Being a prodigy in a footballing powerhouse of a country like Brazil is tough. Each and every time there is even a suggestion of above average talent, the rumour mills turns with a ferocity like no other and, before long, we’re told we’re looking at ‘the next Pele’.
In my quarter-century on this planet, that particular tag has been attached to more players than I care to remember and, so often, those players have failed to live up to these standards, or anywhere near. Denilson is one of the most famous examples. Transferred to Real Betis in 1998 for a then world-record fee of £21.5 million, he was expected to take Europe by storm having shone for runners-up Brazil at the World Cup in France that same year. His career would take a massive nose dive there-after. He was back in Brazil playing for Flamengo on loan within two years and would go on to be the most journeyed of journeymen, playing for clubs in places as far-flung as Saudi Arabia and Vietnam before ending his career at Greek minnows Nea Kavala in 2010.
The list of Brazilian players who have followed a similarly disappointing path is long, if not quite so spectacular. Robinho, Alexandre Pato, Kerlon and others like them have, at one time another, set the footballing world alight with the glimpses of talent that it was hoped would make them players to define a generation. However, in each of these cases, their stars have shone bright but burned fast, leaving many wondering what might have been.
The same excitement and prediction of greatness has surrounded the rise of FC Barcelona forward Neymar since his debut for Santos in 2009 at the tender age of 17. It’s easy to understand why – in his four years at the club, he would go on to score 54 goals in 103 appearances, winning 3 league titles, one Copa Do Brasil and one Copa Libertadores in the process. This success was echoed at international level. Having scored on his international debut in a 2-0 win against USA in 2009, he would go on to win an Under-20 South American Championship and a FIFA Confederations Cup in the same time frame, as well as earning a silver medal at the London Olympics in 2012.
And so, it was with the great expectation that has burdened many before him that Neymar signed for FC Barcelona in May 2013. Many would have been forgiven for thinking that he would follow a similar downward spiral as some of his compatriots, with it even being rumoured that the Barca club doctor thought he needed to gain weight in order to cope with the more robust European game following the move from South America.
It’s possible that he was on to something too. Neymar took until the 24th September 2013 to score his first La Liga goal, with it coming in a 4-1 win over Real Sociedad at Camp Nou. The rest of the season proved less than spectacular for the young Brazilian, with his goal tally totalling only 15 for his entire first season in Spain. This was the lowest goal total for the striker in his 4 years in professional football to that point (excluding his debut season for Santos), leading many to question if he had what it takes to have any real impact at a club the size of Barcelona.
Things were to change in 2014/15 however. With an astonishing 22 goals in 33 appearances, he was able to prove he was capable of more than just tricks and flicks. He made a massive impact on games, assisting and scoring as part of a triumvirate widely considered to be the most dangerous in world football, with Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez. Not only that, he was the top scorer in the 2014/15 Champions’ League, scoring 10 goals in the 12 games that saw his team become champions of Europe for the first time since 2011. Furthermore, he became the first player in Champions League history to score in each leg of the quarter and semi finals and score in the final.
Of course, goals aren’t everything, but what can’t be denied is what they indicate. Neymar has, this season, shown himself capable of delivering when it matters. The signs were all there when, as the man upon whom a nation’s hopes were built, he was able to win the FIFA World Bronze Boot and earn a place in the FIFA Tournament Dream Team at Brazil’s home World Cup in 2014. And this is where we begin to realise that we should never have doubted his ability to succeed in Europe where others have failed. The difference beteween Neymar and some of those mentioned before is that he didn’t come to Barcelona on the back of hype alone. He was more than just a YouTube player, with League championships and continental cups to his name before he even put on the famous blue and red shirt. It’s clear that his first season in Europe was a tough one, but who else at such a young age would have coped with the cultural change he underwent in moving? Footballers, though we may forget from time to time, are human after all.
