Jun 102014

The 2014 World Cup in Brazil is now just a couple of weeks away and the attention of football fans is starting to turn towards the tournament in South America. All of the qualified nations are eyeing up a successful event and one of those is certainly Argentina who have been well backed for World Cup success for some time now. They are of course packed full of attacking talent and with the World Cup being held on their own continent, you have to think that Alejandro Sabella’s side will fancy their chances of winning the tournament for the first time since the Diego Maradona inspired team of 1986…

It is fair to say that Argentina have flattered to deceive in the World Cup since that triumph 28 years ago with the past few generations falling short since despite often being well fancied. They have failed to get past the quarter-finals since losing in the 1990 final and it will be interesting to see how they shape up ahead of this tournament. The first thing to say is that Argentina did qualify with the minimum of fuss, losing just two of their 16 games and scoring an impressive 35 goals in the process.

When it comes to attacking flair, few nations have the same power as Argentina with Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain offering an embarrassment of riches when it comes to attacking options. All eyes will of course be on the great Lionel Messi who has proven himself to be one of the greatest players of all time during his club career with Barcelona over the past few years. He is the captain of Argentina and you do feel that if they are to go all the way, it is Messi who will have to star for them on the biggest stage of them all. It should however be noted that Messi has fallen slightly below his usual standards for Barca this season, while his return of 37 goals from 84 games at International level is also a tad disappointing given his ability and class.

Higuain has had a good first season in Serie A with Napoli, while Sergio Aguero has been crucial for Man City in helping them to win the Premier League title but only when he has been fit. Aguero has had a number of muscle problems this season which would be a worry but if the three of them can arrive fit and healthy, Argentina’s wait for World Cup success could be over.

On the face of it, the draw has been kind to Argentina with Messi and Co drawn in Group F along with Bosnia, Iran and Nigeria. That is about as good as it gets at a Major tournament and if they do, as expected, win their pool, they are likely to face a second round tie against either Switzerland or Ecuador who are expected to be fighting it out with France in Group E. Brazil are likely to be on the other side of the draw assuming they win their group and while every game is difficult at a World Cup, Argentina can have no complaints when it comes to their path through to the latter stages of the tournament.

Other key members of the Argentina squad during the World Cup will be Real Madrid winger Angel di Maria, Javier Mascherano of Barcelona and Pablo Zabaleta of Man City who will be crucial at right-back. The defence is a slight worry for backers of Argentina with so much attacking flair almost certain to leave them a little bit short at the back which is something they will surely be guarding against. Ezequiel Garay of Benfica could be an important player with the Portuguese side currently enjoying a great run of form sweeping all before them on a domestic and a European level. He will need to transfer that form to the International stage but there is no doubt that Garay will be high on confidence after a terrific season and is likely to be a key man for Argentina in central defence.

If Messia and Aguero arrive in Brazil fit and firing then Argentina could well be major players when it comes to lifting the trophy in July which is clearly reflected in their position towards the head of the World Cup outright market. The only criticism of Messi during his career has perhaps been his performances on the International stage but this World Cup is the perfect opportunity to do put that right. He is already a hero in Argentina but if he can lead his country to World Cup glory for the first time in almost 30 years, he might just elevate himself to an even higher level matched only by the likes of Pele and Maradona. The worry for Argentina would be their recent World Cup record with the likes of Brazil, Spain and Germany perhaps made of sterner stuff when push comes to shove but it would be no surprise to see Argentina arrive to the semi-final stage at least this summer.

Jun 092014

Every international tournament springs surprises. We’ve seen it all from the Czech pair of Patrick Berger and Karel Poborsky lighting up Euro 96 before earning moves to English giants Liverpool and Manchester United respectively, El Hadji Diouf’s exciting displays in the 2002 World Cup earning him a move to Liverpool and even Mesut Ozil’s creative masterclass in South Africa four years ago just prior to signing for Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid.

With this in mind we are likely to see players having similar breakout tournaments in Brazil this summer. Here are five players to watch throughout the World Cup who could take the tournament by storm:

1, Lorenzo Insigne – Winger – 22 – Italy

Italy have come a long way since the hugely disappointing World Cup campaign in 2010. After having failed to progress past the Group Stage, Italy turned to Cesare Prandelli, a coach renowned for his methodical approach to balancing squad morale with discipline, and the results have been fantastic.

Italy have integrated young talent into the team whilst keeping a core of experienced players in key positions and success on the pitch has followed. Italy are the only team to have figured out a repeatedly successful manner of playing against Vicente del Bosque’s Spain side whilst remaining a threat on the attack at the same time. This has been possible through the use of exciting individual players such as Mario Balotelli and Emanuele Giaccherini.

Giaccherini however has fallen slightly out of favour following a difficult year at Sunderland and considering Lorenzo Insigne’s outstanding displays for Napoli it has become impossible for Prandelli to hold him back. Insigne has impressed a domestic Italian audience for the last two seasons now. Usually situated on the left wing but with the ability to play either on the right or as a shadow striker, Insigne has really taken his game to the next level this season.

He is quick and exciting on the ball. Whilst impossible to predict just what he will do next you can be sure Insigne is one or two moves ahead of his opponent. His footwork is remarkably similar to that of Arjen Robben, as is his low centre of gravity which allows him to escape challenges and find space when cutting inside from the flanks. The conditions in Brazil will see players tire more quickly and this serves as a further advantage to Insigne.

With Ciro Immobile and Mario Balotelli likely to be battling to be Italy’s first choice striker for the tournament it is likely Insigne will slip under the radar. That is until the tournament starts. The winger who will be twenty three by the time Italy take on England on June 14th is only going to get better and on his first experience of the international stage, you can fully expect him to be a shining creative spark throughout the tournament.

