Archive for October 2006
Wednesday, October 25, 2006 by Paul Grech
When Nabil El Zhar made a surprise substitute appearance late on during the game against Portsmouth, it is a safe bet that many Liverpool fans didn’t know that their club had signed the Moroccan forward a couple of months earlier. Even if it wasn’t the most straight forward of transfers.
Unsatisfied with his contract at St. Etienne and confident that he could make it at a higher level, the young striker had decided that it was time to move. Liverpool, who had spotted him during last year’s World U20 championships, were only too happy to grant him a trial and subsequently a contract.
Only that St. Etienne knew nothing about this.
So far, this has led to an inquiry from FIFA which is to decide about the move’s legality, despite Liverpool having paid around £100,000 and signed him up on a four year contract.
It also led to Liverpool delaying the announcement of Zhar’s transfer, even though word had long got out that he was training with them.
If that wasn’t enough to heighten the fans interest, there was also a Youtube video showing him doing so many step-overs that even Cristiano Ronaldo would blush and with text nicknaming him El Zharinho. Clearly, the lad doesn’t lack confidence.
Nor does he seem to lack talent. At the World Youth Championships where he caught Liverpoool’s attention he was one of the outstanding players of the tournament.
Playing either as a striker or just behind the front two, he was pivotal for Morocco as they reached the last sixteen. His obvious strength is his ability to get round players, to create danger. Nominally an advanced midfielder, he can run fast with the ball at his feet which is always something which troubles defenders.
Already he has impressed in a couple of reserve team outings for Liverpool. Although the side currently managed by former defender Gary Ablett hasn’t had the best of starts to the season he has been one of the bright spots. This, somewhat inevitably, has led to calls for his inclusion in the first team squad especially with the forwards not doing particularly well.
There is, however, a huge difference between reserve team football and playing in the Premiership. Against Portsmouth, El Zhar was on the pitch for twenty minutes yet it took him ten to even get a touch of the ball and, when he did, it ended in a misplaced pass. As debuts go, it wasn’t one of the best.
As with many other young players, El Zhar will therefore have to be patient, work hard and hope he does better when the next chance comes along. That Liverpool were ready to risk international sanctions to sign him says a lot of their belief in him. If he can put together enough moves to make another Youtube movie, the chances are that the next opportunity will come sooner rather than later.
Saturday, October 21, 2006 by Paul Grech
Steven Gerrard and Xabi Alonso: they are the players that most would consider as vital for Liverpool, the ones that only get dropped because of injury. Away from the hype there other players – Jamie Carragher, Momo Sissoko and John Arne Riise spring to mind – who are probably equally important for Rafael Benitez even though they tend to get less attention.
Some players’ importance, however, only hits home when they aren’t playing. So it is proving to be for Luis Garcia. For the first time since moving from Barcelona, he is having to fight to get into the side. Whereas in previous seasons the lack of midfielders meant that he virtually started all games when he was fit, the arrival of Jermaine Pennant and Gerrard’s continued presence on the right of midfield has made it hard for him.
Yet, slowly, he is proving once more just how valuable he is to the team. Against Blackburn, he came on for the ineffective Pennant and helped turn around the game. As always, there were a number of frustrating misplaced passes but these were overshadowed by the moves that constantly troubled Blackburn’s defenders.
Garcia remains the kind of player that will have you moaning one minute and cheering the next. But he is also the one Liverpool midfielder really capable of getting round players and with the skill to do the unpredictable. Occasionally, the trick that he tries won’t come off or he goes for the difficult move when a simple pass would have been more effective yet that is the price you pay for genius.
Not that this will necessarily convince Benitez, even though he was aware of the player’s limitations as well as strengths before he signed him. His insistence on a team effort and the knowledge of how a wrong pass can lead to the concession of a goal is putting Garcia’s place at risk just a much as the competition for his place. It also means that, without consistency, he will have to forget playing the same number of minutes as he did in the past.
