Friday, October 31, 2008

Pioneer Tévez could still face Premier League exit

English clubs have traditionally harboured a deep-seated suspicion of stylish Latin stars. To the conservative coach, such players have always represented a big gamble. A gamble which many Premier League clubs, unlike their Spanish and Italian counterparts, have long been unwilling to take. After all, for every Ossie Ardiles there’s been a Mirandinha. For every Juninho; a Kléberson.

Sure, they might turn it on for glamour ties in the early-season sunshine, but what of wet, windy Wednesday nights in Hull or Wigan? They’d go missing, it was said, when the pitches muddied and the temperatures dropped (i.e. by early October). They’re over-elaborate, ‘luxury’ players, who could never adapt to the frenetic demands of our hundred-miles-an-hour football.

Yet it’s clubs such as high-flying Hull and battling Wigan which have, in fact, owed a significant chunk of their recent successes to exotic imports from as far and wide as Brazil, Honduras and Ecuador. Ex-Barcelona midfielder Geovanni has enjoyed an electrifying start to his time by the Humber; Wilson Palacios, Maynor Figueroa and, particularly, Luis Antonio Valencia have each added a dash of élan to Steve Bruce’s pragmatic side.

Elsewhere, Chilean winger Carlos Villanueva has settled well alongside Roque Santa Cruz at Blackburn; Lucas and Fábio Aurélio impress intermittently for Liverpool; and, of course, Elano and Jô were followed to Eastlands by record-breaker Robinho. Chelsea, who boast Juliano Belletti, Alex, and Brazilian-born Deco amongst their ranks, have even gone so far as to hire a South American boss, for goodness sake.

Several of these players did not even arrive at their current home via another European club; which is considered the safety-first method of filtering out those without the mentality to adapt to the unique challenges of top-flight English football.

It’s arguable of course, but the impact of one man has done much to lay the foundations for fellow Latin imports. That man is Manchester United’s Carlos Tévez.

The arrival of Tévez at West Ham – in somewhat shady circumstances – from Brazilian club Corinthians was greeted, initially, by astonishment. When the dust had settled on his and Javier Mascherano’s bolt-from-the-blue switch to East London, the early excitement turned to scepticism. Boss Alan Pardew – clearly not enamoured with the high-profile Argentinean duo being foisted upon him – was reluctant to give Tévez a regular first team slot. Still, who needs a world-class attacking talent like ‘Carlitos’ when you’ve got Marlon Harewood working the channels?

As any Sheffield United fan will tell you, with the appointment of Alan Curbishley to the Upton Park hot-seat came a dramatic upturn in Tévez’s fortunes. Much has already been said about the issue, but there is little doubt that the stocky striker’s improved input was the critical factor in West Ham’s survival at the Blades’ expense. He’d proved entirely that – despite the cynicism which still surrounds such signings – flamboyant South American stars can adapt to life in English football.

Last year – his first at Manchester United – could hardly have gone much better for the boy from downtown Buenos Aires. Domestic and continental success came on the back of a season in which his relentless work-rate and telepathic understanding with Wayne Rooney illuminated the Premier League.

But Dimitar Berbatov’s impressive integration into the United line-up has disrupted the serene progress 24-year-old Tévez has enjoyed at Old Trafford. As Sir Alex Ferguson recently said: three into two won’t go.

He also said: “He (Tévez) has not started as many games as he would like but he is just as important to us as the guys who have hogged the headlines of late. I stressed to him last week that our faith in him remains absolute.”

That may be the case, but speculation persists that Tévez could be on his way to sunnier climes come the end of the season and, subsequently, the end of his two-year loan from (nominally) West Ham. The Rooney/Berba partnership is clearly now the first choice one. Can Sir Alex really justify a transfer fee reckoned to be in the region of £30m being lavished on a third-choice forward? If not, Tévez will, sadly, be lost to the Premier League.

Post-Tévez, the trickle of Latin players into the country has turned to a flood. Now, with a larger support network surrounding them, players from South and Central America are in a better position to make a lasting impact.

The hurdles of an alien culture, cuisine and style of football are significant ones, it’s true. But in the days of Brazilians in Uzbekistan (see Rivaldo) and Ivorians in Romania (see multi-national CFR Cluj), it’s not so hard to accept that – given the right backing – Latin stars can succeed over here.

