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We picked our favourites – featuring ostriches, the Hokey Cokey and dodgy hamstrings – for you to enjoy.
Least likely to own an ostrich farm – Nigel Pearson
“I think you must be an ostrich. Is your head in the sand?”
Ah, Nigel Pearson. It feels like an age since Leicester City managers were under pressure and calling journalists ostriches.
But there was a time, before they surged to the top of the Premier League, when the Foxes used to lose to Chelsea – back in April, in fact. It was after a 3-1 defeat by the new Premier League champions that Pearson produced a weird outburst during a press conference.
Pearson had suggested that his players had faced plenty of criticism during the season. When asked by journalist Ian Baker to provide examples, Pearson went on to compare the reporter to an ostrich and labelled him “stupid”. Pearson eventually drew a line in the, ahem, sand by apologising to Baker.
Michael Owen award for services to hamstring research – Daniel Sturridge
Those of a younger generation probably don’t realise that Daniel Sturridge used to play football for Liverpool. There was a time when the striker played 42 games and scored 28 goals for club and country in one year (the 2013-14 season) as Liverpool challenged for the title.
Now, of course, the England international spends his time recuperating and recovering and posting messages on social media, informing fans of his latest comeback. A bit like the Terminator, but with less menace.
In the last 18 months, the striker has made just 24 appearances because of various injuries. He made a brief return a month ago only to suffer another hamstring injury. Former Liverpool striker Michael Owen is still probably the hamstrung King but, at 26, Sturridge still has time to surpass him.
Team you would least like to be in charge of your washing – Norwich City
Leading washing powder companies probably won’t be asking John Ruddy to lead one of their advertising campaigns. In their 18 Premier League matches this season, the Canaries have kept just two clean sheets and conceded 32 goals, which is an average of 1.68 goals per game.
At least the Canaries can look down on bottom-of-the-table Aston Villa. Even Villa’s shaky defence have managed two clean sheets, though.
Statue of the Year – Louis van Gaal on the Manchester United bench
Unless you’ve been on another planet for the last two years, you’ll know about Frozen, the 2013 box-office smash which tells the story of a princess, whose magical icy powers encase the province of Arendelle in an eternal winter.
Has the spell been cast as far as Stretford?
Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal has barely flinched while watching his side melt away from the title race. And his ice-cold, 1,000-yard stare has not gone unnoticed by the frustrated fans.
What happened to the jolly, wise-cracking Dutchman who arrived at Old Trafford last year? Let it go, Louis.
Best Hokey Cokey Act – Fabian Delph
Remember when Fabian Delph was Aston Villa captain, and then he nearly went to Manchester City? And then he decided against it? And then he went anyway?
The England midfielder’s summer of indecision will live long in the memory.
In the space of eight days, the 26-year-old had posed in a promotional photo for Villa’s new shirt, gone for a medical at City, then had a change of heart, but then finally hopped aboard the Etihad Express for a tidy £8m.
Since then, plastic snake sales in the Aston area have gone through the roof thanks to angry Villa fans. Ouch.
Most considerate player – Mesut Ozil
Wouldn’t Mesut Ozil be the perfect companion for a game of pass the parcel? Content to pass and receive all day long while others take the glory. When it comes to creating goals, the playmaker has it all wrapped up.
This season’s statistics prove that the midfielder is a generous guy. He’s made an unrivalled 16 assists and is likely to break Thierry Henry’s Premier League assist record of 20.
The Germany international has already broken the Premier League record for the most consecutive assists in a season when he notched his sixth in a row, against Tottenham, in November.
Offensive Player of the Year: Nate Stinson, Helix
Small but jet quick, the 5-foot-6 Stinson led Helix to the San Diego Section Open Division title, running for 243 yards in the final against St. Augustine. Going into the Southern California Regionals, he has rushed 180 times for 1,714 yards and a section-leading 31 TDs. Stinson has gained 100 or more yards in nine games.