2, Son Heung-min – Winger – 21 – South Korea

Son Heung-min is another exciting young winger heading to Brazil this summer. Having made his breakthrough in Europe with Hamburg it became clear last summer that he had outgrown the struggling club. A move to German giants Bayer Leverkusen has simply served as the catalyst for a huge improvement in consistent displays of quality.

It seemed that whilst it was clear the talent Son had at his disposal, playing with a better team was all that was needed to truly unlock his full potential. The South Korean winger who doubles up as a second striker has enjoyed a fantastic debut campaign with Leverkusen scoring twelve goals in all competitions whilst contributing seven assists.

One of Son’s best attributes is his ability to play with both feet. In the past you have seen wingers excel on one particular flank but have flattered to deceive when shown onto their weaker side. Heung-Min is not such a player. It is believed he is naturally right footed although if you have seen much of his season with Leverkusen you would be forgiven for not being one hundred percent sure. It is this versatility that allows him to be so effective when playing just off a long frontman, almost as a second striker.

Son can pick the ball up in pockets of space and truly dictate how Leverkusen attack. With Leverkusen boasting Sidney Sam as the first choice wide player this term it has been difficult for Son to play in his natural position. However the decision to move him into the secondary striker’s role has been a masterstroke.

For South Korea Son is now very much the main man. Having taken the mantle from the recently retired Park Ji Sung it is Son who carries the hopes of the nation on his shoulders this summer. It is likely Son will return to his preferred position on the wing for the national team this summer and will be a real danger when in possession of the ball because of the option to either play a reverse pass in behind, cut in and shoot or even carry on down the flank before putting a cross in, such is the variety in Son’s game.

The current crop of South Korean footballers is in fairness not at the high level of years gone by and the team may well struggle in Brazil but with Son Heung-min in the team there is real potential for attacking quality.

3, Carlos Bacca – Striker – 27 – Colombia

At twenty seven years old this is perhaps a surprise inclusion however Carlos Bacca’s performances at Sevilla this season had propelled him into the limelight and the battering ram of a centre forward could play a huge part in Colombia’s plans at the World Cup.

Having played in Colombia for most of his career, Bacca finally made the risky move to Europe at the half way point of the 2011-2012 campaign when the Colombian forward signed for Club Brugge of Belgium. What came next was thirty one goals in all competitions over the next season and half however it must be noticed twenty nine of them came in the 2012-2013 campaign once Bacca had found his feet on the continent.

This form earned him a move to Sevilla. Admittedly the club’s interested stemmed from the fact they didn’t have much money to play with, despite the sales of Jesus Navas and Alvaro Negredo. Neither the club nor Bacca has looked back since. Bacca has been a revelation with the powerful striker netting fourteen La Liga goals and five Europa League goals en route to winning the competition.

Standing at just under six foot Bacca is the archetypal hard working striker. Think Carlos Tevez but with the technical ability to match. One of the most surprising revelations as the season progressed was just how talented a footballer Carlos Bacca is. His hardworking on pitch persona combined with physical stature often meant the clever touches and off the ball runs went unnoticed. However this wasn’t the case in the second half of the season with the eyes of Europe admiring as Sevilla reached another European final.

Bacca was key, not only in his goalscoring but in his overall linkup play and the hole left by Alvaro Negredo lessened each week. Bacca was always an option for Ivan Rakitic to play the ball into with the Croatian safe in the knowledge his teammate would hold the ball up and allow for the wide players to catch up to the move hence why Sevilla were such an attractive attacking force this term.

Bacca, in terms of the national team, has struggled simply due to the fact there is a certain Radamel Falcao in front of him. However with Falcao still fighting to make the World Cup after an Anterior Cruciate Ligament injury suffered in January there is a real chance Bacca will play a starring role for Los Cafeteros.

4, Ricardo Rodríguez – Full-Back – 21 – Switzerland

At a time when top quality full-backs are a rarity Switzerland’s Ricardo Rodríguez has the potential to truly catch the eye in Brazil this summer. Having joined Wolfsburg in January 2012 the former FC Zurich defender has been a revelation.

The Swiss international is a well rounded full-back. Not only is he fantastic at going forward and supplementing attacking moves but the defensive side of his game has not suffered as a result. Rodríguez’s tackling is noted as a particular strong point amongst Wolfsburg supporters.

Physically Ricardo Rodríguez is also a handful. Standing just under six foot he is incredibly difficult to dispossess when on the ball. The closest player I can liken him to physically is Liverpool’s Jose Enrique. This is what makes him such a rounded player. He excels defensively through this use of his physical stature and innate tackling ability whilst able to retain possession when going on one of his frequent marauding runs down the left flank.

Rodríguez does have the ability to switch flanks and play on the right if needs be but seldom does this happen both for club and country.

For a full-back Ricardo Rodríguez’s numbers for the 2013-2014 campaign are tremendous. In thirty four Bundesliga matches the Swiss full-back scored five goals and added nine assists with ‘WhoScored‘ giving him an average rating of 8.02 for the season.

At just twenty one his potential for further development is exciting. The World Cup is the grand stage a player can use to really catch the eye and whilst being a defender is not usually a position which grabs headlines, Ricardo Rodríguez is an exception to the rule.

Switzerland are fortunate that arguably their finest crop of young players for generations is being guided by the vastly experienced Ottmar Hitzfeld. The Swiss team heading to Brazil, whilst very young, is also equally as exciting and Ricardo Rodríguez is just one of the players who could really catch the eye in Group E.

5, William Carvalho – Defensive Midfielder – 22 – Portugal

Arguably the most interesting name on this list for Manchester United supporters is Portugal’s twenty two year old midfielder William Carvalho. Although speculation linking the Sporting Lisbon player to Old Trafford has cooled significantly since David Moyes’ departure there is still interest in the player’s performances from supporters, even if just to see in effect what they could have had.