If once they were considered a luxurious accessory; now few self-respecting Premier League clubs take to the field without one. The next generation – that of Rafael da Silva and Franco di Santo – are already making their presence felt. It’d be a shame if pioneer ‘Carlitos’ wasn’t here to enjoy their success.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Landon's landing - but where?

Landon Donovan. Remember him?

Long before the emergence of Freddy Adu (remember him?) the LA Galaxy forward was vaunted as the great hope of US football. He was destined, it was said, to be the first American to crack the higher echelons of the European game. Nearly a decade since he first surfaced, for a number of reasons, it simply hasn’t happened.

Even at the relatively tender age of 26, it seems like Donovan has been around for an age. Starting out at Bayer Leverkusen as a 16-year-old, the diminutive Californian found it hard to adapt to life on the banks of the Rhine. While his club career in Europe singularly failed to launch, Donovan impressed at the 1999 U-17 World Championship, winning the Golden Ball awarded to the tournament’s star player.

A return to the States in 2001, initially on loan, came as a welcome respite from the disillusionment engendered by his failure to impact on the Leverkusen first team. At MLS club San Jose Earthquakes, the young striker found his feet in the professional game – and spectacularly so. Goals, assists and headlines galore saw Donovan established as the biggest ‘name’ in US football.

Naturally, Leverkusen monitored his progress closely and, impressed by his development, invited their great young American hope back to the club in the summer of 2004. Again, Donovan’s impression on the Bundesliga was negligible – no goals and only two starts – and pretty soon he was on a flight home to the safe sanctuary of MLS; this time with Los Angeles Galaxy.

During the past four years, Donovan has cemented his place as the biggest fish in what is, to be frank, a footballing backwater. Galaxy may have endured more downs than ups of late – they finished rock bottom of the ‘regular season’ table – but Donovan finished as the League’s top scorer with 20 goals in 25 games; striking up an intuitive understanding with David Beckham in the process.

But, with the recent departures of Alexi Lalas, Ruud Gullit and now Milan-bound Becks symptomatic of a faltering franchise, Donovan has decided to cut and run.

Donovan clearly needs a new challenge on the back of his most productive season to date in La-La Land. He’s done and won everything in MLS and is already the all-time leading scorer for the US (with 37 goals).

“Nothing against our guys (in MLS), but in a lot of situations where you're making 12, 15 thousand a year, you're worrying about other things other than training the next day or getting ready for the game,” he said recently.

His conclusion: “Mentally, I'm ready (to play in Europe) and I wasn't ready before in any way. I want to make the most of that. I've only got one career and I want to make sure that I give myself a chance.''

So, Donovan wants to swap the LA beach-house for a luxury penthouse apartment in one of Europe’s myriad cultural hotspots. Or Middlesbrough.

But where should he go?

Despite the forward’s previous travails in the Bundesliga with Leverkusen, there have been strong rumours linking him with ex-California resident Jurgen Klinsmann’s Bayern Munich. Donovan, though, has plainly intimated he’d prefer a shot at England or Spain this time around.

“I'd love to play in the Premiership or in Spain, I think that would be incredible,” Donovan said, earlier this week.

“I watch games every weekend and I think I could contribute on a lot of teams.”

He added, when asked about a move to England: “It would be a much easier fit than most places, for sure,”

“In my situation I can't be super-picky, but if it’s the right offer with the right team...there's a lot of ifs.”

He’s right; there are a lot of ‘ifs’. But, available at what will surely be a reasonable price tag – given the MLS’ centrally-controlled contract policy – Donovan represents a gamble worth taking for many clubs.

The smart money would probably be on the US no.10 rocking up at ‘Fulhamerica’ sometime during the January transfer window. Several other teams in the mid-to-lower reaches of the Premier League could certainly be interested in Donovan’s services too. A player of craft and significant natural ability, he would considerably augment the attacking options of many an English side.

Whichever club Donovan does end up at, they might well be glad they were brave enough to give the Californian star another shot at European success.

Monday, October 13, 2008

UEFA Cup draw review....What lies ahead for Spurs, Villa, Pompey & City

Mighty Milan at Fratton, Ajax at Villa Park, and...well, PSG at Eastlands. OK, so the UEFA Cup may not have the immediate glamour and allure of its bigger brother, the Champions League, but yesterday’s group stage draw threw up an exciting array of fixtures to look forward to between now and the end of the year.

