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Pep Talk

March 9, 2011

What was so controversial about Pep Guardiola’s comments about Jack Wilshere? As highlighted by football365 the comment in its entirety is fair, balanced and complimentary. To me, his intention was to highlight the gulf in expectations between the two clubs, and how that will be beneficial to Wilshere, Arsenal and England in the long, even short term. But predictably, like Pavlov’s Dog, the tabloid press sensed an opportunity to stoke up a bit of xenophobic antagonism and started frothing at the mouth. How dare a foreigner disrespect one of England’s brightest talents, he’s the future of the National team and they won’t tolerate a Spaniard criticising him. That will, of course, be their duty when such an opportunity arises.

But just for a second, let’s assume that Guardiola was in fact claiming that Jack Wilshere is only good enough for Barcelona B. In fact let’s take it a step further and assume he’s asserted that Wilshere would probably be warming the bench for the Catalan reserves. Is this such an outlandish claim? Have a look at the Barcelona first XI for starters. With a flexible 4-3-3 formation Wilshere would be in contention for one of the 3 midfield berths. At present two of those places belong to the 2nd and 3rd placed Ballon D’Or nominees, Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez (although either one could have won the award without controversy). The last key man in the triumvirate, Sergio Busquets, is the unsung hero who performs the holding midfield role better than anyone in World football at present, and has seen off the challenges of Yaya Toure and Javier Mascherano for his position. Between them they have 11 La Liga titles, 5 Champions League winner’s medal, 2 European Championship winner’s medals, 3 World Cup winner’s medals and several other team and individual medals and accolades.

Right, fair enough, but surely young Jack would be good enough for a squad place? Well, possibly not. Javier Mascherano is the current alternative to Busquets. Many, myself included, rated him as the best midfield destroyer around while at Liverpool. He’s captain of the Argentinian National team and would realistically stroll into most other teams on the planet. The two remaining regular squad members, Ibrahim Afellay and Seydou Keita are not beyond being replaced, but let’s have a closer look at them.

Keita has been with the Blaugrana since 2008 and in that time has won 8 trophies in 129 appearances. He also played in Sevilla’s 6-3 aggregate win over Real Madrid in the Spanish Supercup in 2007. His pace and athleticism provide an alternative to the regular tiki-taka merchants. Afellay is the latest addition to the Nou Camp roster. He moved during the January transfer window after 7 years in the PSV Eindhoven first team, where he won 3 Eredivisie titles and two cups. He also won a World Cup runners-up medal with Holland in 2010. There is an argument that if van Marwijk had been more adventurous and dispensed with his two defensive midfielders in favour of Afellay’s skill and adventure, the Oranje may have won more fans if not the tournament itself. Several of Europe’s elite were chasing his signature, but when Barca come calling there’s only one answer.

It’s not beyond the realms of imagination that Wilshere could play some part in the Barca senior squad without looking too out-of-place, but as a 19-year-old he would need to have progressed from La Masia in this hypothetical scenario. Come on, say the Anglo media, Wilshere is a senior international, he’s far too good to be playing in the Segunda for a reserve side. Well, my smug reply would be, you have obviously never heard of Thiago Alcantra, Oriel Romeu or Sergi Roberto.

Alcantra and Romeu have progressed through the age groups with Spain and Barcelona, and were in tandem as Spain won the U-17’s Euro’s in 2007 (along with 4 other La Masia products), and reached the final in 2010 U-19’s competition beating England 3-1 in the semi’s (in a team containing 6 La Masia boys) . Romeu is the more defensive minded, whilst Alcantra has been described as a cross between Xavi and Ronaldinho, and is being groomed as the eventual successor to Hernandez. After Aaron Ramsey’s horrific leg break last year, Arsene Wenger was reported to have scouted Romeu to shore up his midfield options, but the move was scuppered when he signed a contract extension at the Nou Camp.