Carvalho is one of the more physically domineering members of Paulo Bento’s squad headed to the World Cup, standing at 6.1 feet tall Carvalho has the energy to really emphasise his physical advantage over many opponents.

One of the key components of Carvalho’s game is breaking up opposition attacks. Being such a physically domineering player that is not too difficult for him to do however it is his ability to cover ground quickly which is so impressive. Of course he is not at say for example the speed of Arjen Robben but by holding midfielder standards it is a trait which sets him apart from other players.

Manchester United have been searching for a central midfielder who can break up play since the departure of Roy Keane. Owen Hargreaves did provide significant rest bite on that front but his struggles with injuries meant the club never had the stability on the defensive side of midfield. Even if the move is probably not likely to happen this summer you do feel as though Carvalho would add a lot to United’s ailing midfield.

Carvalho has been the standout performer of Sporting Lisbon’s excellent season which has seen the club return to the Champions League once more. It has been said that Carvalho needs to move to a more competitive league to truly show his ability however whilst that is not the case, the World Cup in Brazil is highest stage of them all.

Portugal have been placed in Group G along with Germany, Ghana and the United States. These are all teams which boast quick attacking players. The counter attack is a threat Portugal have been susceptible to in the past, and will come up against this summer. However with Carvalho in place as a holding midfielder the extra protection for the back four is there. Whilst it might not be the clearest position to impress in, the holding midfield role is vitally important in a game where speed is such an advantage. Carvalho might not take the limelight like Cristiano Ronaldo will this summer but Portugal’s chance of success does rest heavily on the twenty two year old.

Jun 062014

After months of speculation, Roy Hodgson named his 23-man England squad for the World Cup in Brazil and preparations for the tournament can now begin in earnest this week with the first of three warm-up matches taking place against Peru at Wembley on Friday night before jetting off to Miami where they will face Ecuador and Honduras ahead of their first game in the tournament against Italy on 12th June.

It hardly needs saying that England are without a major International trophy since they won the World Cup back in 1966 and while few are expecting them to match that feat in 2014, there is a growing feeling that England can make an impression on the tournament with a number of exciting youngsters hoping to make their presence felt in South America.

The large majority of the old guard have been discarded by Roy Hodgson with Captain Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard the only remaining players of that so-called ‘golden generation’. England will be without the likes of Ashley Cole, John Terry and Rio Ferdinand for the first time in a while at a Major tournament and in come Raheem Sterling of Liverpool, Ross Barkley of Everton and Luke Shaw of Southampton to name just three of the young guns heading to south America that are hoped to spark the next era of England’s national team. Last season’s Premier League saw a number of young English talent rise to the top of the game at Southampton and Liverpool in particular and they have been rewarded with a chance to continue that good domestic form in Brazil.

Sterling and Barkley have been highly impressive as attacking midfielders for their clubs and both have the ability to go past players with a mixture of class and speed which is what England have been so badly lacking in recent years. They have been given the freedom to express themselves by their club Managers and if Roy Hodgson allows them to do the same, they are two players who are more than capable of making a big splash for England over the next couple of months

England will need their entire squad to be in great form if they are to even qualify from their group with Uruguay and Italy their main two opponents in Group D. That was one of the toughest draws they could have received but the same applies for their opponents who would have been less than pleased to have seen the three lions land in their section. The pressure is off Roy Hodgson and the England team to a certain extent which could play into their hands as they come up against the Luis Suarez led attack of Uruguay and the experience and overall class of Italy, who knocked them out of Euro 2012 on penalties.

The headlines have so far been made by the young guns in the England squad but with their lack of experience so stark, the likes of Wayne Rooney and Steven Gerrard will become even more important. Both players have been to countless tournaments during their career and both are more than capable of leading England through that tricky looking Group if on form. Gerrard has been rejuvenated in a new deeper role in the Liverpool midfield and should take on the same responsibility for England, while Wayne Rooney will have a point to prove after heading to recent tournaments without a major injury overshadowing him. The Man Utd forward is likely to be paired with in-form striker Daniel Sturridge up-front which does look exciting, on paper at least and the pair could well be crucial in helping England flying under the radar into the latter stages.

At the moment England can be backed at 33/1 to win the World Cup and for once, few could argue with the bookmakers, who normally have England much shorter given the weight of the ‘patriotic pound’ from hopeful fans. However, expectations are pretty low for Roy Hodgson’s men and in truth, any sort of progression to the last 16 of the tournament is likely to be viewed as a success, given their draw. It should however be noted that if England do manage to make it past their Group they are likely to face either Colombia or the Ivory Coast in the round of 16 which is a winnable game if they are on form. That would be considered a decent enough draw for a World Cup knock-out match which could well see them head back to the quarter-finals for the first time since they fell to Portugal in 2006.

At this stage though, England remain somewhat of a mystery when it comes to predicting their performance in South America. It is safe to say that most wouldn’t be surprised if they fell at the group stages but at the same time, there is more than enough young talent in that squad to see them through to the latter stages if they are given the freedom to express themselves. The defence would be a slight worry for Roy Hodgson but there is no doubt that this team is potentially full of goals with Rooney, Sturridge, Sterling, Barkley, Lallana and Gerrard all in great form and hoping to take their club performances onto the world stage this summer. Heads of the nation will be saying progression to the last 16 is the best Hodgson’s men can hope for whilst hearts will believe that an adventure to the last four and beyond is not totally out of the question!

Feb 282014

Love him or hate him, there is no denying that Zlatan Ibrahimovic gets a lot of people talking.

Whether it is for his off the pitch antics or his creativity in front of goal, it’s hard to find a footballer capable of still dividing so many opinions.

“Overrated”, “never turns up when needed” or “cocky” are a few of the words used to describe a man who couldn’t care less what people thought of him. That’s the beauty of Zlatan.