Yet, what few credit Garcia for is his determination. Tackling, for instance, is not his strength – far from it - but he’ll work harder than most others in helping the team press for the ball when they’re not in possession. And, as his recent admission that he wants to stay at Anfield shows, he is determined to improve in whatever way is needed to get his place back.
Garcia has settled in well in England. He knows that the move to Liverpool has been good for his career enabling him to become a regular for Spain. He has also been very good for Liverpool, scoring important goals (the Champions League goal that never was in the semi against Chelsea being a prime example) and providing the sort of excitement that is as important for the game to be enjoyable. There will always be those who criticize Garcia but the truth is that Liverpool need his skill.
Thursday, October 12, 2006 by Paul Grech
In the summer of 2002, Liverpool were on the verge of greatness. Second the previous season with a total of 80 points that would have been enough to win the title in other years, what they needed was to merge a little bit of flair with their dour defensive style.
Two years later and those dreams of glory had long been swept away. Liverpool had barely scraped into fourth spot and after two seasons of uninspiring football Gerard Houllier’s time as manager had come to an end.
The reason in the eyes of many lies in the players that Houllier brought in during that summer. At the time, few knew about El Hadj Diouf, Salif Diao and Bruno Cheyrou but that was hardly surprising. In previous years the manager had shown an instinctive ability in taking to Liverpool players like Sami Hyppia who had been playing his football at little known Dutch side Willem II. There was no reason to doubt him now.
Of those three, Diao was the most intriguing. Whereas Diouf had built something of a reputation at Lens and Cheyrou had starred in the Champions League for Lille, Diao was the kind of hardworking midfielder you don’t really tend to notice. That he was playing for a small mid-table side like Sedan made it all the more difficult to spot him.
He was, however, a Senegal international and had played a key role in their fine World Cup showing which included the opening win against France (where he was sent-off). If there were any doubts about his ability, they had been answered and Houllier’s judgement confirmed as correct once again.
Only that it wasn’t. Expectations had been raised not only by what he had shown for Senegal but also by the manager’s premature (and ill-founded) comparison with Patrick Vieira. What quickly became apparent that the only common factor linking the two was that they had both been born in Senegal.
Diao had none of the guile, poise and vision that marked out Vieira as one of the Premiership’s best midfielders. He was simply a good tackler without any real tactical discipline. Combined with erratic passing, those limitations soon started to tell.
Under normal circumstances, Liverpool would have gotten rid of Diao. In fact, it is what Benitez has been trying to do ever since seeing the midfielder completely lost during a 1-0 derby defeat in his first season in charge. Finding buyers – ones willing to take on Diao’s wage – has however been a problem.
Although he was apparently signed before the transfer fee boosting appearances in the World Cup, Liverpool still paid an inflated £5 million for him. Even more, they handed him a five year deal. Regardless of how highly Houllier thought of the player, it was quite simply too much.
Apart from a failed loan spells at Birmingham and Portsmouth where he was injured most of the time, he has remained at Liverpool. In total he has started 35 times for them meaning that he’s cost the club £140,000 per game, and that’s excluding wages. No wonder Benitez tried so hard to get rid of him last summer.
But that will only happen next May when Diao’s contract finally comes to an end and justifiably so. His decision to reject a move to Recrativo Huelva in August might have frustrated most fans who tend to take an idealistic stance over such matters but, realistically, it is what anyone else would do. Why should Diao move somewhere for a lower wage simply because he is a footballer?
The loan move to Stoke for the past three months has at least saved the club some money, although one wouldn’t imagine that these would amount to a great deal. For Diao it will allow him to find some form at a level that, realistically, suits him fine until the time comes for him to leave for good.
And indeed, he has been doing surprisingly well. Stoke’s rise up the Championship table had a lot to do with the arrival of Lee Hendrie from Aston Villa but also to Diao’s midfield presence. Log onto any Stoke forum and you will find fans praising his contribution and swearing that he is just as good as Vieira.
Perhaps it wasn’t that Houllier had misjudged his qualities after all but rather the level at which he could really play.