Roberto is the least heralded of the 3 but that’s more an indication of the quality of the other two rather than his. Another attacking midfielder, but in the style of Luis Enrique rather than Xavi or Iniesta. He was part of the Spanish U-17 side that came 3rd in the 2009 World Youth Cup, scoring a hat-trick in the quarter-final. He’s playing a year ahead of his age group after impressing Guardiola, and has already played for the first team in a Copa del Rey match.

As well as these stand-out prospects, the Barcelona B midfield options also include Jonathan Dos Santos (younger brother of Giovanni) who has played 9 times for the senior side and has 5 caps for Mexico. His major strengths are his passing, tactical awareness, long-range shooting and dead ball delivery.

Victor Vasquez, at the ripe old age of 24 has been in the reserve team for 5 seasons and is the current captain. He has seen former team-mates Messi, Pique and Fabregas progress while his chances have been limited to say the least. He nevertheless has a Champions League goal to his name. It’s been reported that he may be a transfer target for Arsenal in the summer.

Rafa ‘Rafinha’ Alcantra is the younger brother of Thiago and is also a regular in the B team midfield despite still being eligible for the Juvenil A. He has represented Spain at U-16, 17 and 19 level. He hasn’t yet got the reputation of his older sibling but in a friendly against the Brazil senior team his performance earned plaudits from Carlos Eduardo, Lucas Leiva, Pato and Rafael da Silva.

One of Rafinha’s Juvenil A team mates, Javier Espinosa, has also made appearances for the B team, and indeed scored on his debut as a half-time replacement. He was part of the Spanish World Youth Cup team that reached the semi-final in 2009 along with Roberto & Rafinha.

The final two (yes there are more) that would stand in the way of any possible game time for Wilshere are Andreu Fontas and Marti Riverola. Slightly older than the Gunners man at 21 and 20 respectively,y they are another pair of potentially world-class players. Fontas began his career as a midfielder but has spent most of his time as a centre back for Barcelona B. The left footer has represented Spain at U-19, 20 & 21 level and scored on his Champions League debut against Rubin Kazan in the Nou Camp. He has recently advanced to a defensive midfield position for the reserves with seamless ease.

Riverola is currently on loan to Vitesse Arnhem in the Dutch Eredivise where he is under the tutelage of Ex-Barca man Albert Ferrer. He has been at the club since he was 6 years old and began life as a striker. He moved back into midfield and has developed into an attacking player in the Iniesta mould. He has captained the Juvenil A and scored on his debut for the B team.

As with Guardiola’s comments this isn’t intended to be an assassination of what is an undoubtedly very fine talent. It’s not total fantasy to suggest that Wilshere may prove himself to be better than the players currently in the Barcelona reserves. It’s more of a comment on the presenters, pundits and ex-players who have been sucked in by the knee-jerk reaction in the English media. It’s natural that they want to jump to the defence of Wilshere, but to blindly claim that Guardiola was being disrespectful without having any knowledge of the depth of talent at Barca is criminally ignorant. It shouldn’t come as a surprise of course, as the knowledge of most of the aforementioned doesn’t extend beyond the Premier League and a few of Europe’s elite. How hard is it to use Google before opening your mouth?


Talents of Arabia

March 8, 2011

In solidarity with the protesters in North Africa and the Middle East, my contribution to Arab unity is the compiling of an Arab XI. Made up of players who either play for Arabic countries, or qualify to play for them.

1. Ali Al Habsi – Oman & Wigan

Are there any other contenders? The first Omani to play professional football in Europe, and the first Arab goalkeeper to ply his trade in the Premier League. On loan at Wigan from Bolton, he’s made the no. 26 jersey his own. The proud owner of 70 caps for Oman and has won the Best Keeper Award in the Gulf Cup of Nations 4 tournaments in a row, with his net remaining unrippled as Oman won the 2009 competition. He has also won the Best Goalkeeper Award in Norway in 2004 whilst playing for Lyn Oslo. Despite Wigan’s lowly league position, Al-Habsi remains one of the most underrated custodians in the Premier League.