Buying Zlatan Ibrahimovic has probably been Paris Saint-Germain’s wisest move. Not only did the player lead the club to their first league title in 19 years, scoring 30 odd goals in the process, but he has also managed to do something that no previous Parisian player has ever achieved: soften the hatred Marseille fans have towards their main rivals.

For an article on their website, French radio station RMC Sport ventured into one of the best youth clubs in the South of France, Sporting Club d’Air Bel, and were surprised by what they saw. A few years ago, the only football shirts worn by the young talents would have been the white and light blue of Marseille. Now, however, more and more young football players are seen sporting Paris Saint-Germain shirts.

I’ll let you guess who the most common name on the back of these shirts is? That’s right: Ibrahimovic.

Even Bruno, Air Bel’s director, admits defeat over the Zlatan effect: “It’s true that Paris Saint-Germain have a great team and that, today, all the kids are in love with Zlatan”

Children are impressionable and that’s what Zlatan does. He impresses. His constant stream of creative goals has caught the eye of many young kids, who are now trying to emulate him, just like a young Zlatan Ibrahimovic tried to emulate a certain (now fat) Brazilian striker by watching clips of him on the Internet in his house in Sweden.

That’s what great players do. They unite people over the love of football. Take, for instance, the 2005/2006 El Clasico when Barcelona thrashed Real Madrid 3-0 at the Bernabeu. Ronaldinho had probably one of the best games of his career. Instead of booing him for playing for the other team and single-handedly dismantling theirs, the Bernabeu applauded the Brazilian’s genius after he scored his 2nd goal of the game.

Of course, many people will point towards Ronaldinho’s modesty off the pitch whenever it comes to talking about his footballing abilities and say that is one of the reasons why he will always be loved more than Zlatan ever will. The thing is with Zlatan is that you cannot take him seriously.

For example, in one of his latest interviews with beIN Sport, he was asked by his teammate, Zoumana Camara, if he was worried when Zacharie Boucher (Toulouse’s goalkeeper) parried away his panenka penalty (Zlatan went on to score the rebound to complete his hat-trick). Ibrahimovic’s answer? “No, of course not. Had he saved it, I would have kicked both him and the ball into the goal”.

One of the main reasons why Zlatan is so loved by children is because he makes them laugh off the pitch as well as awes them on it. Take him less seriously and you learn to appreciate him for what he is: a big, incredibly talented at football, joker.

Oct 052013

A couple of weeks ago, something really got to me. All over European football media, there were reports dubbing Paris Saint-Germain vs AS Monaco as the biggest game of the season in terms of French club football and a great advert for Ligue 1. It’s not.

For me, the biggest game of a season is and should be a game deciding who could win a title but more importantly, it’s also about the history between the two clubs and the history between the fans. English football fans will know that. Manchester United vs Liverpool was for a very long time the game of the season for fans around the country, even for the neutrals. Spain have El Clasico between Real Madrid and Barcelona. France have Le Classique between Paris Saint-Germain vs Olympique de Marseille.

Whereas of late, Manchester United vs Liverpool has been more or less irrelevant in terms of a title decider and El Clasico is more of an opportunity for the world to witness two of the biggest football clubs play each other and showcase their teams of superstars diving around a pitch and rolling on the floor at the slightest bit of contact, Le Classique remains one of the most heated games in Europe. On and off the pitch.

With Paris Saint-Germain being one of the youngest clubs in France, founded in 1970 (compared to Olympique de Marseille being established in 1899), the rivalry is relatively new. This didn’t stop it from quickly becoming one of the most important dates on the French football calendar. There are many reasons behind this, one of them being the rivalry for the league title during the late 80’s.
Canal+ are partially to blame (or to thank, depending on how you want to look at it) for this. Former owners of the Parisian team, the French television channel saw the potential in the rivalry and began to advertise it profusely in the early 1990’s, especially after the title deciding game (won by Marseille) in 1989. Politics come into it as well, but that would be going off topic.

From here on in, the hype surrounding the game grew, but so did the hatred between the two sets of fans. Since 1995, there have been a reported 337 arrests, 52 injuries and, unfortunately, 2 deaths from altercations between fans surrounding Le Classique, with the latest death coming as late as 2010.

On the pitch, some truly wonderful footballers have taken part and scored in these clashes: Jairzinho, Eric Cantona, Jean-Pierre Papin, Rudi Völler, Abedi Pelé, Ronaldinho, George Weah (played for both teams), Pauleta to name but a few.

Strangely enough, despite the fierceness of the rivalry, 47 players have played for both teams in their career, including Gabriel Heinze. In comparison, only a handful have played for Manchester United and Liverpool and (in a much older rivalry) only 33 have worn both Barcelona and Real Madrid shirts.

In terms of head-to-head, the statistics are incredibly close. Since 1971, 82 games have been played between the two sides (cups included). Marseille have won 32 (scoring 105 goals), Paris Saint-Germain 30 (scoring 102 goals) with the remaining 20 games being draws (obviously).

Before Sunday’s game (played in Marseille’s wonderful Stade Vélodrome), it’s worth noting that Paris Saint-Germain have not won away to their rivals since 2008 when the visitors dominated in a 4-2 win thanks to a brace from Guillaume Hoarau. PSG have also won the last 3 games against Marseille (all having been played in the Parc des Princes).

For the time being, Marseille have the upper hand in terms of trophies (they are still the only French side to have won the Champions League and have 6 more titles to their name). However, with the balance of power slowly tilting in Paris Saint-Germain’s favour thanks to their Qatari owners, the game on Sunday promises to already be a potential title decider. Currently on 17 points and in 3rd place, Marseille will want to do everything in order to try and beat their arch-rivals sitting just above them, tied in 1st place with Monaco with 18 points.

I for one will be in front of my screen at 8pm on Sunday for what should be a cracking game. A great history, a great atmosphere, goals (no 0-0 draw in the league between these two sides since 2006) and most probably a red card. What more could you ask for?

