July 27, 2010
Steven Defour has been linked with Liverpool
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Now Roy Hodgson has confirmed Javier Mascherano wants to leave Liverpool, the focus turns to his replacement at Anfield.
Several reports over the last couple of weeks have linked Standard Liege's Steven Defour, 22, with the Reds. Hodgson is said to have a keen interest in the young Belgian ace and it is easy to see why - Defour seems like a perfect replacement for Mascherano. A pacy and versatile midfielder with great vision and passing rate, he would fit straight into the gap.
Defour has attracted big club interest before. Ajax, looking for a replacement for Wesley Sneijder, had a bid turned down in the 2007-08 season. After the 2009-10 season, bigger clubs showed an interest. All of Barcelona, Real Madrid, Chelsea and Manchester United were reported to have had a look at the Standard captain, but nothing materialised. Still, when Defour was injured in a Europa League game against Panathinaikos in January, Sir Alex Ferguson was rumoured to have sent him a personal letter of encouragement.
However, all the talk now is about Defour going to Liverpool, especially with Manchester United seemingly having taken a fancy for German Wunderkind Mesut Ozil. And if it happens, it may prove to be a great move for all concerned. Defour cannot go much further in Belgium, having won two league titles with Standard (2008 and 2009) and the country's highest individual honour, the Golden Boot, in 2008. He has captained Standard since he was only 19 and at 22 seems destined to burst out of Belgium and onto the big scene. Liverpool would be a massive new challenge. Liverpool are still one of the biggest clubs in the history of the game and a dream move for any young player. And Defour can only expect to learn and get better, playing in one of the biggest leagues in Europe, with the likes of Steven Gerrard and most likely Fernando Torres and under a manager who is known for getting the best out of his players.
For Liverpool, Defour could be the man to help them achieve their turnaround and break back into Europe's elite. He has proved at Standard that he can compete at the highest level, with more than decent performances against top opposition in the Champions and Europa Leagues. (It was in one of those ties, in which Liverpool only beat Standard after penalties, that Defour first attracted attention .) The captain of a championship-winning side since the age of 19, he has also shown an ability to cope with pressure that belies his 22 years.
Any position in midfield can bring out the best in him: holding, attacking, centre or either flank. His vision and passing rate would be a boost for the Reds and, as an added bonus, he has played for some time with Liverpool's new striker, Milan Jovanovic, and has built a great playing partnership with him. The fact that he is "only" Belgian and "only" plays in Belgium makes for a relatively low transfer fee. £15 million is currently rumoured. The same calibre player would easily command double that if he were Italian, Spanish or English. Defour will presumably also be less demanding than Mascherano in terms of wages, given the financial chasm between the Belgian Pro-League and the Premier League. Defour would be a steal.
For Standard, then, the benefits would be largely financial. Having had to let Jovanovic go on a free, they will regret the transfer money they could have received for a player who scored at this summer’s World Cup. With their other main striker, Dieu-Merci Mbokani, also keen on a move out of the country and Belgium left-back Sebastien Pocognoli attracting interest from Spanish giants Sevilla, Standard could put any extra money from a Defour transfer to good use rebuilding their ravaged squad. A fee of £15 million is an enormous amount of money to Standard, which will enable them to outbid nearly any Belgian club in their quest for new players.
July 26, 2010
Raul was a legend at the Bernabeu.
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Just two weeks after Andres Iniesta’s extra-time goal saw Spain crowned as the finest footballing nation on the planet, one of their finest ever players - Raul - ended an era at the Bernabeu.
Imagining Real Madrid without Raul is like picturing the New York skyline without the Empire State Building. The man defined the club he represented for 16 years and one of Jose Mourinho’s first challenges in Madrid will be to recapture the chunk of identity Raul (and fellow veteran Guti) took with them as the doors of the Bernabeu closed behind them for the final time.
