names is another question. Messi is the greatest player in the World right now, but is he the greatest of all time?

In terms of club success and individual achievement, he tops the lot, but internationally Messi still falls short of players like Maradona and Pele. A Quarter Final exit at the hands of Germany last summer cast more doubt over whether Messi deserves to be placed alongside his two of his South American predecessors, doubt that the Argenitinan will have ample opportunity to quash at the upcoming Copa America.

Having not won an international trophy since the 1993 Copa America, Argentina are desperately in need of success on home soil, success that will only come if Lionel Messi finally performs. Complementing him is an army of attacking talent, players like Higuain, Pastore, Tevez and Milito are all match winners, but none possess the genius of Messi.

When Argentina kick off against Bolivia on Friday, all eyes will be fixed on the little number ten, everyone in the stands on their feet when he receives the ball.

"My greatest dream is to win Copa America." A way to gee himself up for an upcoming tournament, or an actual slight to the World Cup, it is hard to tell, but you can be sure that this competition is one that Messi dearly wants to win. Standing in his way are the usual suspects, a team of Brazilians headed by youngsters like Neymar and Ganso, as well as a group of overachieving Uruguayans, inspired by a front three as good as any in World football.

For Messi, winning a major international tournament will be his greatest challenge, one that could end up deciding his place in the pantheon of legends. If Messi and Argentina capsize as they did in 2007, then the voices of doubt will begin to approach fever pitch, until they reach a volume that would only be silenced by an unlikely success on enemy soil three years from now.

For now though, Messi must forget about Brazil 2014 and focus on the task at hand. Coming off a wonderful season with Barcelona, he is in a rich vein of form, and is as ready as he will ever be to topple the Brazilians.

Will Argentina win the 2011 Copa America?
If they do, is Messi the best player of all time? Is he already?

Read more by David Yaffe-Bellany @ Red Flag Flying High
Follow him on Twitter @INFTH

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

INFTH Top 100: Numbers 54 and 53

54. Charlie Adam- For me, Charlie Adam is one of the most overrated players in football at the moment, but nevertheless, his performances last season more than warranted a place on this list. A big fish in a small pond, Charlie Adam was unable to prevent Blackpool from dropping into the second division, but his sparkling long passing insured that he wouldn't go down with them.

The captain of Blackpool, Charlie Adam led by example all season long, scoring a fair number of goals from midfield, and getting stuck into the opposition. However, it was passing which really made Charlie Adam stand out, every game saw at least two or three stunning sixty yard balls, ones which complemented consistently dangerous deliveries from set pieces.

Following a stellar first half of the season, Adam fell off a little bit during the Winter period, a digression which probably had something to do with consistent talk of a transfer to Liverpool. Credit to him though, Adam rebounded, remained at Blackpool, and was back to his best by the end of the season.

Despite choosing to remain with the Tangerines in January, Charlie Adam now looks to be on his way out, with Liverpool rumored to be his destination. Personally, I don't think Adam is quite good enough to play for Liverpool, a move to Villa Park, though less likely, would suit his level far more comfortably.

53. Rafael Van Der Vaart- It is unfortunate that Van Der Vaart isn't in the top fifty, though he performed admirably for the first few months of the season, injuries and weight problems inhibited his progress.

After arriving at Tottenham on transfer deadline day, Van Der Vaart made an instant impact at White Hart Lane, scoring goals and entertaining to boot. Three goals across two North London derbies last season also did much to improve the Dutchman's reputation at Spurs, as did his wife in the stands...

Scoring thirteen goals, Van Der Vaart was the joint top midfield scorer in the Premier League, a fine achievement considering his mid season injury problems. Van Der Vaart's performances in the Champions League were equally impressive, the Dutch international was integral to Tottenham's attack in the first round, scoring twice as the Lily Whites topped their group.

Up until November, Van Der Vaart was a potential member of this list's top ten, making his fall to fifty-third all the more surprising. There is no question that he has the skill to compete consistently at the highest level, but his fitness has continually let him down; maybe with a good pre-season at Spurs he can kick on in 2012!

Macheda Entering Last Chance Saloon

It is a moment that all United fans will remember forever, one which has gone down in Old Trafford folklore, and helped push Fergie's men over the line towards title number eighteen. Some commentators weren't even pronouncing his name correctly at the time, but Macheda's last gasp winner over Aston Villa in April 2009 was just vintage United.