Apr 302013

Some players just aren’t made for the English game, some of us aren’t as efficient as Germans at taking penalties, even fewer are capable of playing “tiki taka” football like the Spanish, but we all wish we grew up on a Brazilian beach and could dance through challenges. These are the stereotypes in football, I’m not sure where they’ve come from but what I can tell you is who typifies their country like no one else, whilst at the same pick out the red herring and tell you he isn’t really from that country, no matter what his passport may say, his performance on the football pitch say otherwise. So without further ado, the first instalment of stereotypical footballers awaits.

What better place to start off with than the country we live in, that’s England, in case you were wondering. Okay, so who is this player that sums up the very English nature in us? Many believe Steven Gerrard wears his heart on his sleeve, his passion when he puts on that shirt, the one with the three lions, he plays for that shirt, there is pride in his performances. He’s physical and gives it his all every time, he loves getting stuck in with his challenges, he loves the Hollywood pass, he’s everything great about the English footballer but quite frankly he isn’t your typical English footballer. Scott Parker on the other hand… is just that.

Parker also wears his heart on his sleeve, he loves the shirt, he plays for the shirt! He’s physical and gives it his all every time, he loves getting stuck in and he’s got an unbelievable work rate. He would probably take a bullet for his teammates and die whilst singing the National Anthem with his last breath. The difference between Steven Gerrard and Scott Parker is that Scotty isn’t all that good. Yes, he tries hard and gives everything he has for England but in reality what has he got to offer? Besides being as tough as nails and hard graft that is. The answer is, not much. He’s not supremely talented on the ball, although he is quite partial to a ‘Cruyff Turn’ just about fooling the 90-year-old in attendance who can’t quite keep up with the game any more. His dazzling footwork can only be described as watching someone try and run around in a bog, in fact it makes quite painful viewing on the odd occasions he forgets that he isn’t playing as Messi on FIFA and in actual fact he is Scott Parker, Englishman. His passing range is limited to a 5 yard radius. He reminds me of a dog that chases a toy you throw at him endlessly, but yet more often than not, when he gets said toy he doesn’t quite know what to do with it.

That being said, there is no faulting the fact Parker works his ass off when the other team are in possession but then he looks like a deer caught in headlights when he actually gets the ball and usually by the end of the game he can be found breathing out his backside. We shouldn’t forget though that journalists in this country defied Premier League Betting odds and voted him as their player of the season. Yes, the people who report on the game we love were swept away by Parker’s work ethic, during his failed bid to save West Ham from relegation two years ago, because he worked hard.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with that, if you are the type who likes their players to show effort for the cause above having the talent to achieve this so called cause. Parker typifies not only your typical English footballer but what your average of English viewer wants to see. Forget Frank Lampard, he doesn’t look like he tries when he plays for England, I mean why isn’t he scoring 200 odd goals from midfield internationally? We don’t want him in the team, we want Scott Parker. Let’s be honest here, no other country that believes it has realistic aspirations of winning a World Cup would consider the idea of Parker being captain but he represents us, the common folk. Men (and women) up and down the country feel a sense of pride when Parker is on the pitch, it’s the underdog story that we all love so much. In spite of being not all that good, he’s out there realising the dream so many of us have shared, playing in front of a packed Wem-ber-ley on a wet, Tuesday night. If Scott Parker wasn’t a footballer, he would be in the stands, with his shirt off and part of that bloody band.

So there you have it folks, Scott Parker is your typical English footballer, yes it is a sad day. Now, for the exception…

David Beckham.

I could have ended it at that full stop and you could’ve filled in the rest yourself, but for the purpose of transparency and making sure everyone is on my wavelength, David Beckham is the best of us, he can score from in his own half, he can bend a ball like, well, Beckham. There’s no point in arguing the next point… The man is fairly handsome, he’s a celebrity, he’s an icon, he’s even accepted cultures outside these shores. What is there not to love about him? I’ll tell you what, he’s no Parker.

“God Save Our Scott Parker”

Aug 092012
Ashley Cole

“My heart and soul was tied to Arsenal with a fisherman’s knot. I don’t think even Houdini could have unravelled it. Not for one minute did I see myself leaving. There was only ever one club in England, let alone London, and that was the Arsenal.” – My Defence, Ashley Cole.

Ashley Cole is a boyhood Arsenal fan who realised his dream when signing for them as a teenager. As a 19-year-old, signing a five-year deal at the start of the 2000/2001 season, I wonder if he could ever have envisaged how twisted his relationship with Arsenal would become.

At the end of that season, Cole played 17 games in the Premier League, but was determined to make a go of his Arsenal career.

“It will be difficult to unseat Silvinho at Arsenal because he’s a world class player,” he said. “I have stuck it out because I have supported Arsenal all my life and I am determined to make a success of it there. I want to prove to everyone I’m good enough to play for Arsenal and be the number one choice in a couple of years for England, too.”

Eighteen months later, having become a regular at Arsenal as well becoming England’s first choice left back, Cole was rewarded with another five-year contract. At the end of the season Inter Milan were sniffing around him, with Massimo Moratti confirming the Italian interest in him, but Cole had no interest in leaving.

After Manchester United beat Arsenal to the title by 5 points in 2003, Cole rallied a siege mentality amongst his team mates ahead of their successful FA Cup final against Southampton.

“Seeing pictures of the Manchester United players celebrating with the Premiership trophy really hurt,” he said. “I’ll never get that image out of my mind. Even beating Southampton won’t compensate for that disappointment. I don’t think we’ll get over losing the title until next season starts. Everyone will probably want Southampton to win but we’re not worried about that. We’re used to people wanting Arsenal to lose. It has been like that all season. There have been times when it seemed everyone was after us. If you make a mistake with Arsenal it gets more attention than any other club.”

