December 21, 2009
It's finally official: Lionel Messi is the best player in the world.
Earlier this month the diminutive Barcelona forward won the prestigious Ballon d'Or for the European Footballer of the Year by the biggest percentage of votes since it was created in 1956 and on Monday night he was deservedly crowned the FIFA World Player of the Year.
The 22-year-old was runner-up to AC Milan's Kaka in 2007 and second to Manchester United's Cristiano Ronaldo in 2008, but last season's unprecedented treble of the UEFA Champions League, Spanish league title and Copa del Rey meant there could be only one winner in 2009.
Although Ronaldo and Kaka, who both now play for Real Madrid, were also on FIFA's final five-man shortlist, such was the dominance and breath-taking beauty of Barcelona's football this past year that the biggest challenge to Messi came from Blaugrana team-mates Xavi and Andres Iniesta.
A case could be made for any of the Catalan club's representatives to be crowned winner, but the FIFA gong is an award for individual brilliance and while Xavi and Iniesta's intricate and imaginative passing in midfield provides the platform for team-mates to dazzle, Messi is the figure that opponents fear.
The 2009 Champions League final between Barcelona and Manchester United was billed as Messi v Ronaldo - we all know who won that one. The little Argentinian outclassed Ronaldo, even scoring a rare header, as Barcelona won 2-0 in Rome and Messi confirmed he was ready to succeed his opponent as the World Player of the Year.
On Saturday, Messi scored the winner, in extra-time, as Barca scooped the FIFA Club World Cup with a 2-1 victory over Estudiantes and if we include a few other glorified baubles, such as the European and Spanish Super Cups, it makes a remarkable haul of six trophies for 2009.
Messi is the key player in this year's most successful team and based on that alone it would be difficult to overlook the left-footed forward. Add in the fact that he scored 23 goals in 27 Primera Division starts last season and the statistics back up the FIFA award.
But most impressive of all is that when you strip away all the facts and figures Messi still stands out an artist amongst draughtsmen.
The image of the diminutive forward cutting in from the left-flank and slaloming through an impossible amount of defenders on his way to goal is one of the greatest in football. When the Argentinian has the ball at his feet there is an air of expectation and apprehension that very few footballers, and no amount of statistics, can invoke.
Messi has already been burdened with the labelled of the 'new Maradona'. The Argentina international still has a long way to go to reach those lofty heights but he is yet to falter as all of the previous heirs to El Diego's throne have done.
The FIFA World Player of the Year award is a step on the road to emulating the Argentina legend and is just reward for a humble player who always extols the virtues of the team rather than his own remarkable skills.
December 19, 2009
In hindsight, it was one of the more obvious managerial changes in the Premier League. While there have been precious few top bosses removed this season – Paul Hart at Portsmouth being the first – Mark Hughes has been on borrowed time at Manchester City since the world’s richest club revealed its ambitions.
Despite publically backing Hughes, the Abu Dhabi-based group have had their eyes on someone else for some time. Whether it was this week’s revelation that Guus Hiddink had been targeted after Russia’s exit from the World Cup play-offs or Roberto Mancini’s sudden presence at Eastlands to watch what eventually turned out to be the Welshman’s final match, it was coming.
City’s ambition is hard to fulfil and Hughes has paid an unfair price for failing to match it. With the number of quality players they have they expect to be higher in the table but, in reality, sixth is a decent start for a side that has effectively been completely rebuilt from scratch in the past year.
City’s owners want Champions League football – a position the club are only four points off at the moment – but City’s fans are simply happy to be at the right end of the table for a change. There won’t be many at Eastlands who will be pleased with the prospect of changing bosses at such a crucial point in the season, but the cash-rich owners obviously want to give carte blanche to the new man before January arrives.
And therein lies the problem. High-profile transfers dominate their minds, but the hope of watching the world’s greatest players ply their trade in Manchester is unrealistic. Kaka proved that when he chose Madrid. Stability is what is needed this season and, when Kaldoon al-Mubarak gave his backing to Hughes after City's run of seven straight draws, it appeared he was getting just that.
A damaging 3-0 defeat to Tottenham (only their second this season by the way), evidently turned the tables and the owner’s true colours have shown. Quite simply, it is a rash decision and, if Roberto Mancini really is the best they can come up with, then there are bigger problems afoot.
City run the risk that all those who chase the ‘galactico’ dream suffer. They will never be able to attract a world-class manager if stability is not in place and it would be no surprise at all if Mancini makes way for someone else in six months’ time.
By signing Gareth Barry, Carlos Tevez and Kolo Toure, the club showed good sense in recruiting competent Premier League players who could aid their drive up the table. In sacking Hughes, all that good work has been undone and it is worth noting that no world-class player will want to be part of a side that changes their manager every few months.
December 18, 2009
The knockout phase of the Champions League is peppered with mouth-watering ties after Friday's draw in Nyon served up some high-profile reunions: David Beckham will return to Old Trafford with AC Milan, Jose Mourinho heads back to Stamford Bridge with Inter and £29.7 million striker Karim Benzema returns to Lyon with Real Madrid.
Chelsea's clash with Inter is the one that really whets my appetite. This tie has a back story of such depth that there is sure to be fireworks ahead of kick off, not least because proud Nerazzurri boss Mourinho has a point to prove to the man who booted him out of Stamford Bridge back in September 2007 - Blues owner Roman Abramovich.
It was Mourhino's mouth, as much as anything, which repeatedly landed him in trouble as Chelsea boss and the Portuguese has not changed his ways since resuming a trophy-laden managerial career at the San Siro. In his first season he guided the Nerazzurri to the Serie A title but upset almost every opposing manager, not to mention the Italian press, along the way.