Since then though, the Italian's career has entered a bit of a trough, promoted from the reserves, Macheda was only ever able to score a handful of goals for the Red Devils; four in total, two in 08/09 and one last season, to go with one the season before.

This year, the arrival of Chicharito Hernandez pushed the Italian U21 international lower and lower down the pecking order, until Fergie deemed it appropriate to send him out on loan for the remainder of last season. Unfortunately, Macheda's move to Sampdoria proved ill fated; the young striker struggled for form in a team that was eventually relegated to Serie B. Trying to fill the boots of players like Antonio Cassano and Giampaolo Pazzini proved too difficult for the one time Old Trafford hero, raising doubts about his future filling in for even bigger stars like Rooney and Hernandez.

Now, Macheda has returned to Old Trafford, and delivered a message of intent, stating his desire to remain with the Red Devils. Whether or not United sign or sell a star striker this summer, Macheda will find it difficult to break into the first team, so the chances he is presented with must be pounced upon.

Ferguson is renowned for his patience, he is always willing to give players second chances at proving themselves, and Macheda will need that second chance. A couple of match winning performances two years ago forced a reputation on the lad that he wasn't ready to live up to, a reputation which has only provoked disappointment.

Not every player is good enough to consistently perform for United, and Macheda is beginning to run out of chances to prove that he is part of that select few. His turn and shot against Aston Villa was one of the most sensational pieces of skill ever enjoyed by the Old Trafford faithful, but there have been too many missed chances and mishit passes since then; mistakes which have frustrated fans that much more due to the Italian's early exploits.

Alongside players like Welbeck, Diouf and Obertan, Macheda is entering a last chance saloon; one final, golden opportunity to become a key part of the Manchester United squad. What comes of Macheda's cameo showings in the opening weeks of next season could end up defining his career, he has reached a crossroads, one direction points to glory the other to mediocrity-probably in Serie A.

As the start of the new season draws closer and closer, Macheda must begin to prepare himself for the challenges ahead, and the battle that looms if he is to force his way back into the first team. As a devoted follower of "Kiko" throughout his Untied career, I hope that he manages to impress, and eventually moves alongside Zola in the pantheon of the Premier League's Italian stars.

Will Macheda play a starring role next season?

This article was originally published by The Chairman/David Yaffe-Bellany on Red Flag Flying High
Follow David Yaffe-Bellany on Twitter @INFTH

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Why The Bizarre Fifth Club Is Neymar's Best Option

Tracked by seemingly every club on the planet, Neymar is fast becoming one of the most prominent young footballers in the World. After electing to spurn the advances of Chelsea last summer, Neymar helped Brazilian club Santos on their way to a first Copa Libertadores crown since the Pele era, a success which has only increased the hype surrounding him. The line of suitors is beginning to lengthen, and it seems it will only be a matter of time before the Brazilian wunderkind departs.

When I woke up this morning and trawled through Sky Sports' transfer headlines, an unfamiliar name popped up around a few that I normally hear a lot about. A Santos representative had confirmed that five clubs have met Neymar's release clause of forty-five million euros, the first four were Real Madrid, Barcelona, Manchester City and Chelsea. The fifth was somewhat different, a Russian club; Anzhi Makhachkala.

It seems strange for a youngster to be advised to reject four of the biggest clubs in World Football, so as to join one that isn't even a powerhouse in its native land, however, Anzhi Makhachkala represents an option that might do wonders for Neymar's career, and insure that the reputation he dies with is the one that we all expect him to earn.

At age nineteen, a switch of continents, lifestyle and language is always difficult, but for that transition to be accompanied by a place at a high profile club is simply too much for a player as young as Neymar; he would do much better to follow in the footsteps of some of his predecessors to the crown of "hottest young Brazilian talent," Ronaldo and Ronaldinho. Those two are not often used as blueprints for guiding the life of a young person, but in this respect they set a very good example.

A career in Europe is about steps. For some players, a move directly from South America to one of the major European clubs will end happily, but for others, such a transfer spells trouble. There is no question that Neymar has the talent to succeed at one of the four massive clubs bidding for him, his maturity and temperament though are still concerning aspects of his personality.