Of course, Neymar is still young. He’s achieved almost everything there is to achieve in the game and the only hope is that he won’t fall into the same trap as some of his compatriots. Where Ronaldinho, Kaka and Adriano lost motivation and focus much sooner in their careers than it would have been hoped, many will be willing Neymar to continue his current upward trajectory. Currently, he’s the only player who comes close to Messi and Ronaldo and has certainly achieved as much, if not more than both these superpowers when they were his age. Something tells me, though, that Neymar will continue to improve. This season, in particular, he’s shown a discipline and determination not found in some of the wonderkids who’ve been less successful and I, for one, can’t wait to see what he achieves in years to come.[separator type=”thin”]
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Chelsea 1-1 Barcelona: Three talking points from Stamford Bridge
Rob Meech brings us three talking points as Chelsea held La Liga leaders Barcelona to a 1-1 draw at Stamford Bridge.
Lionel Messi finally broke his goalscoring duck against Chelsea to give Barcelona the edge after the first leg of their Champions League last-16 tie.
Messi had failed to score in eight previous attempts against the Blues, but he was not to be denied on this occasion as he cancelled out Willian’s 62nd-minute opener.
A Chelsea clean sheet would have been a massive boost ahead of a daunting trip to the Camp Nou next month.
However, Messi’s equaliser 15 minutes from time means Antonio Conte’s men face an uphill battle to qualify for the quarter-finals of Europe’s showpiece competition.
Here are three talking points from Stamford Bridge…
Conte’s tactical approach so nearly pays dividends
But for the fatal error that led to Messi’s leveller, Chelsea would be heading to Catalonia in three weeks’ time with a one-goal lead to protect.
That they came so close to victory is testament to Conte’s tactical nous, which stifled Barcelona while also allowing the home side to flourish.
As expected, the visitors dominated the ball throughout the encounter. However, they created precious few opportunities as Chelsea’s back line held firm.
Conte had resisted the temptation to start with an out-and-out striker, with Alvaro Morata and Olivier Giroud both named on the bench.
The fluid movement of Pedro, Eden Hazard and Willian caused more problems than Barcelona have been used to this season and the Blues’ second-half goal was a deserved one.
Heading into the second leg, Conte will need to devise another masterplan if Chelsea are to proceed to the last eight.
Third time lucky for impressive Willian
The tricky Brazilian has by no means been a regular for Chelsea this season.
But he was given the nod against Barcelona in a three-man attack that featured Hazard as a false number nine.
It’s a system Conte has favoured recently, but although it failed to get the best out of Hazard, the same could not be said about Willian.
He was Chelsea’s chief threat and, on another night, could have walked off with the match ball.
Willian twice hit the post in the first-half, showing great skill on each occasion to create space and leave Barca keeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen with no chance.
Despite his misfortune, Willian was unbowed and he broke the deadlock with a pinpoint finish that raised the roof at Stamford Bridge.
It was a fitting reward for a top-class performance that highlighted his natural ability.
Surely he can’t be far away from cementing a regular spot in Conte’s starting XI?
Messi ends Chelsea goal drought to have decisive say
It is not often that British football fans get to see the little magician at such close quarters, so each time he arrives on these shores it is to be cherished.
Chelsea had a game-plan to nullify his influence and in the first half this worked superbly.
Although there were the usual sublime touches that we have come to expect, Messi was largely shackled by a solid rearguard display from Chelsea’s three-man central defence.
However, it only takes a side to switch off for a moment for the Argentinian to flex his muscles.
A misplaced pass from Andreas Christensen was intercepted by Andres Iniesta, whose pull back enabled Messi to slide the ball past Thibaut Courtois.
Once the ball had arrived to him in the box, there was no doubting where it would nestle.
Messi’s exuberant celebrations underlined the importance of his equaliser in the context of the tie.
It could be the decisive moment.
Who are the five most valuable players under the age of 21?
The CIES Football Observatory have produced a list of the 100 most valuable players under the age of 21 and it makes for interesting reading, with three Premier League players in the top five.