One such disgruntled counterpart was AC Milan boss Carlo Ancelotti, who is now the man in charge at Chelsea. The Milan rivals endured an ongoing feud in Italy and when Ancelotti left Serie A to join Chelsea, Mourinho declared: "Ancelotti is no friend of mine".
The Inter manager's modus operandi is to get under the skin of his Champions League opponents (remember his spat with Barcelona?) and we should all look forward to the carefully crafted snipes Mourinho will surely utter in the build up to February's clash at the San Siro.
The best of the rest surely has to be David Beckham's return to Old Trafford to face Manchester United - the club where he emerged as a youngster and spent ten trophy-laden years. The former England skipper is sure to receive a hero's welcome, but can Milan do what Inter couldn't last season and beat the Red Devils?
Both sides are weaker than last term; the Rossoneri have lost Kaka and United are without Cristiano Ronaldo. The last time these two teams met it was Milan who triumphed but I expect the result to be reversed.
In fact, despite the fact that two of England's three qualifiers are involved in the most high-profile clashes of the last 16, all three, including Arsenal, who face Porto, will expect to reach the quarter-finals.
December 11, 2009
It’s a sad day when a player of such obvious potential is forced to retire at such an early age. After months – some would say years – of battling injury, West Ham striker Dean Ashton has been forced to call it quits after failing to recover from an ankle injury.
As a young striker, Ashton briefly held the hopes of a nation before a challenge from Shaun Wright-Phillips during an England training session ahead the Greece game in August 2006 saw him crippled. He was set for his first start for his country after impressing for the Hammers, with then-England coach Steve McClaren earmarking him for greatness, but Ashton battled back fitness to make an impression in the 2007-08 season.
Then, as injuries often do, he lapsed. Another training ground incident and the weak ankle was exposed in Gianfranco Zola’s first session in charge at the start of the 2008-09 season. He hasn’t been seen since.
Ashton now faces a life without football – aged just 26. The possibility of legal action looms. Firstly, West Ham will be looking to the FA to hand out compensation in the region of £7 million in order to cover his insurance and amounts to the fee that the Hammers paid to Norwich City for his services back in January 2006.
Then, there is the personal claim that Ashton may pursue against Wright-Phillips. Such player-on-player claims are not without precedent, with £909,000 the largest amount of ‘’vicarious liability’’ received by Bradford City’s Gordon Watson, who had a leg broken in two places in a challenge by Huddersfield Town defender Kevin Gray in 1997. Although it hardly seems worth it, given the striker will get £3 million from West Ham for a year’s wages.
The mental anguish that one of the country’s best young prospects faces cannot be understated. It is a crushing blow to be forced to give up anything you love, but to retire from football in your mid-twenties is agonising.
Having been on the radar of some of the biggest clubs in England after showing his potential with Crewe Alexandra and Norwich City, Ashton must now battle harder than he ever has before to maintain a career outside of the game. He will need time to come to terms with his difficult decision, but using his experience of the game and the skills that were so cruelly taken away from him, he can have an impact on the next generation of superstars.
Injury occasionally robs us of players before they have shown us their best - Steve Coppell and Marco Van Basten to name but two in recent memory – but both have proved that there is life after the game. Ashton will forever be haunted by the ‘what could have been’ question, but hopefully he can bounce back and make a name for himself off the pitch.
Carlos Tevez recently stated that he was considering early retirement because of the demands of modern day football. Perhaps looking at a tragic case like Ashton’s will help him reconsider.
December 7, 2009
Ever wondered who the best player of the decade is? Well, now is your chance to put forward your case. The candidates have been decided and it comes down to six world stars, both retired and still playing, who have had a massive impact on the world game in the ‘Noughties’.
First up we have current World Player of the Year Cristiano Ronaldo. The world’s most expensive footballer, at £80 million, who courted controversy by moving to Real Madrid from Manchester United this summer. He’s only been a real star since 2005 when he made the breakthrough at United, but has become one of the greatest ever since - notching an amazing 42 goals in 2007-08 and winning countless awards.
But surely Ronaldinho can claim to be better over the decade? He’s won a World Cup, in 2002, and between 2004 and 2006 won every personal honour you could hope to win. Ok, he’s off the pace a bit now, but remember how good he was when he was at Barcelona?
Fellow countryman Kaka could also claim to be the best, as he’s got himself a World Cup too. He made an immediate impact at Milan when he joined them in 2003 and helped the Italian side to the Serie A (2004) and UEFA Champions League (2007) titles. He is also worth 65 million euros, a sum paid by Real Madrid to bring him to the Bernabeu with Ronaldo this summer.
Steven Gerrard flies the flag for England and, despite not having won a Premier League title, his performances for Liverpool have made him one of the best in the world. A driving force behind Liverpool’s Champions League runs over the past few years, surely this Scouser is worth his place as the best of the decade?
Thierry Henry might argue though. Not the most popular player after his handball controversy, but Henry at his peak was unrivalled in world football. A star for Arsenal, he has continued to shine while at Barcelona and has won nearly every major honour there is to win – although has been overlooked individually.
And of course you cannot forget Zinedine Zidane. The mercurial Frenchman may have blotted his copybook with the headbutt seen around the world in 2006, but surely he deserves to be up there as well? The three-time World Player of the Year has only six years of career in the decade, but has done more than enough to secure his place at the top table. Hasn’t he?
Give us your thoughts: Who should be given such a prestigious award? Who missed out? Act now and join the debate. Post your comment below and tell us who you think is the best player to have graced the game over the past ten years.
We’ll announce the ESPN Classic Player of the Decade in a few weeks. Stay tuned to the Classic channel (SKY Channel 429, Virgin Media 533) for extended footage of the winner too.