2. Ahmed Elmohamady – Egypt & Sunderland

Elmohamady is an attacking right-back with a big future. At 23 years old he has 43 Egypt caps, and 23 Premier League appearances. He sealed a £2m move to Sunderland after impressing on loan, and rejecting offers from Hertha Berlin, Dinamo Bucharest, Club Brugge and West Brom. A move to Blackburn collapsed after the sacking of manager Paul Ince. In keeping with the current trend of modern full-backs he’s impressed more with his attacking play than defensively and has become a crowd favourite at the Stadium of Light. Despite his form dipping in recent weeks, manager Steve Bruce has been very complimentary.

“I think sometimes you’ve got to cut people a little slack and consider just what they have to cope with. Ahmed has come over here to a completely different culture and way of life. But he is an exciting prospect and he’s got the attributes you need – pace, desire and physique – to succeed in the modern game. He’s quick, eager and great in the air and he’s a threat. He’s also got a great attitude – he just wants to play and that’s very refreshing for a manager.”

3. Nadir Belhadj – Algeria & Al Sadd

French-born Belhadj has fallen off the radar since his departure from Portsmouth at the end of last season, signing for Qatari giants Al Sadd after the relegation of the south coast club. He joined Pompey from Lens for around £4m, where his tenacious defence and attacking verve caught the eye. His display in the 2-2 draw in a UEFA Cup tie against AC Milan at Fratton Park drew admiring glances from the Rossoneri and some of the larger clubs in the Premier League. He’s represented Algeria on 51 occasions, including the 2010 World Cup and Africa Cup of Nations, after winning honours at U-18 level for France.





4. Adil Rami – France & Lille

Centre Back Rami was born on the island of Corsica to Moroccan parents. Despite an approach from Morocco manager Henri Michel, he decided to pledge his future to France. The 6ft 3ins defender has provided the imposing backbone for the Lille team in recent years, and has been instrumental in their rise to the top of Ligue 1 this season. Rami was also one of the star performers for Lille in last seasons Europa Cup. After advancing to the knock-out stages they eventually succumbed to Liverpool at Anfield despite winning the home leg. Liverpool were reported to be interested in acquiring his services, along with Arsenal and Milan. With his contract in its final year Lille chose to capitalise on an approach from Valencia during the January window, who picked up the French international for a reported £6m. Rami will remain at Lille on loan and begin next season at the Mestalla. He will surely add to his 7 caps in the coming years.

5. Younes Kaboul – Morocco/France & Spurs

Born in the foothills of the French Alps, Kaboul has received call-ups to both the Morocco and French squads without playing. As a result he remains eligible for both despite his 18 caps for France U-21’s. He is currently in his second spell at Spurs, and his second with Harry Redknapp after the Tottenham manager signed him at Portsmouth for £6m in 2008. His first period with Spurs wasn’t met with universal approval as he appeared ill at ease in the Premier League. But at 25 years of age, he looks far more comfortable, and his pace and physique have been put to good use by Spurs, including superb performances at White Heart Lane in Champions League victories over Inter Milan and Werder Bremen. Despite not being an automatic choice and still having detractors, a winning goal against arch rivals Arsenal at the Emirates will ensure his status as a cult hero for many fans. If his development under Redknapp continues he’ll need to decide sooner rather than later who to commit his international future to.

6. Marouane Fellaini – Belgium & Everton

The towering 6ft 4ins (6ft 8ins including afro) Belgian international first came to prominence playing for the superb young Standard Liege side that took Liverpool to extra time in the 08-09 Champions League qualifiers. He was promptly signed by Everton for a Belgian and Everton record of £15m, amid rumours of interest from Man Utd, Aston Villa, Real Madrid, Spurs and Bayern Munich. The box-to-box style and versatility of Fellaini have been invaluable to Everton and were never more apparent than in the 08-09 season when he played as an emergency striker and won a record haul of 8 goals for the season. David Moyes claimed last season that there wasn’t anyone better than him in the league such was Fellaini’s form. Not everyone agreed. His form has been hampered by injury since then, and how underperforming Everton and Belgium could benefit from an on form Fellaini.