Raul won more than he ever could have imagined with Los Blancos and still tops the all-time Champions League scoring charts with 66 goals, so it couldn’t have been easy for the Spanish icon to accept that his inevitable decline would coincide with Spain’s emergence as a superpower.
The sumptuous tiki-taka style that saw Vicente del Bosque’s side confirm their status as the world’s best relies on a David Villa or a Fernando Torres to convert the chances Xavi and Iniesta craft from deeper areas of the pitch. But even in a system so apparently perfect, it’s difficult to imagine that Raul at his peak wouldn’t have added something extra, something different. But, of course, this is something we’ll never know.
Raul still managed an exceptional 44 goals in 102 games for Spain throughout a barren period when, despite possessing able players, they were never genuine challengers for trophies. So, it was in the Champions League and La Liga that Raul went about his business of destroying defences and beating goalkeepers. Something he achieved 323 times.
Raul once cited the predatory instincts of Gary Lineker as his inspiration and, after making his debut as a skinny 17-year-old, the Spaniard begun the work of emulating his hero. But it was against Lineker’s former side, Barcelona, in a vintage episode of the El Clasico in 1999 that Raul demonstrated his lethal presence in front of goal, creating a symbolic moment in the process.
Despite Raul’s early goal, Real Madrid were trailing 2-1 in Camp Nou. With five minutes to go, Raul collected a piercing through ball from Javier Saviola before exquisitely lifting it over the rushing ‘keeper and into the Barcelona net. The Nou Camp fell deathly silent and, after kissing his wedding ring in tribute to his wife, he suggested the Catalan fans remained quiet by running in front of the main stand with his finger on his lips.
But Raul was always respectful to friends and foes and, in his last ever Real Madrid press conference on Monday, he admitted that another Barcelona player, Pep Guardiola, was the opponent he respected the most.
“My favourite opponent was Guardiola. You tell when he was playing that he was the manager as well. I used to think how could he talk so much and play so well,” Raul said. “And it was he who gave me my assist for my first goal for Spain.”
The highs of Raul’s career in the pristine white of Real Madrid are too many to mention, but as he continues his career in a new league - most likely the Bundesliga - Los Blancos say goodbye to a true great of the modern game. Indeed one, for his prolific service for club and country, who deserves a share in the recognition his international colleagues enjoyed earlier this month in Johannesburg.
July 19, 2010
Cole's wage dispute saw him leave Chelsea.
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The free transfer of Joe Cole to Liverpool is as much symbolic of a new era under Roy Hodgson as it is indicative of the club’s intent to bring the good times back to Anfield.
Beleaguered owners, restless fans and talk of the club’s most prized on-field possessions jumping ship, has given Hodgson the immediate task of guiding his new club through some decidedly choppy waters. But in signing Cole, Hodgson has already got the fans on his side – half the battle at any club.
And the shrewdness of Hodgson’s maiden purchase will not go unnoticed either, given that Yossi Benayoun was shipped in the opposite direction for a fee of £5 million earlier this month, keeping Gillett and Hicks satisfied in the process. The jury is out on what Chelsea were thinking.
Liverpool and Hodgson have done the hard work in getting their man, subject to a medical of course, meaning the ball is firmly in Cole’s court.
A player of superb natural ability and undoubted class firstly has to keep himself fit before concentrating on delivering on a regular basis – the true test for Cole. After holding out for wages above the £80,000-a-week he was receiving for his peripheral role at Chelsea, his main task is to prove that he is worth the money that Spurs and Arsenal wouldn’t match.
A tendency to take uncalculated risks on the field and to drift in and out of games will be illuminated in a team that will rely on his match-winning capabilities for 90 minutes every week. Indeed, it is seven years since he was the focal point of the youthful West Ham side that Glenn Roeder inherited from Harry Redknapp.
In short, Cole must show a level of maturity and responsibility rarely expected of him before.
Cole’s favourite position, playing in the hole behind the strikers, is occupied by a certain Steven Gerrard at Liverpool and, with Hodgson unlikely to tamper with the understanding his captain has with Fernando Torres, Cole may find himself playing on the left wing.