The following season, Arsenal made amends for their failure to secure the title by not only becoming champions but finishing the season unbeaten. Cole was certain that any player in the world would want to join him in North London and was full of praise for the fans.

“I think if you ask the top players in the world and in the Premier League they would love to play for Arsenal,” Cole said. “Who wouldn’t want to play for Arsenal? We are one of the top clubs in the world and everybody wants to play for us.” Speaking to the fans he said: “You have been amazing and hopefully next year we can do even more for you.”

The following season, Arsenal continued their unbeaten run, until they came to Old Trafford and lost 2-0. Wayne Rooney appeared to dive to win a penalty in the second half, which Ruud van Nistelrooy scored, before Rooney made it 2-0 to end Arsenal’s run. Arsenal fans were livid about the result, particularly because van Nistelrooy was guilty of a poor challenge on Cole that went unpunished.

“It’s only because Ashley is the nicest guy in football, a real gentleman, that he probably wouldn’t want to pursue anything through the courts,” said Cole’s agent, Jonathan Barnett. “We are looking at potential legal action, even criminal action for assault.”

Arsenal fans were pleased to hear that Cole and Cesc Fabregas chucked pizza in the face of Sir Alex Ferguson after the game though, which raised his legendary status amongst the Gooners.

A couple of months later, Real Madrid were linked with the player, but David Dein quickly laughed this off. For the first time, serious question marks were raised over Cole’s long term future at the club, with Barnett claiming that whilst Arsenal were his first choice, they would have to stump up the cash if they wanted to keep him. “Ashley has two-and-a-half years left on his contract and loves Arsenal to bits,” he said. “If they were to come to him with a new contract offer then of course he would be willing to listen. If Arsenal offered him something really good then his first choice would be to stay at the club. He would rather do that than go anywhere else.”

The following day, Arsenal confirmed that contract talks had begun and that they were confident Cole would stay at the club.

“He has been educated here, has grown up here and has become a great player here and wants to stay here,” said Wenger. “So I would be surprised if we can’t find an agreement to extend his contract. We have started talking and I am confident he will stay on.”

And that’s when it all started to go wrong.

The following month, at the end of January 2005, The News Of The World reported that Ashley Cole had met with Chelsea’s chief executive Peter Kenyon and manager Jose Mourinho in bid to secure a move to Arsenal’s rivals. This claim was quickly refuted by his agent though.

“Any suggestion that Ashley Cole has spoken to anyone at Chelsea is total and utter nonsense,” said Barnett. “There is no problem between Ashley and Arsenal. Ashley is extremely happy at Arsenal – he has neither asked nor considered a move.”

Chelsea’s manager, Jose Mourinho, was also quick to lie about the meeting, saying that the link with his club was merely an agent ploy to increase the salary Arsenal were prepared to offer.

“I can tell you that it is not true,” he said. “Every player, who is a really good player, or every agent who wants to improve his player’s situation, is linked with Chelsea. Steven Gerrard, Adriano, Ashley Cole – and next week it will be another one. I have a perfect and wonderful squad and I don’t need any more players this season.”

A few days later, Wenger tried to brush the incident under the carpet, reaffirming his belief that Cole would stay at the club.

“I am 100 percent sure that Ashley Cole will extend his contract, as he is part of the bunch of players who are the core and heart of the team,” he said. “Ashley said he is fed up with that story, he is completely committed to the club and he doesn’t want to know about it. At the moment, it’s all Chelsea hype. I have no doubt about his commitment to the club.”

The following week, the Premier League launched an inquiry to see whether Cole had been tapped up by Chelsea, with Wenger already sure what the verdict would be, saying: “I am convinced that a meeting did take place – although that has not been confirmed.”

“Unsubstantiated accusations have been made against my client, which are totally wrong and incorrect,” said Barnett ahead of the inquiry. “I am happy to confirm, on the record, that the accusations levelled at Ashley are entirely false. Not only that, they are both appalling and offensive.”

Two weeks later, Chelsea were charged, but Cole wasn’t ready to come clean just yet. With Patrick Vieira retiring at the end of the season, Cole threw his name in to the hat as a potential replacement, saying: “I’d love to be captain. I have two years left on my contract here and it goes without saying that I am fully focused and fully committed to this football club.”

At the end of May, Cole won the FA Cup with Arsenal after beating Manchester United on penalties. He was one of the five Arsenal players who scored a penalty but the celebrations were short lived, as he was found guilty, along with Jose Mourinho and Chelsea FC, by the Premier League inquiry. Chelsea were found guilty of breaching Premier League rule K3 regarding unsolicited approaches to players and were fined £300k with a suspended three-point deduction. Mourinho was also found to be in the wrong for contravening rule Q which relates to a manager’s conduct and was fined £200k. Cole was found guilty of breaking rule K5, which governs approaches from players to clubs, after he was alleged to have made his desire for a move known at the meeting on January 27th and was fined £100k. Barnett had his agent’s licence revoked for 18 months, nine of which were suspended, and fined £100,000.

The Premier League statement: “We consider it unacceptable that a player (and agent) should approach another club (their rival) in the Premier League – contrary to FAPL Rules and contrary to the expectations of Arsenal, who were entitled to expect loyalty from a player who they have nurtured from boyhood to a glittering football career. We consider it unacceptable that Chelsea Football Club saw fit to respond to an invitation extended by Pini Zahavi and Jonathan Barnett. Jose Mourinho played a pivotal role in the events leading up to and during the 27 January meeting. He agreed to accompany Peter Kenyon, when he could and should have realised the implications of the secret meeting and declined to go. The presence of the manager was vital because he was the key component in the discussion. Managers are fully aware of their obligations under the rules and he acted in blatant disregard of them.”

Chelsea accepted the verdict whilst Cole and Mourinho launched appeals, both of which were unsuccessful. However, Cole’s contract talks broke down and the left-back confirmed he would be leaving the club for a move abroad.