Ronaldo and Ronaldinho, upon making a name for themselves in Brazil, started small, Ronaldo at PSV Eindhoven and Ronaldinho at Paris St. Germain, before furthering themselves at teams like Barcelona, Real Madrid and Inter Milan. Such a route would would be ideal for Neymar, he would have the opportunity to gain experience of a new lifestyle, before throwing himself into the pressured atmosphere of a major European club.

This summer, Neymar will participate in the Copa America, a high level, demanding tournament which would also see his pre season time at a possible new club cut. All the more reason for the Brazilian to resist the temptation of a glamour move, one tired, burned out season could end his career as a top level player in Europe, even if he was set to improve in years to come.

Unfortunately, it is highly unlikely that Neymar will heed my advice; a chance to join Barcelona or Real Madrid in this current era is one that is not often turned down, even if such a decision would be beneficial. In football, one poor choice can ruin a career, so for the sake of Neymar and the talent that he possesses, I hope he makes the right one.

Where should Neymar go?
Where will Neymar go?

Follow me on Twitter @INFTH

Monday, June 27, 2011

De Gea Risk Must Come Off For United

For United fans, the memories of Sir Alex's last goalkeeping search are ones best tucked away into the same drawer that houses their last two European Cup finals. With Peter Schmeichel departing, United had the mammoth task of replacing one of the best of all time, something they failed miserably at until a certain Dutchman came in to save the day.

Fabian Barthez, Tim Howard, Massimo Taibi... none of them could fill the void, in a period which was stained by mistake after mistake after mistake. A shot squeezing under Taibi's body embodied the botched search, one which was both frustrating and damaging.

Hoping to have learned from past errors, Ferguson entered goalkeeper search 2.0 this summer following the retirement of the man who finally did replace Peter Schmeichel; Edwin Van Der Sar. Van Der Sar's time at United was silver lined, four Premier League titles rolled in, complemented by one in Europe, as Van Der Sar's save in the Champions League final shootout of 2008 brought United their third ever European Cup.

The number of names linked to the newly vacant goalkeeping post at United was unprecedented, it seemed that every goalkeeper who had made one fantastic save in the last decade was a potential target. A few years ago, there was Igor Akinfeev at CSKA Moscow, and more recently, big names like Manuel Neuer, Pepe Reina and Gigi Buffon. However, as is his wont, Ferguson elected to go with a young gun, Spanish U21 international David De Gea.

There is no question that De Gea has potential; he saved a penalty brilliantly in last year's Uefa Super Cup, and has carved out a decent reputation for himself in La Liga, but is it really an intelligent move for United to go with someone so young? Of all the positions on the football pitch, goalkeeper is the one which rewards youth the least; it is strange for a goalkeeper to peak before his early thirties. It could be with that in mind that Ferguson has chosen De Gea, after all, his best years are yet to come and Ferguson will want to insure that United are the team to enjoy them.

Ferguson found in his last goalkeeping search, that whether a player is young or old, experienced or inexperienced, they are still capable of dropping clangers; see under both the youthful Taibi and the veteran Barthez.

However, in the end it was a man of experience who came through for the Red Devils, Edwin Van Der Sar had already won a European Cup, and played for Juventus in the Serie A, before he signed for Manchester United. Supposedly in the frame for the goalkeeping post 2.0 were players that had starred in World Cups, won Champions Leagues, and even pulled off blinders against Ferguson's men, yet it was a man still to play on Europe's biggest stage who was chosen. De Gea's impending signing sees Ferguson ignore his success with Van Der Sar, and take a risk on youth; though I guess, that is the Ferguson way.

But what the Scotsman may come to realize as the season draws on, is that promoting youth in the outfield positions is much, much different than placing it in goal. While a mistake put down to youthful exuberance in midfield often goes unpunished, one made in between the goalposts is always significantly more severe.

Last time I raised a concern about the prospect of De Gea joining United I was slated, so I want to make it clear this time that this should not be perceived as a damning verdict on the Spaniard's career in the sport, merely a warning, that sending a man with only a season and a half of top level experience to his name into the boots of one of the greatest football has ever seen is both unfair to the player, and jeopardizing to the club.

Yes, De Gea might go on to blossom under pressure, rule the roost for decades, and vindicate Sir Alex, proving that his risk had payed off. Yet at the same time, the potential of disaster is there, the potential for another Taibi.

Will De Gea succeed at United?

Read more by David Yaffe-Bellany  at EPL Talk
Follow me on Twitter @INFTH