7. Samir Nasri – France & Arsenal

Nasri’s performances this season have been of such a high standard, he must surely be a contender for Premier League player of the year. Despite obvious potential, his rise to prominence must even be a pleasant surprise for those who watch him on a weekly basis. The quality of his play meant that the temporary absence of Cesc Fabregas didn’t hinder Arsenal’s style or results at the beginning of the season. Nasri has even outshone Fabregas when they have both taken the field. What may have seemed a lazy comparison to Zinedine Zidane in his Marseille days due to a shared Algerian heritage, seem to be less fanciful now. His omission from the French World Cup squad seemed strange at the time, but criminal in hindsight. It may prove to be a blessing in disguise for the young midfielder as his emergence is untainted by association, and perhaps heralds a new era for Les Bleus and Arsenal.

8. Sami Khedira – Germany & Real Madrid

Injuries can break some careers, but may just have made the career of Stuttgart born Sami Khedira. When Germany captain Michael Ballack was put out of the 2010 World Cup by Kevin Prince Boateng, his likely replacement Heiko Westermann was also ruled out with injury, and another frontrunner Christian Trasch was rendered unavailable, their tournament prospects seemed to be in jeopardy. Should they sacrifice Bastian Schweinsteiger’s attacking prowess by pulling him deeper? Would the promising Toni Kroos be able to slot into an unfamiliar role? Thomas Mueller was another option, but again not a natural in the required position. Eventually Jogi Lowe plumped for 5 times capped Sami Khedira, the 2009 UEFA U-21’s Championship winning captain. As it transpired, the Tunisian qualified midfielder was a revelation. His understanding with Schweinsteiger was pivotal to Germany’s shape and style, and the fact that the team contained another 4 of his U-21 team mates must have contributed. After helping Germany to a 3rd place finish and outstanding performances against England and Argentina, he made a reported £12m move to Real Madrid. Despite a star-studded squad the 23-year-old has made 32 appearances for Los Blancos this season. But for the misfortune of others the story could be very different.

9. Karim Benzema – France & Real Madrid

Perhaps fortunate to win the coveted No. 9 shirt on current form, but there’s no denying the Frenchman’s talent. Another player to earn comparisons with Zinedine Zidane thanks to his Algerian roots, but as a striker it’s hard to find any other reason. His first full season as a regular in the Lyon side saw him score a remarkable 31 goals in 51 games in all competitions. The following season was not quite as prolific but still saw a very respectable return of 1 goal in every 2 games. By now he was already a French international and was regarded as one of the hottest properties in world football. In 2009 he was signed by Real Madrid for a fee in the region of £30m. He struggled to make an immediate impact at the Bernabeu and was only given 14 starts. In those games he scored 5 goals and provided 3 assists, but standards are high in Madrid. With the departure of Raul, there would be one less player in the pecking order in 2010-11. Despite constant rumours of his departure, criticism of his form, and the arrival of Emmanuel Adebayor, Benzema has scored 17 goals and 8 assists in 37 games for Los Meregues. As with Nasri, his mystifying absence from the World Cup has only served to strengthen his status within the French set-up. His 6 caps since the South Africa debacle has produced 4 goals and have been integral to the revolution under Laurent Blanc.

10. Adel Taraabt – Morocco & QPR

Another contentious selection maybe? His ability isn’t in doubt, but his attitude and temperament have been called into question on numerous occasions. Currently showcasing his talents in the second tier of English football with QPR, he’s amassed an astonishing 15 goals and 19 assists in 35 games from an attacking midfield role. He was spotted by Spurs director of football Damien Comolli as a 17-year-old playing for Lens, and snapped up for £3.5m by the London club. He played 357 minutes in 3 seasons at White Heart Lane, drawing compliments and criticism in equal measures. After a season in the Championship with QPR he was signed on a 3 year contract for around £1m. He was made captain by Neil Warnock in what could prove to be a masterstroke, in attempt to focus his mind and harness his skills. Despite still being prone to mood swings and self-indulgence, he’s undoubtedly destined to win the Championship player of the year award as QPR win promotion. What happens then is anybody’s guess.

