Villa’s lack of a midfield hardman to sit in front of the back four has been painfully evident since February. And if O’Neill is going to persist in selecting a 4-4-2 formation, this position becomes even more important. With the 4-5-1 he could simply crowd the midfield by grouping Barry, Steve Sidwell and Stilyan Petrov in the middle of the park. He can’t do that if he wants to use two forwards. And with Barry eyeing the exit and Petrov about to turn 30, he needs to upgrade the position anyway.
Enter Julian de Guzman. The 28-year-old Canada international was Player of the Year at Deportivo la Coruna last season and was named Most Valuable Player at the 2007 CONCACAF Gold Cup. He’s quick, has excellent vision and is strong in the tackle. He’s also keen on a move to England. Tottenham Hotspur have already expressed interest, as have Sevilla, Villareal and Benfica.
In a conversation over the weekend, de Guzman admitted he would welcome a transfer to Villa if it could be lined up. And as his contract is set to expire in June, Villa could get him for nothing.
Steven Defour and Alan Dzagoev won’t come quite as cheap. Defour, the reigning Golden Shoe winner at Belgian champions Standard Liege, is already being pursued by Olympique Marseille. He’s flown somewhat under the radar for three years, but his combination of pace and vision has scouts drooling at the moment. Defour, 21, will move somewhere in the summertime, and O’Neill already has the inside track.
If he misses out on Defour, the manager would be well advised to make a pitch for Dzagoev. Russia’s Best Young Player in 2008, the CSKA Moscow playmaker is currently the leading scorer in the Russian Premier League. At 18, he’s also a regular selection to Guus Hiddink’s national team.
Quick, versatile and mature beyond his years, Dzagoev has drawn comparisons to Cesc Fabregas. Either he or Defour would make an ideal midfield partner for de Guzman.
Two other Russians should have a place on O’Neill’s transfer list as well. Not surprisingly, one is a defender.
At 6-feet-2-inches, Denis Kolodin began his football career as a striker. When he turned 20, however, he was converted to a midfielder before finally settling in the centre of defense. As a result of the positional transition, the 27-year-old is a tremendous all-around player and a set-piece specialist. He’s also earned 19 caps for Russia and was a regular selection to the national side at the EURO 2008 finals.
Pavel Pogrebnyak would have been in that Russian team as well had he not picked up a knee injury in a pre-tournament match against Serbia. His loss turned out to be Roman Pavlyuchenko’s gain, as the Spartak Moscow striker earned himself a move to Tottenham Hotspur with his fine play.
What Zenit St. Petersburg manager Dick Advocaat—and everyone else in Russia, for that matter—knows, however, is that Pogrebnyak is a much better player than Pavlyuchenko. He’s also two years younger, and at 6-foot-2, has the big frame that O’Neill covets in his forwards.
Kolodin could be acquired for as little as 4 million pounds, while Pogrebnyak’s signature would require about twice that amount. Unfortunately for Russian football, both Andrei Arshavin and Pavlyuchenko were undersold by their clubs, setting a precedent for those that follow.
If O’Neill takes advantage, he’ll go a long way towards strengthening the depth in his side.