Unquestionably less effective out wide, Cole will crave a central role but as long as he is starting games he will be happy, and so will the fans, given the entertaining, crowd-pleasing style he brings. Crucially too, his arrival may just be the reassurance Fernando Torres needs to give the Reds at least one more season.
But for all the much needed verve and vision Joe Cole will inject into an often stale looking Liverpool attack, substance is key in the Premier League. He possesses some magnificent attributes in abundance but, for a player who turns 29 later this year, this is Cole’s last shot at the big time.
July 15, 2010
Heskey was recalled by Steve McClaren
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After 62 caps and a measly seven goals, Emile Heskey's 11-year international career is over.
Given that he is 32 and coach Fabio Capello is expected to look for new blood ahead of England's Euro 2012 qualifying campaign he may have jumped before he was pushed. At least Heskey's retirement comes with a little more sincerity than that of 15-cap Andy Cole, who infamously hung up his England boots with a strop after failing to make it into Sven Goran Eriksson's squad for the 2002 World Cup.
It's difficult to know exactly how Heskey, classically dubbed a "players' player", will be remembered. Perhaps even in retirement he will be a striker who polarises opinion. A striker who doesn't score, but one who still managed to command respect.
Heskey was the butt of jokes during his first spell with England, which came to an end after Euro 2004 when he fell out of favour with Eriksson. It was seen as incredulous when he won a recall under Steve McClaren at the end of England's failed bid to qualify for Euro 2008.
But, such was the desperation, Heskey had an immediate impact in qualifiers against Israel and Russia as England won back-to-back games at Wembley and scored six goals. Even though Heskey did not get on the scoresheet, it was felt he had contributed greatly to an improved performance. Heskey was injured for England's final three qualifiers, perhaps a crucial blow for McClaren.
Heskey also received plaudits during the World Cup qualifying campaign, but there was always the feeling that he would be ineffectual at the finals, and his inclusion at the expense of an in-form goalscorer such as Sunderland's Darren Bent brought criticism.
For all Heskey's detractors, he's nowhere near the top of the hit list for furious England fans. Frank Lampard, 32, and John Terry, 29, head the list of long-term failures at international level. Will they retire from international football? Probably not. But Lampard's time must surely be up after systematically under-achieving for the last six years.
John Terry may use the fact that he's the right side of 30 as an argument, but his despicable actions in South Africa totally undermined the already-fragile confidence of what appears to have been a fractious squad.
David James, Robert Green, Matthew Upson, Jamie Carragher and Steven Gerrard are all in their 30s, with another nine-members of Capello's 30-man preliminary party for the finals nearing that milestone. It underlines just how much rebuilding Capello, and whoever takes his place in 2012, will be facing in the years to come.
Heskey has become the first to fall on his sword and while others are rightly slammed for their lack of effort, that is a criticism which can never be levelled at Heskey.
July 14, 2010
Henry is a world famous face
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New York’s sizeable Irish population may vehemently disagree, but Wednesday’s news that Thierry Henry will be playing for the Red Bulls next season is quite a coup for the club, and potentially for MLS as a whole.
While the claim on the club’s official website that “Henry comes in his prime” is patently false - his peak coming seven years ago when Arsenal went the 2003-04 season unbeaten - the Frenchman, at 32, still has much to offer as he begins his career in the USA.
A phenomenon on the pitch, albeit one whose powers have noticeably waned, Henry is a marketing man’s dream off it. Articulate, intelligent and handsome, he is a perfect poster boy for MLS, a definitive signing very much in the David Beckham mould.
But unlike Beckham, you suspect Henry will not be distracted from the task at hand. Given France’s implosion at the World Cup it is possible that Henry’s international cycle has come to an end. There may not be sporadic loan moves back to Europe, interfering with MLS priorities, in an attempt to add to his 51 international goals.