11. Ibrahim Afellay – Holland & Barcelona

Just imagine the team Morocco would be capable of fielding if everyone eligible were to play for them. Perhaps the jewel in their crown would be Barcelona new boy Ibrahim Afellay. Born in Utrecht, Holland, he made his debut for PSV Eindhoven at the age of 17. He was included in the Morocco and Dutch squads in 2007, and made the choice to play for his country of birth. He made his debut at 20 years old, and has won 31 caps to date. Afellay won 3 consecutive Eredivisie titles with PSV and a World Cup runners-up medal with Holland before sealing his move to the Nou Camp in January. Clearly not daunted by a challenge, whilst being the star turn at Eindhoven, he was happy to commit to the Dutch national team despite the wealth of midfield talent, and chose Barcelona ahead of many other suitors even though their team contains the 3 players shortlisted for the Ballon D’Or and are direct competition for his position. He does however seem to be a perfect fit for the Barca style of play and could provide a more than capable stand in for Iniesta, Pedro or Xavi.

2nd XI

1. Hamdi Kasraoui  – Tunisia & Lens
2. Abdoulay Konko – Morocco & Sevilla
3. Rafik Halliche  – Algeria & Fulham
4. Mehdi Benatia – Morocco & Udinese
5. Karim Haggui – Tunisia & Hannover
6. Otman Bakkal – Holland & PSV
7. Ryad Boudebouz  – Algeria & Sochaux
8. Hatem Ben Arfa – France & Newcastle
9. Marouane Chamakh – Morocco & Arsenal
10. Mounir El Hamdaoui – Morocco & Ajax
11. Mbark Boussoufa – Morocco & Anderlecht

Hair Zeqiri – KS Flamurtari Vlore & Albania U-21’s

March 8, 2011

As I’ve written in my About page, I have a borderline obsession with discovering obscure information and new talent. Things don’t get much more obscure than 22 year olds playing in the Albanian league who have yet to play for their national team.

Hair Zeqiri is an Albanian U-21 international and midfielder for KS Flamurtari Vlore, a club with only one domestic title and a ground that holds only 9,500 people. Opinion seems to vary from website to website on how to describe him. The most accurate I’ve been able to find is ‘versatile offensive midfielder’. Although even this doesn’t really do him justice. Admittedly, judging a player in the context of a youtube video from the Albanian league is not always going to give you the full picture. But from what I’ve seen Zeqiri is an accomplished technician, with vision not only in attack, but also defensively. He’s adept at executing defence splitting passes, but his positional awareness enables him to break up opposition attacks and initiate counter attacks or simply keep possession.

At 6ft 3in he provides a physical presence and athleticism to the midfield and an asset at set pieces in both boxes. Surprisingly, his goalscoring and assist records are disappointing for a player of his quality, but the ability of his teammates should probably be taken into account. It’s also something of a mystery why he hasn’t yet been capped by Albania at senior level considering his talents have caught the attention outside of his domestic league.

Albania are currently ranked 66th in the world and share a Euro 2012 qualifying group with France, Bosnia, Romania, Belarus & Luxembourg and finished the WC 2010 qualifying campaign with just one win from 10 games. Their highest profile player is Galatasaray midfielder Lorik Cana, who captained Sunderland for much of last season. Elsewhere in the squad is Altin Lala of Hannover, Ledian Memushaj of Chievo, Hamdi Salihi of Rapid Vienna and Erjon Bogdani of Cesena who play at a reasonable level and rival Zeqiri for a midfield or attacking berth. It may be that experience is what is required, while Zeqiri earns his stripes as a lynchpin in the U-21 team.