“If they offer me £100,000 or £200,000 a week now I would not accept it,” he said. “It is not about the money, it is about being treated right. The damage has been done. I love this club but I suspect there are people at this club who do not want me to pull on a Gunners shirt again. I still won’t sign for another Premiership team as I could not see myself playing against Arsenal. I would only want to play abroad.”

Then, completely out of the blue, Cole and Arsenal reached an agreement and he signed a one-year extension on his deal which still had two years remaining. He settled for £70,000 a week. At the beginning of the following season, Arsenal lost 1-0 to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, the blues’ first win over Arsenal in the league for ten years. The following week, an upbeat Cole reaffirmed his commitment and after missing out on the captaincy to Thierry Henry, hoped he would wear the armband at some point in his career.

“I’d love to be captain of Arsenal one day,” he said. “I think I am grown up enough now. I show on the pitch how passionate I am about the club.”

At the beginning of October, Cole sustained a stress fracture of the foot and went on to miss the next three months of the season. He came off the bench for Arsenal’s 7-0 win over Middlesbrough in January but then picked up a thigh injury which kept him out until May.

Throughout this time on the sidelines he was linked to other clubs, particularly Real Madrid after Roberto Carlos appeared unsettled, but repeatedly claimed he was committed. With the World Cup on the way, Cole was desperate to prove his fitness and played for the Reserves a few times, which only aggravated his injury.

Cole returned for the last three Premier League games of the season to see Arsenal finish 4th in the table behind Chelsea, Manchester United and Liverpool. With one eye on the World Cup, he had the small matter of the first European Cup final in Arsenal’s history to get through, with the London club taking on Barcelona at the Stade de France. Arsenal lost 2-1 after Jens Lehmann was sent off early in to the game. Despite scoring first, Arsenal conceded two late goals from Samuel Eto’o and Juliano Belletti.

The investment of £70,000-a-week was a poor one for Arsenal, with him playing just 15 games in all competitions that season. The week after the Champions League final defeat, Cole was asked whether he would remain at Arsenal next season, with Henry having already committed to the club. “Why not?” he said. “I hope so, I’ve said it a hundred times.”

Cole went to Germany with England for the World Cup and played 90 minutes in all of the group stage games to help them finish top. He then played in their 1-0 win over Ecuador in the round of 16 before they lost to Portugal on penalties in the quarter-final, with Cole putting in a great shift against Cristiano Ronaldo.

Throughout this time, unbeknown to the public, Cole had been penning his autobiography, and two months after saying he hoped he’d be at Arsenal next season, he revealed all about his true feelings for Arsenal following their contract talks. The book wasn’t published until September but midway through July The Sun printed the blurb for his book.

Arsenal hung me out to dry, using me as a scapegoat to get back at Chelsea. The board ‘rewarded’ me with an insult and threw years of loyalty back in my face. I’ll reveal the shattering truth about who fed me to the sharks. It changed my view forever on the club I regarded as family.

Less than two weeks later, Arsenal confirmed they had begun talks with Chelsea to negotiate the sale of Cole but it took a further month before the deal was concluded. Cole joined Chelsea in exchange for William Gallas and £5m. After shunning Arsenal’s latest offer, he signed a massive £90,000-a-week deal with the blues.

Then, Cole’s version of events was revealed through his autobiography. He justified his exit by claiming that Arsenal hadn’t made him feel wanted, particularly in comparison to their treatment of Henry.

The club made Thierry feel wanted and special, wooing him, wining and dining him, speaking in public about how much they want him to stay, going on a deliberate charm offensive. But me? I didn’t have one dinner, one meeting or one phone call from anyone. That’s not sour grapes, it’s just a sad truth. The truth is that The Gunners had done nothing all season to hold on to me.

The club initially offered Cole £60,000 a week, only to downgrade their offer to £55,000 a week, much to Cole’s disappointment.

At a board meeting held two days before our 1-0 away defeat at Bolton in January, it was decided the maximum offer should be £55,000 a week. I don’t believe the board gave a damn about keeping me. It preferred to haggle over a difference of £5,000. Somewhere along the A406 North Circular Road, one telephone call changed everything about how I viewed and felt about Arsenal. “Ash! Are you listening?” said a virtually hyperventilating Jonathan. “I’m here in the office and David Dein is saying they aren’t going to give you £60k a week. They’ve agreed £55k and this is their best and final offer. Are you happy with that?” When I heard Jonathan repeat the figure of £55k, I nearly swerved off the road. “He is taking the piss, Jonathan!” I yelled down the phone. I was so incensed. I was trembling with anger. I couldn’t believe what I’d heard. I suppose it all started to fall apart for me from then on.

Having spent the past couple of years talking about what a tight-knit group there was at Arsenal in the press, Cole also laid in to how disjointed the relationships were amongst the squad.

Watching games from the stands gave me a different perspective on matches and I saw too much rubbish being played too often, lazy players who didn’t pull their weight and schoolboy errors. The young guns, in my opinion, were not prepared to listen or learn. I remember feeling how fragmented we’d all become when Robin van Persie spoke up at training about Freddie Ljungberg. ‘He doesn’t talk to me. Why doesn’t he talk to me?’ I couldn’t tell you a thing about Kolo, Eboue, Reyes, Cesc Fabregas or Senderos.

Cole reflected on the post-match reaction of the Arsenal fans when Barcelona beat them in the Champions League final. Cole was upset that Henry’s name was sang but they had no chant for him.

My worst fears were confirmed as Thierry and I sat in the centre circle after the final whistle. His name was sung from the rooftops, while my contribution was recognised by a deafening silence. It was like I was the invisible man.

It is strange to see how hard done by Cole genuinely seems to feel. He thinks the club should have been as desperate to organise his new contract as they were their star striker who only had a year remaining on his deal. He almost crashed his car because they would only pay him £220k a month. After being busted for trying join a rival club behind Arsenal’s back, he can’t work out why it was the name of the captain and all time top scorer that was sung in the Stade de France and not his own. Remarkable.