CIES are a research group based within the International Centre for Sports Studies. It was created in 2005 and has looks to specialise in the statistical analysis of football, which is a growing field within the sport.
A lot of their studies are based in the financial side of the game and given the continued increase of transfer fees, they produce a lot of information that is of interest to clubs.
This particular study focuses on the top five leagues and it won’t come as a surprise that the Premier League features heavily.
Here are the five most valuable under-21 players according to the CIES study:
5 – Marcus Rashford (€116.7 million)
Amid all the spending that Manchester United have done in recent seasons, the value of producing your own players through your academy continues to be shown in the Manchester United squad. It is important to their supporters to have homegrown players and Marcus Rashford is one of the best that they have produced in recent seasons. According to CIES, he is already worth more than £100 million and it is remarkable to think that he may not have been given a chance if it wasn’t for injuries to Wayne Rooney and Anthony Martial.
It has been a good start to the season for Marcus Rashford as he continues to get significant minutes, despite the arrival of Romelu Lukaku. Across the Premier League and Champions League, he has contributed six goals and four assists. His goal involvement is one every 113.8 minutes. Considering he has been used in various positions and not played every week, this is impressive. United need to continue showing faith in him. If they do, the sky is the limit.
4 – Ousmane Dembele (€120.4 million)
The French winger made headlines during the summer, as he was selected to be the replacement for Neymar at Barcelona. There is a lot of pressure on the 20-year-old to live up to his price tag, which was £135.5 million. There were clauses included in the deal, but the overall value is more than the £120.4 million that he has been estimated at by CIES. However, there were circumstances driving that. Namely, the desperate position of Barcelona.
Last season, he was one of the best players in the Bundesliga as he contributed eight goals and 18 assists across the two major competitions. His goal involvement was one every 108.2 minutes, which underlines why Barcelona were keen to buy him this season. An injury has hindered him at the beginning of his La Liga career, but he remains one of the most exciting young players in the game.
3 – Leroy Sane (€124.5 million)
The £37 million that Manchester City paid for the German international is looking more and more like a bargain with every passing day. CIES value the winger at €124.5 million and that underlines the improvement he has made under Pep Guardiola. He is now one of the most devastating attackers in the Premier Leaguer and it will be fascinating to see how much further he can go, as he is only 21.
His record in the Premier League this season has been remarkable and he is well on his way to contributing at least ten goals and ten assists. Sane is already on six goals and six assists, with a goal involvement every 78.75 minutes. The quality of the team helps him, but his own performances have contributed significantly to the success of City.
2 – Dele Alli (€180.2 million)
It has been a difficult start to the new season for Dele Alli, but he remains one of the most exciting players in the world. In the list of these five players, the England international is the most attainable for the biggest clubs in Europe, as Tottenham have the lowest chance of winning major trophies. It will take a huge fee to secure the midfielder and the valuation of €180.2 million from CIES is around the fee that Spurs would expect.
Since joining Tottenham as a teenager, he has been a revelation and scored 28 goals during his first two Premier League seasons. This season has been harder as he has only three goals in 15 matches, but he was always going to go through a drop-off in form at some point. The test will be how he recovers. The next few months will show us how far Alli can go in the game.
1- Kylian Mbappe (€182.8 million)
The valuation from CIES is fractionally higher than the reported fee that PSG will pay for the teenager next summer when his transfer is made permanent. He was a revelation last season and played a major role in Monaco winning Ligue 1 and reaching the Champions League semi-finals. PSG have made the move to sign him and he could become the best player in the world at the club if he is managed correctly.
This season hasn’t been as eye-catching as his debut season in senior football, but he has been very impressive still, especially when his age is taken into consideration. He has contributed nine goals and seven assists across the two major competitions, with a goal involvement of 86.5 minutes. This is incredible, but there have been some critics as he isn’t as noticeable playing alongside Edinson Cavani and Neymar. He is clearly the best young player in the world and this list from CIES reflects that.