In what surely must be the strongest, toughest competition since the induction of the ill-conceived group stage, the UEFA Cup – in its final year before it’s clunkily rebranded as the UEFA Europa League – actually threatens to reclaim the attention of Europe’s football fans. Supporters of the Premier League clubs involved will also be relishing a series of Thursday night treats, despite the almost inevitable consequences (absence of Saturday 3pm kick-offs, slipping league form, etc).

It is possibly Aston Villa, who arrived at this stage via the midsummer slog of Intertoto qualification, that have landed the toughest task of the four English sides.

Group F features three former European Cup winners, including Martin O’Neill’s club. The Irishman’s clash with Marco Van Basten’s Ajax – so far inconsistent in the Eredivisie – should prove a stern test of both coaches’ attacking principles. The Amsterdammers arrive in Birmingham on October 23. Subsequent trips to Martin Jol’s impressive Hamburg and then Prague to face Slavia will mean that progression to the knockout rounds will be far from straightforward for the Villans, who also play host to Slovak club MŠK Žilina.

Likewise for European new boys Portsmouth. They’re an ageing side on the wane and the UEFA Cup is hardly a priority while they continue to struggle domestically; yet Milan’s visit on November 27 is already being eagerly anticipated, and the Italian giants will be welcomed to the South Coast in typically raucous fashion.

Ex-Bayern boss Felix Magath’s Wolfsburg feature the expensively procured Italian defensive duo Andrea Barzagli and Cristian Zaccardo, and will prove obdurate opponents. Heerenveen – despite selling most of their promising talent each year – are also no pushovers.

Harry Redknapp already knows well of the perils of a trip to Portugal, but Sporting Braga are in poor form and must be overcome if Pompey are to make the top three.

Floundering Tottenham probably need UEFA Cup participation like they need a kick in the Comollis, what with their current domestic travails, but still harbour the potential to make a mark on the competition. Their campaign kicks off in Udine, where they will find Pasquale Marino’s team in fine form and hardened by several recent European adventures. Udinese forwards Toto Di Natale and Fabio Quagliarella can run ragged the best of defences, while Gokhan Inler is a midfield general much-desired across the continent (particularly by Arsene Wenger).

Fortunately, Spurs have drawn home ties against both Dinamo Zagreb, from whom they recently negotiated the purchase of Luka Modric, and Spartak Moscow; therein avoiding arduous trips to the formidable Maksimir and Luzhniki stadia. Spartak – former home of Spurs’ Roman Pavlyuchenko – have lately been left trailing in the wake of their numerous city rivals and, of course, the emergent Zenit St Petersburg. However, they’ll hope the appointment of ex-Getafe coach and Denmark legend Michael Laudrup will spur them onto greater things. NEC Nijmegen, of the Netherlands, have sold last season’s strike partnership and star defender Jonas Olsson to West Brom, so should be considered there for the taking.

It’s possible that the Abu Dhabi-based ownership of Manchester City may make the competition a priority this year – as a means of re-establishing their new club’s profile in Europe, with the Premier League title only a pipe dream until next season at least. First off, Steve McLaren will be bringing his FC Twente side (and his dodgy Dutch accent) to Eastlands on November 6. The Enschede club overcame Rennes in the first round proper, following their Champions League exit at the hands of Arsenal.

City must then visit Gelsenkirchen to take on Schalke – managed by ex-Twente boss Fred Rutten. The Ruhr team have plenty of recent European experience: departing only in the quarter-finals of the Champions League last year. They also boast the likes of Kevin Kuranyi and Jefferson Farfan among their attacking options.

PSG are only now beginning to regain their footing following years in the doldrums – a humiliating relegation scrap last season was the nadir (they qualified via a League Cup win). Paul Le Guen has managed to lure veterans Claude Makelele and Ludo Guily to aid the cause, but City should still be strong favourites for a win on home turf. Racing Santander – European debutants – shocked La Liga fans with last year’s 6th place finish and have endured a tough start to the domestic season.

Each club, and many others, will surely be delighted to have swerved Group C – inevitably tagged the Group of Death. La Liga high-flyers Sevilla, 06/07 Bundesliga champions Stuttgart, Sampdoria (featuring the talents of Antonio Cassano), Everton’s skilful conquerors Standard Liège and Serbian champions Partizan Belgrade will battle it out for a place in the last 32.

