Soccer’s new stars
...& the fading ones
As the 2012-13 football season
gets underway, let’s take look at the rise of a new generation of
talented players, as well as some of the older stars, who might
struggle to keep up with their lofty standards
Liverpool boss Bill Shankly once famously remarked,
"Football is not a matter of life and death. It is much
more." Decades later, as club football is rapidly changing the
face of modern sport, the context of the statement dawns upon you. The
English Premier League and Spain’s La Liga are changing the way
football is played and run the world over. These are the richest
leagues, with the biggest stars and the best markets.
Premier League (EPL)
to look out for
Rodwell (Manchester City)
Manchester City’s latest acquisition, the boy from Everton
has fast earned a steady reputation. A holding mid-fielder by nature,
he can virtually play anywhere in the middle of the park. It is his
ability to hold possession and run plays that make him indispensible
to any side. After spending his early years with Everton Football
Club, he has now moved to Manchester City, the defending champions.
This might be the year when he stakes his claim in the toughest League
in the world.
With the Champions League title under their belts, Chelsea went
on a spending spree this summer. And they bought some stunning quality
too, but none more impressive than Belgian Eden Hazard. The midfielder
who was being courted by clubs like Manchester United, City, Arsenal
and even Real Madrid, joined the Blues for a reported £ 34 million.
His ball control, acceleration and ability to be the mid-field engine
mean that the Chelsea frontline can be assured of ample supply
Oxlade Chamberlain (Arsenal)
His debut for Arsenal was a nightmare. It was that torrid
afternoon in Manchester when the Gunners were hammered 8-2 by the
United. But they fought back, and finished at a respectable third, and
Chamberlain, or ‘the Ox’ as he is called, played his part too.
Manager Arsene Wenger used him sparingly, but it was clear that it was
only a matter of time before he would stake a claim for regular
first-team football. A confident lad, with searing pace, Chamberlain
can play on the wing, behind the strikers and even in the centre of
mid-field. More starts can only mean more sparks!
The Arsenal man has been out of action for over a year now, and
the fact that an entire nation waited for him till the last moment at
the recently concluded Olympics, tells you what they think of him.
Even after England crashed out of the European Championship, he was
hailed as the harbinger of change. His passing is perfect, and his
ability to control the mid-field is now folklore. An October return
will still give him enough time to stamp his authority on the Gunners’
mid-field that has been crying out for him.
Stars of EPL
Long hailed as Mr Chelsea, the Blues skipper has been caught in
a storm off the field. The race controversy has dented his reputation,
and with his game not getting any better, he might soon turn out to be
a big liability for the club. He was once a defender who could fight
off the biggest and swiftest strikers in the game. But that was before
he started slipping one-too-many times and losing the ball in crucial
areas of the field. Chelsea cannot rely on their leader to wage a
battle all through the season.
The former West Ham boy, who turned into a legend at Chelsea,
has run the course. Age has caught up with his body, even if his mind
has stayed in denial. The menacing movement off-the-striker,
stretching the play and foxing his way into the box are history. He
still scores the occasional goal, through spot-kicks but stand and
deliver might be a different case. To keep on delivering will
certainly be a challenge for Lampard this season.
The Czech Republic captain had his most impactful season in
2011-12. But it ended in loss at Euro 2012, and in pain, too, as he
was forced out due to injury. While he remains agile on the field, the
ability to run around with the ball and out-fox younger and faster
opponents is fast fading away for the Gunner. He signed a contract
extension last year after scoring what was his first goal in over two
years. Might have been the smartest thing he did with his career.
Berbatov (Manchester United)
There was a time when Manchester United would have given
anything to sign Berbatov from Tottneham Hotspurs. He was quick, could
shoot with devastating accuracy with both feet and was the perfect
striker to play link-up with. He was the perfect counter foil for
Wayne Rooney. But that was when he was valued, when United couldn’t
have dreamt of signing Robin van Persie. The Bulgarian will be lucky
to last the season with United. A move away from the Premier League
might delay the inevitable.
Young Stars to watch out for
The La Liga is a
minefield of talent. After all it is home to the World and European
Champions. The flair that the Spanish team exhibits has been spread
all over the league and it has made it probably the fastest growing
league in the world. Although there is a definite domination by the
big two – Real Madrid and Barcelona – but many other teams boast
of exciting talent.
The sheer number of
quality players that continue to come from La Masia must, at least,
frustrate the rest of Europe. How is Barcelona able to consistently
produce such talent? Tello was actually not even in the club's plans
when he came back from Espanyol last summer. Fortunately for him —and
for fans — injuries to David Villa, Ibrahim Afellay, and Pedro
expedited his arrival to Camp Nou. He responded by providing three
goals in three starts.
A summer move from Valencia to Barcelona and a sensational
showing at the European Championships have shot Jordi Alba into the
limelight. A talented and fleet-footed left-back, Alba has shown the
ability to raise his game at the big stage. His goal in the final
against Italy was testimony to that. A move to the best club in the
world is a stamp of approval too.
Muniain (Athletic Bilbao)
This young Basque star’s potential is sky high. He could be a
future Ballon d'Or winner. Athletic Bilbao's youngest capped player
was also the youngest to score a goal for the club. He is only 19, but
is already has 100 appearances for the Basque club. This season, he
shared the pitch with the likes of AndrésIniesta, Jesus Navas, Nani
and other world class players without looking out of place.
Varane (Real Madrid)
Real is not really known for using its young players. It is
just that most of Madrid’s purchases are established stars already
showing signs of greatness. Raphael Varane was no such thing. Granted,
he showed incredible promise last season in Ligue 1, but few could
have known he would adapt so quickly to Spanish football. The
youngster has done so well that calls for a superstar centre-back to
be brought in have quieted greatly.
Stars of La Liga
The Barcelona captain has won many battles. But even he cannot
fight age. An injury last season kept him out of action. Though being
part of the best offensive side in the world means that defensive
frailties are rarely spoken of, Puyol is definitely on the decline.
The Brazilian will always be a legend . But his best was
definitely left back with the AC Milan days. Bought by Real for a
whooping £ 65 million, Kaka didn’t prove to be a bad buy, but not
value for money. Frequent injuries and the known impatient approach at
Real mean that his time might be up soon enough.
The Portuguese defender was once part of a Champions League
winning side. But that was in 2004. He fell out of favour with the
Valencia hierarchy last season, and will be lucky to survive this
season. His positioning was questionable through whatever little
action he saw in 2011-12, and the hopes of things improving this
season look bleak.
An accomplished passer and mid fielder, Xavi might be losing
his edge now. The European championships saw Andrés Iniesta taking
control, as Xavi kept struggling. He came into his own during the
final, but the signs are loud and clear. With Fabregas already in as a
long-term replacement, and Iniesta growing every game, the days of
Xavi might be limited.