The battle of the total footballers

Tomorrow night marks the reunion of two of the most talented attackers to have ever graced the Eredivisie: Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Rafael van der Vaart. The former Ajax team mates have been at odds since an international match between Sweden and Holland in which Ibrahimovic injured van der Vaart, ending his game. It was claimed afterwards by the playmaker that the Swede had shown no remorse, and that he was “a psycho”, a remark that offended Ibrahimovic, who promptly stated that he could no longer play in the same team as van der Vaart, and was soon transferred to Juventus. Since the incident the duo have both progressed their careers, but are yet to face one another, and are preparing to do battle in the San Siro tomorrow night, with Ibrahimovic in the red and black of Milan, and van der Vaart in the white of Tottenham.

My earliest memory of the duo is from the summer of 2002, when they lined up in a friendly for Ajax against Norwich at Carrow Road. They were both prodigious, youthful and raw, but gave the home defence a torrid time, and combined well for the game’s single goal, scored by the Swede after a great cross by the Dutchman. That sunny July afternoon, I was mesmerised by their quick feet, great technique and all round ability, and could see that they were destined for greatness, but never expected that their careers would take such different paths.

It was obvious from the beginning that Ibrahimovic was a volatile character; a hugely talented player but one with the ability to frustrate. He was frankly too good for the Eredivisie, even in his youth, and a big money move was always on the cards. He exit from Amsterdam  was unscrupulous but the outcome was to be expected. His spell in Turin was one of success, but was blighted by his agent cooking up a story that Juventus had turned down a €70m bid from Real Madrid, which turned into a publicity stunt to increase his client’s value. Ibrahimovic’s chapter with the ‘Old Lady’ ended after the club were relegated after being found guilty in the Calciopoli Scandal in 2006, and he soon jumped ship to Internazionale. His most prolific spell thus far of his career was spent in the Blue and Black stripes of the Nerazzurri, where he managed 66 goals in his 116 games. It was this form that persuaded Barcelona to piece together a package to lure him to Catalonia, by offering €46m plus Samuel Eto’o, a deal that in hindsight Inter got rather the better end of. Despite being the first Barcelona signing to score in his first 4 appearances, Ibrahimovic struggled to establish himself at the Nou Camp, and after he claimed that Pep Guardiola had not spoken to him since March, and the  signing of David Villa, he realised that his Spanish adventure was fading fast. He was loaned to AC Milan, where he has flourished, and is excelling back in Serie A, and will be full of confidence tomorrow night.

Van der vaart on the other hand took up Ibrahimovic’s goal scoring responsibilities when he fled Amsterdam, but during his Ajax career struggled for fitness, making just over 140 games in his 6 seasons at the club. He too left the club under a cloud after being criticised for being overweight, and for spending too much time enjoying the Amsterdam nightlife with his fiancee of the time. In 2005 he left the club, moving to Hamburg SV, and soon became the team’s talismatic captain. At times during his spell in the Bundesliga, it became apparent that the team were over reliant on him, in a similar manner to Steven Gerrard at Liverpool as they struggled when he was injured. He signed for Real Madrid in August 2008, for €13m, and big hopes were pinned to his arrival at the Bernabeu. His spell in Spain lasted slightly longer than Ibrahimovic’s, but was just as unhappy, as he was frozen out of the team after the arrivals of Cristiano Ronaldo, Xabi Alonso and Kaka in the summer of 2009. He signed for Spurs at the very last minute of the 2010 summer transfer window, and has gone on to be arguably the best signing of this season. He has found a new lease of life at White Hart Lane, and with the plethora of attack minded players surrounding him, he is able to weave his magic as he pleases. At a reported £8m he must be regarded as one of the bargains of this century, and his goals this season have often proved to be priceless. He alongside Gareth Bale, has seamlessly become the emblem of the North Londoners’ Champions League campaign, and his role in the hole behind Peter Crouch, has allowed him to cause mischief in no man’s land.

Lastly their projected inputs of Tuesday night’s game must be discussed. Ibrahimovic is widely known to go missing during the biggest games, and last season infamously covered the same amount of ground in the Champions League semi final as his goal keeper, Victor Valdes. He has the ability to produce something out of nothing, and will be a nightmare for Spur’s patched up defence to repel, but it is never possible to gauge which Ibrahimovic will be strutting the pitch. Van der Vaart has been instrumental in Spurs’ maiden Champions League campaign, and I believe that he will play an integral part of the contest. It will be interesting to see how Milan deal with him, whether they decide to man mark and harry him whilst he has possession, or allow him space to work his stuff. Out of the two I believe that van der Vaart performs better under pressure, and that that is why under his huge price tags, Ibrahimovic struggled in Spain, and in the most important games. The Swede has had a lot of money spent on him, and whilst at Barcelona had an improbable buy out clause written into his contract of €250m. With his outlandish value, it is logical to claim that he must be one of the best players in the world, and therefore able to dominate any game. I believe that he will show his talent in fits and starts tomorrow night, perhaps wowing the crowd with a moment of outrageous skill, or by scoring from an impossible angle, but the Dutchman will be victorious in this battle.