Meanwhile, illustrious clubs such as Benfica, Valencia, Olympiakos, Galatasaray, Feyenoord and ‘07 UEFA Cup winners CSKA Moskow will each expect to progress to take a shot at the title post-Christmas.

It’s the final UEFA Cup as we know it. It may not be the most desired trophy in football, but it is important to recognise the competition’s distinguished history – and that the Champions League is not the only show in town.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Will Dubai oil billions flood The Valley?

In a week which saw FA Chairman Lord Triesman warn of the perils of barely-regulated foreign investment and an upcoming bust to follow the Premier League boom, many were surprised at the news of a prospective takeover of Charlton Athletic by a Dubai-based investment company.

The Addicks were seen as unlikely candidates for a takeover by the Zabeel Investments group, which was recently rumoured to have shied away from a deal to buy Newcastle United due to Mike Ashley’s inflated valuation of the St James’ Park club.

Instead of bidding for an established Barclays Premier League club, the Zabeel group has followed the lead of Bernie Ecclestone and Flavio Briatore, who took over QPR for a relatively small £14m investment. It may appear an unconventional choice for an investor worth more than £3bn, but their excellent London location – and the fact that they own the freehold on their stadium and training ground – in fact makes Charlton a very attractive purchase.

Mohammed Al Hashimi, executive chairman of the group, added: "We feel now is the right time to make a strategic, long term investment in Charlton and get them back to the English Premier League where they belong.

"The passion of the fans at Charlton, the heritage of the club and the unique status it enjoys in the community make it an exciting proposition for us."

The Charlton board reciprocated the love-in:

"The board firmly believes that a successful outcome for this transaction would be beneficial to shareholders and employees of Charlton, all fans of the club and the local community as a whole," said a club statement.

It continued: "Should the offer be made formally to shareholders, the board would recommend shareholders to accept it.”

Charlton are currently scrapping for, realistically, a Championship play-off place at best and may not have seemed an obvious attraction for overseas investment when a club such as Portsmouth are reported to be on the market for a similar amount. However, while Pompey club are flying high in the Premier League, they lack the solid foundations of Charlton; who already harbour plans to expand, and have the Thames Gateway and Kent to exploit, in terms of potential fanbase.

Al Hashimi plans to immediately wipe out the club’s current debts of around £20m, pending due diligence formalities, and invest heavily in new players to make a drive for the promised land of the Premier League. Manager Alan Pardew has apparently been reassured by the club's board – and the prospective new owners – that his job is safe and that he will receive funds in the January transfer window. Current chairman Richard Murray will also remain at the club in some capacity.

The news has, understandably, been met with mixed reaction.

In one camp – the delirious fan; dreaming of imminent Premier League glory and subsequent world domination (note to these fans: Messi and Agüero won’t be rocking up at The Valley just yet).

The other, more sceptical camp wonder what the takeover means for the aforementioned reputation of the Addicks as a true ‘community club’ (a status envied by many fans of other clubs which have seemingly deserted their loyal, dyed-in-the-wool fans in the race for copious TV money).

This breed of fan may have found an unlikely ally in Lord Triesman.

“(Fans) feel their clubs are being touted around the marketplace for whoever might want to buy it,” the FA chief said of the growing foreign ownership in English football, earlier this week.

“You want to know what an owner’s values are and if they’ll be recognised over a long period of time. Many of the foreign owners do have those values.

“I’ve talked to a number of them and there’s no doubt in my mind that they share that community perspective on the importance of their club.

“But all I’m saying is that you can’t have owners with a total disregard for people’s passion for their club.

Yet, those urging sobriety from those in charge of the nations’ 92 professional clubs – who were reported this week to be in a collective £3bn pounds of debt – may find their words lost among the flood of investors from the east.

While Western economies crumble, football remains aloof – and why not? If you should find yourself in difficult financial straits, just sell out to the highest oil-rich bidder and retire (dis)gracefully with a trouser-sagging back-pocketful of cash.

The model of responsibility and financial accountability showcased by the scrupulously fair German Bundesliga (which boasts inexpensive ticket prices and packed stadia) is an ideal which we can only admire from afar. While the TV money continues to flow – and forecasters still expect the next deal to increase in value – the gold-paved road to football-as-Monopoly will perpetuate.

The admirable identity of Charlton Athletic – an increasingly rare example of a club which has combined relative success on the pitch with a strong community presence – will hopefully not be lost amid the mayhem.