The conductor of the Barcelona orchestra: Reflecting on the career of Xavi Hernandez
Barcelona is an iconic city. FC Barcelona is an iconic football club. The Nou Camp is an iconic football stadium that has been graced by the presence of countless prestigious and legendary players over the last century.
The esteemed names roll off the tongue. Luis Figo, Patrick Kluivert, Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Ronaldinho, Diego Maradona, Pep Guardiola, Johan Cryuff – the list in almost inexhaustible.
Even amidst the glamour, sensationalism and capitalist ideology of modern football Barcelona have entertained the world through the magic dust sprinkled by Lionel Messi with the supporting cast of Luis Suarez and, prior to the summer, Brazilian superstar Neymar.
However, among the stellar names it is hard to identify an individual who has won more trophies and influenced the very essence of the game itself than Xavi Hernandez.
No other Spaniard in the history of football has lifted more trophies. No other player in the history of Barcelona has made more appearances. No other player has been as synonymous with the development of a club.
He is truly a legend of the game.
The conductor of the orchestra
Xavi Hernandez first joined Barcelona via the club’s La Masia academy as an 11-year-old, where he swiftly proceeded to rise through the ranks. He was technically efficient, intelligent and appeared to possess an instinctive awareness of when, and more importantly how, to alter or influence the rhythm and flow of the game. When he was handed his first team debut in 1998 he seamlessly slotted into the side.
However, Xavi developed into much more than just another star player. He represented the definitive transformation of Barcelona during the early twentieth century and he embodied the new total football philosophy that was implemented and progressed by a series of managers, culminating in the tiki-taka style of play that was fine-tuned by Pep Guardiola.
He was synonymous with the possession-based football that led to Barcelona dominating European football for almost a decade and played a pivotal role in the club’s development.
Whilst other players produced exuberant moments of skill or brilliance he adopted a different style of play that was crucial to the tiki-taka philosophy. You would rarely see Xavi dribble beyond a player and he was never a regular goal scorer from midfield, but his contribution was no less important.
He was the conductor of the Barcelona footballing orchestra, dictating the flow and rhythm of the game with a range of elegant, measured passes. When he received the ball he never looked flustered or unsure and there was an air of confidence and assertiveness that made him attract the ball, like a flame attracts a moth.
He stroked the ball around the pitch unperturbed by the pressure of the occasion or the state of the game – when Xavi played well, so did Barcelona.
By the time that Xavi departed Barcelona, joining Qatari side Al-Sadd in 2015, he won eight La Liga titles (the first coming in 1999), the Copa del Rey three times, six Spanish Super Cups, two European Super Cups, two Club World Cups and four Champions League titles.
However, he was equally as impressive for the Spanish national team, playing in four World Cup tournaments and three European Championships. His haul of 133 caps is a record for a Spanish outfield player and he lifted two European Championships (2008 and 2012) and one World Cup (2010) during an era in which he became the embodiment of domestic and international dominance.
The very best of a generation
As with every great player, a decline eventually began to set in and Xavi Hernandez’s powers began to wane. It is perhaps testament to his importance and influence that his departure has coincided with the gradual deterioration of Barcelona’s authority in world football.
In 2015 he joined Qatari club Al-Sadd after agreeing a three-year deal, in essence taking a step into semi-retirement, and in April 2017 he won his first trophy – the Qatar Cup. In addition to his playing commitments, Xavi is also undertaking his coaching qualifications and has taken up an ambassadorial role in order to promote the 2020 World Cup as he ultimately begins to plan for a career beyond the realms of playing football.
Xavi’s impact and influence at Barcelona and for the Spanish national team is arguably unparalleled for a player in the modern era. His style of play was unique and embodied the emergence of a new tiki-taka, total football philosophy which came to dominate domestic and international football for over a decade. Whilst he became a genuine icon, Xavi always avoided controversy or contradiction and is looked upon with respect and admiration by his peers and all those connected with the game.
It is little wonder that the conductor is regarded as one of the very best players of his generation.
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