Neither is Henry as committed to the celebrity lifestyle as his new MLS rival. Yes, he is acutely aware of his earning potential and boasts famous friends like San Antonio Spurs’ Tony Parker, but he has never been subject to accusations that a thirst for fame has got in the way of his football.
If Red Bulls have recruited a fully focused and committed Henry, then they have a formidable asset indeed, even if he is no longer good enough to command a place in the Barca squad.
That much was made painfully evident when, on April 28, Barca were heading out of the Champions League and Pep Guardiola left Henry on the bench against Inter Milan, instead placing his trust in rookie forward Jeffren. It was clear then that Henry had no future in Catalunya.
With Pedro in such promising form across the 2009-10 season, Henry made only 15 league starts for Barcelona, scoring four goals, as he struggled to retain a place in the side. Which player wouldn’t? This was, after all, a team that smashed the previous record when amassing 99 points in La Liga.
But only 12 months ago, Henry was an integral member of the side that won Barca’s first Treble, playing a full part in a formidable three-man attack alongside Samuel Eto’o and Lionel Messi. That is not so long ago as to be rendered irrelevant.
Yes his “prime” has come and gone, and he may have lost a degree of that electric pace that saw him tear Premier League defences asunder on a regular basis, but Henry remains an accomplished footballer.
Unlike Beckham, he has the capability to conjure up magic of his own accord and does not require talented players around him. A fact that surely means he will be capable of impressive feats in his new league.
A country that once hosted the likes of George Best and Pele, through Carlos Valderrama and Hristo Stoichkov, deserved a modern day superstar worthy of the tag. Beckham was not that man, but Henry may well be.
July 11, 2010
Forlan nets his fifth goal in South Africa.
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Playing out of position, Diego Forlan deserved all the accolades he got from this World Cup. Golden Hair, Golden Ball. He certainly turned in some golden performances in South Africa.
A player virtually unrecognisable from the one who walked the turf at Manchester United from 2002-2004, the Uruguay striker - now turned playmaker - has come a long way since.
A moment that epitomised his time at United was when he took to the pitch as a substitute against Bayer Leverkusen in the Champions League semi-final in 2002 with his side desperate to score, and failed to make any impression at all.
He may have been loved by the fans for scoring a brace against Liverpool, but his career did not progress during his time in England and he was left with a mountain to climb upon his exit.
But climb he did. First sealing a move to Villarreal, he rediscovered his goalscoring touch and won the Spanish Pichichi award with 25 goals in 2004-05 - also claiming the European Golden Boot award in the process (jointly with Thierry Henry).
With confidence flowing through his veins again, a move to Atletico Madrid continued his rise and reached its peak when he bagged both goals in the Europa League win over Fulham last season. Suddenly, a player who had looked worthless when he left England was placed among the top strikers in Europe and, as the World Cup arrived, he was tipped for glory.
Part of a devastating attacking duo for Uruguay with the world’s most in-form striker, Luis Suarez, Forlan’s impact on the World Cup in taking his side to their first semi-final since 1970 was played out in unfamiliar territory.
Usually given the freedom to hang on the shoulder of the last defender, Forlan’s move to ‘the hole’ behind the strikers was an inspired one. A gifted dribbler, he was allowed room to direct the traffic and made sure he created numerous opportunities for his opponents without being exposed for his lack of pace.
The switch also allowed him to release one of the most potent weapons in his arsenal: his shooting from long-range. Using the Jabulani ball to his advantage, Forlan struck from outside the area more than any other player and single-handedly got his side back into the quarter-final clash with Ghana (before another hand played its part later on). Not completely fit for the semi-final against Holland, it was noticeable how much the Uruguay side missed his dominating presence in the attacking third.
In a post-World Cup age that loves a poster boy, one wonders if his form will earn him another big move. Liverpool are rumoured to be interested in bringing him back to England and he may feel he has something to prove back in the Premier League. Certainly he has proved his doubters wrong on the world stage but what the future holds is now up to him.