Cole faced his former club for the first time since the move in December, with the clubs playing a 1-1 draw which saw the left-back booed every time he went near the ball.

“I’m not really bothered any more about the chants and that,” Cole said after the game. “I would like to thank the Chelsea fans, who were amazing.”

Fabregas, who Cole referred to as “an unproven featherweight” in his autobiography, was not impressed.

“For me, Ashley Cole is a closed subject,” he said. “He is not a friend because after leaving Arsenal he said many unjust things about us. In the world of football, respect between companions is the key – and he broke this rule. This player is forgotten – and also the person. I do not want to speak to him again. I believe that Cole was very well treated by Arsenal and that his response was not correct.”

A couple of months later, Arsenal and Chelsea met in the League Cup final, which finished with a victory for the blues. Didier Drogba won the game with five minutes left to play before three players were sent off in injury time for their role in a mass brawl.

“I feel a part of it at Chelsea now,” he said. “The fans seem to like me and I love the fans. I’m enjoying life, the manager’s good and after six or seven months here I’ve already won a medal. That’s why I came here. I loved Highbury, I loved the fans but I’ve moved on. I’ve seen myself in a red shirt all my life and then I’m in a blue one. But it happens, players move from team to team and it doesn’t mean I’m a traitor. For me it’s been a move for the better.”

The following season, Cole was asked about the reception he was likely to get at the Emirates when facing his former club. Arsenal went on to win the game 1-0 thanks to a goal from former blue William Gallas. Cole was insistent he wasn’t bothered by the reaction of his old fans.

“I am used to it, and I am looking forward to the game,” he said. “I want to go there and play them because I did not get to play there earlier this year. I will go there and front up. I am a grown man. They threw money at me at Stamford Bridge, and that was bad, but I get that every game. I love it. It would be nice to go there and shut some people up. It’s going to be tough though. To be honest, I am really not bothered about the reception I will get, even though I know the crowd will get on my back. I don’t think I have anything to prove to them. They know how good I was when I was with them and what I did for the club. It is not about that. Of course Arsenal still means something to me. I don’t hate the club or the players. I love the club, but it has finished for me there now.”

However, at the end of the game, clearly riled by the Arsenal fans, Cole stuck his fingers up at them which was investigated by the FA.

At the end of the 2008/2009 season, Cole put in a great performance in Chelsea’s 4-1 victory over Arsenal at the Emirates, much to his delight.

“Coming back to my old club, I hate losing against Arsenal so it means I’m more motivated,” he said. “It is always there (the abuse), I expect it now and I am used to it. I just want to play my game and win for Chelsea.”

Chelsea finished 3rd behind United and Liverpool that season, but 11 points clear of Arsenal in 4th place. With Manchester City having become the richest club in the world the summer before, Cole claimed he hoped that City became part of the top 4 at Arsenal’s expense.

“I hope they do really well – and that they finish above Arsenal,” he said. “I think it’s going to be hard for City but they could do it. They may click straight away and it’s magic. I hope they do.”

After watching Manchester United win the title for his first three season at Chelsea, he finally got his hands on the Premier League trophy again in 2010. With Arsenal winning nothing since he left, he claimed this title was his reason for leaving.

“It has been a long time since I won the league,” he said. “It is my first time at Chelsea, I am happy and now hopefully everyone will get off my back and realise why I came here.”

However, that summer, Cole was heavily linked with a move to Real Madrid and he later confessed he had considered leaving.

“It was hard for me in my head,” he said. “It wasn’t just about the football, it was more my brain and it was getting too much for me. There were times when it was really hard. I did think about leaving but, of course, when I spoke to Ancelotti he made it clear he wanted me to stay and loved having me around, and the players didn’t want me to go. I’ve stayed now and I’ve taken the flak and hopefully I’m coming through it. I would love to end my career here.”

Despite finishing 6th in the league, Cole ended 2011-2012 on a high after winning the Champions League and FA Cup. Speaking on the pitch in Munich he said: “Now no one can say nothing to me. This is the reason I came here.”

Cole has since joined Twitter and, as you would expect, receives plenty of abuse from Arsenal fans. Whilst all footballers get their share of stick on there, Gary Neville from Liverpool, Luis Suarez from United, Rio/Anton Ferdinand from Chelsea, and so on, Cole is the only one to be repeatedly riled by this, seemingly responding to Arsenal fans more than he does Chelsea.

Cole’s personal medal collection is up there with some of the most successful English players of all time, so why does he still feel the need to justify himself? Just like Carlos Tevez with his “RIP Fergie” sign, some players just can’t enjoy their success without being pre-occupied with their former clubs. With every league title or European Cup Rio Ferdinand won, did he feel the need to tell Leeds fans this is why he left them for their hated rivals? Everton fans sing about Wayne Rooney dying but he doesn’t refer to them every time he lifts a trophy.

Judging from his inane Twitter ramblings, Cole isn’t the brightest spark, but then neither are Rooney or Ferdinand, yet they aren’t repeatedly embroiled in a war of words with fans of their former clubs. Why can’t he just put his Arsenal past behind him and get on with enjoying the success he’s had at Chelsea?

Fans love having a villain, whether it’s a former player or the best player at a rival club, so the stick Cole gets is to be expected. His reaction to the abuse is not though. Frank Lampard enjoys kissing Chelsea’s badge whenever he faces West Ham, just like Rooney does at Goodison Park, but you never get the impression that the fans of their former clubs really get under their skin. They enjoy having the last laugh and winning the trophies, but they don’t measure their success in relation to their old teams. For whatever reason, Cole just can’t seem to let go of Arsenal, and for all his pleas for them to get over it, now really is the time for him to move on.