KS Flamurtari Vlore currently sit at the top of the Albanian league by 7 points with a +30 goal difference. It’s reasonable to hazard that they may play a part in the qualifying rounds of the Champions League next season and give Zeqiri a bigger stage to display his qualities. His only experience of European football thus far has been a 2 legged qualifier in last seasons Europa league against Motherwell. Despite winning the home leg 1-0, Flamurtari suffered an 8-1 drubbing at Fir Park. With this being Zeqiris final season as an U-21 player, and his club in pole position for only their second league title, next term could be a crucial one for the young midfielders future. A promotion to the senior National team, Champions League football or a move to a foreign league must surely be in the offing. Then we might see just how good he can be.

Ahmed Khalil – Al-Ahli & UAE

March 7, 2011

Forget for a moment that Ahmed Khalil is playing in the UAE League, which doesn’t include defences of the quality of any of the major European leagues. Indeed possibly not of many of the minor European leagues. Forget that his only goals at international level have come against Moldova, Malaysia and Kuwait.

Remember instead that he’s a mere 19 years old, and made his international debut at the age of 16 whilst simultaneously playing for the U-23’s & U-20’s (who he’d been playing for since he was 15 years old). Remember that he’s won 10 individual awards including U-17 & U-23 Gulf Nations Top Scorer, AFC U-19 Championship Top Scorer & Player of the Tournament, Asian Young Footballer of the Year & 3 Most Promising Arab Player awards. He’s also won team medals in the U-17 & U-23 Gulf Nations Cup, U-23 Gulf Nations Cup (Gold) & Asian Games (Silver). Consider that in 73 club games he has scored 31 goals and performed 25 assists, including 4 games in his debut season as a 15 year old where he scored 4 goals and 2 assists. Remember again that he’s only 19 years of age.

Watching the various highlight reels of his performances it’s obvious to see that this is a young man playing at a level well below his capabilities, which his stats would appear to confirm. He plays with the confidence and assurance of a seasoned pro, but with the freedom and adventure that youth allows. He’s been described as the Emirati Drogba, but with limited viewing, this appears to be more down to a facial resemblance than his playing style. He’s only 5ft 10ins tall and more likely to use pace and skill to beat his marker than height, power and athleticism. The comparison to Samuel Eto’o made by others therefore seems far more suitable.

Unfortunately Khalil may remain an enigma to European football fans. Despite an apparent attempt by prospective Portsmouth owner Sulaiman Al Fahim to bring his compatriot to the English club in 2009, and a trial at Chelsea, there have been no concrete attempts to lure the forward from is Dubai club Al-Ahli. His raw skills deserve a bigger stage, but doubts over his decision making and physical strength are possibly the reasons European scouts are remaining cautious. Still being a teenager, he has time on his hands and is currently managed by former Leeds manager David O’Leary who has a decent track record of developing young players.

There isn’t a long list of Emirati footballers for Khalil to follow in the footsteps of; in fact players from the Arabian Peninsula and the Middle East in general haven’t made a huge splash in European football. The riches of Dubai and Qatar mean that European players are more likely to move in the opposite direction, albeit in the twilight of their careers, such as Khalil’s current club captain, World Cup winner Fabio Cannavaro.

Rather than get chewed up and spat out by the instant results culture that rules the Premier League, Primera Division and Serie A. It may be far more beneficial for Khalil to either continue learning his trade at Al-Ahli, or make a more modest move to a club in France, Portugal or one of the lower profile European leagues. Didier Drogba himself made the move to Le Mans as a 20 year old, playing 3 seasons in the 2nd tier of French football. His first taste of the big time didn’t come until his one and only season in Marseille at the age of 25.

Samuel Eto’o, despite moving from Cameroon to Real Madrid as a 15 year old, only played 56 minutes for Los Merengues. He spent 3 seasons on loan at Leganes, Espanyol and Mallorca, before moving to the island team permanently. By the time Eto’o had left Palma for Barcelona in 2004 at the age of 23, he was Mallorca’s all-time domestic top scorer and worth £24m. Both Drogba and Eto’o would go on to become two of the most potent goalscorers in world football.

Khalil has made a promising start to his footballing career and has a long way to go to fulfil his potential. But if he achieves half as much as the two players he’s being compared to, he could be the first Emirati footballer to become a household name.