Speculate to accumulate

Since its introduction in 2003, the January transfer window has prolonged the season of excitement and good will to all of those involved in the game, and has given everyone the chance to speculate just who could be on the move. Clubs have the entirity of January to conclude a transfer, yet the biggest deals often surface at the month’s climax. This transfer window was the most costly yet, with the reported figure of more than £200 million being splashed around by just Premier League clubs, and the British transfer record twice broken on the same night. There have been some fantastically exciting off and on sagas, and some last minute panic buys; some fans will be elated, others bemused, and some just downright disheartened. The case is always put that a manager cannot make a huge impact taking over halfway through a season, one quality signing however can be the difference between promotion and mid-table, or relegation and survival. Its a mid winter lottery, and some are more willing to gamble than others.

I speak from my own experiences as a Norwich City fan, that the January window can be a delight or a dread. Some of the best signings that the club have made in recent years were conducted in January. Darren Huckerby was the first January transfer window signing presented to the fans, as his successful loan spell was  made permanent, and promotion soon followed. The following January, a prodigious lower league striker, Dean Ashton was signed and charged with firing the Canaries to Premiership survival (a task that he almost accomplished). Fast forward a year, and Ashton had been snapped up by West Ham to be replaced by the prolific goal getting Robert Earnshaw. This year with promotion again a possibility, the  squad has been modestly bolstered, and much to the surprise of many supporters, a proven goal scorer was not added to the roster. With the current crop of frontmen miss-firing, it would have appeared that an out and out striker would have been on the shopping list, but Paul Lambert stated that he would not spend money for the sake of it, and that he was happy with the squad to complete the job in hand. When a large number of clubs were calling press conferences for the last minute signings, Lambert was discussing the build up to last night’s game with Millwall, and the serenity of the situation was easily visible.

It is interesting to note that although Norwich are very much a club in transition, creeping from strength to strength, they have a reasonably settled squad, and have not chopped and changed much this winter. This can be aligned to the Premier League’s top 3: of these teams, only Manchester City have spent money this January, and that was to concluded their 6 month courtship of Edin Dzeko from Wolfsburg. It appears that these teams have stability, and that too many new faces midway through the season could potentially rock the boat. Dzeko’s signing reflects Mancini’s attempt to complete his squad, and although at £27million the Bosnian did not come cheaply, he has shown glimpses that he could be the final piece in City’s silverware quest, and will thrive at Eastlands alongside Tevez and Silva.

Monday night was an amazingly exciting evening of late transfer action. It all centred around Fernando Torres’ £50 million move to Chelsea, with the Merseysiders reinvesting the money on Luis Suarez and Andy Carroll. When the possibility of Torres moving to London surfaced this weekend, I thought that Daglish would persuade him to remain until the end of the season, and then allow him to depart if he still wanted. It seemed to take forever for the Suarez deal to be confirmed, but now that he’s finally here I believe that he’ll take the League by storm. He’s pacy, technically very strong, tenacious, and most importantly has a footballing brain, allowing him to slip in seamlessly with Meireles and Gerrard. Perhaps the most unexpected transfer of the night was that of Carroll, who became the most expensive Englishman yet. He is Newcastle born and raised, and it appeared unlikely that he would be jettisoned from the club whilst he was still in development. Although he has been in fine form this season, gaining his first senior England cap, he has only played 40 top flight games, and at £35 million could be a risk. He is a young man of quite some potential, and has the ability to become a Liverpool legend. Despite losing one of their two world class players, Liverpool fans have much to be cheerful about with their new multi-milion strike force. Daglish has reinvested into the squad wisely and has brought in two hungry young forwards, that could fire the boys in red back into those Champion’s League places.

Now to get to the record breaking transfer, the £50million man, Fernando Torres. His form this season has been questionable, and his body language often has suggested that sharing a pitch with Lucas Leiva and Paul Konchesky is the last thing that he would like to do on a Saturday afternoon. In recent weeks however with the appointment of Daglish, Torres has returned to his potent best, and appeared to be enjoying his football once more. Over the period of a weekend however, he has become the most hated man on Merseyside, and the Kopites that once worshipped him, have been seen burning his shirt to banish his presence from Anfield. In Torres’ defence he has made it publicly known that he will be donning a blue shirt in an attempt to add to his medal collection, and it is fair enough to say that he would have to leave Liverpool to gain the success that he craves. It is possible however to gauge his recent improvement of form as an attempt to display his talents for potential new employers, and to put himself in the shop window. Now that he has procured his big money move, he will have to establish himself in the Chelsea lineup, alongside Drogba and Anelka. The arrival of Torres suggests that one of the established forwards at the club will be forced to leave, Didier Drogba’s name has already been mentioned. He and Torres if compatible would be one of the most fearsome strike pairings ever to grace English football, but I fear that they both perform at their best when supported by wide men and a second striker, and that Ancelotti will have  to make a straight choice.

So after such an exciting January, it will be interesting to see how the new additions bed in, and who by the end of the season will have been worth the money, and whether there will be another Shevchenko style flop. The transfer window has its faults and merits, but there’s no denying that all of that frantic speculation and action would be missed if it ever were to be stopped.