Defensive Player of the Year: Ezekiel Noa, Helix
A dominating linebacker, Noa had 92 tackles going into the Southern California Regionals. The junior also had 91/2 quarterback sacks for 51 yards in losses and had three interceptions with 139 yards in returns. A tight end on offense, Noa has seven catches for 159 yards and three touchdowns.
FIRST TEAM OFFENSE
Pos. / Name / School / Yr.
QB / Michael Austin / Helix / Sr.
QB / Lucas Johnson / Mt. Carmel / Sr.
QB / Takoda Browne / Kearny / Sr.
RB / Nate Stinson / Helix / Sr.
RB / Greg Bell / Bonita Vista / Sr.
RB / Elijah Preston / St. Augustine / Sr
RB / CJ Verdell / Mater Dei Catholic / Jr.
RB / Nehemiah McFarlin / Mission Hills / Sr.
WR / Terrell Burgess / San Marcos / Sr.
WR / Khaleed Davis / Grossmont / Sr.
OL / Michael Alves / St. Augustine / Sr.
OL / Blayke De La Rosa / Helix / Jr.
OL / David Viena-Falo / Madison / Sr.
OL / Zach Thomas / Carlsbad / Sr.
OL / Graham Valentine / Cathedral Catholic / Jr.
SECOND TEAM OFFENSE
Pos. / Name / School / Yr.
QB / Bryson Bolin / San Marcos / Jr.
QB / Rodney Thompson / St. Augustine / Jr.
QB / Terrell Carter / Madison / Jr.
RB / Erick Buchanan / Madison / Jr.
RB / Milan Grice / Rancho Bernardo / Jr.
RB / Derrick Clark / Mission Bay / Jr.
WR / Rashid Shaheed / Mt. Carmel / Sr.
WR / Nick Sexton / Christian / Sr.
WR / Mekhi Stevenson / Helix / Sr.
WR / Mozes Mooney / Bishop’s / So.
OL / Michael Liuchan / Mission Hills / Sr.
OL / Jake Kitten / Santana / Sr.
OL / J.B. Hunter / Oceanside / Sr.
OL / Jojo Falo / Madison / Jr.
OL / Kaydence Jackson / Mission Bay / Jr.
FIRST TEAM DEFENSE
Pos. / Name / School / Yr.
DL / Nate Sweat / Eastlake / Sr.
DL / Nick Zimmerman / Oceanside / Sr.
DL / Daniel Bender / Valhalla / Sr.
DL / Forrest Hanlon / Helix / Sr.
LB / Ezekiel Noa / Helix / Jr.
LB / Jihad Woods / Helix / Sr.
LB / Troy Cassidy / Carlsbad / Sr.
LB / Sampson Niu / Madison / Jr.
LB / Justus Te’i / Mission Hills / Sr.
LB / Niko Mageo / Oceanside / Sr.
LB / Tyson Maeva / Cathedral Catholic / Sr.
DB / Troy Warner / Mission Hills / Sr.
DB / La’Tre Jacquess / Lincoln / Sr.
DB / Atoa Fox / Bonita Vista / Sr.
DB / Scott Young / Helix / Jr.
SECOND TEAM DEFENSE
Pos. / Name / School / Yr.
DL / Moli Fa’alogo / Bonita Vista / Sr.
DL / Jacob Burton / Granite Hills / Sr.
DL / Eligha Lewis / Mission Bay / Sr.
DL / Joah Robinett / San Marcos / Sr.
DL / Sefa Tauanu’u / Helix / Sr.
DL / Mitchell Lindgren / Rancho Bernardo / Sr.
LB / Devin Dunn / Rancho Bernardo / Sr.
LB / Grant Ruthenberg / University City / Sr.
LB / Francoise Sims II / St. Augustine / Sr.
LB / Riley Reyes / Granite Hills / Sr.
DB / Ethan Williams / Bonita Vista / Sr.
DB / Tariq Thompson / St. Augustine / Jr.
DB / Caleb Johnson / Point Loma / Sr.
DB / Will Stricklin / Mission Hills / Sr.
DB / Adrian Rodriguez / Otay Ranch / Sr.
Kicker of the Year: Matt Araiza, Rancho Bernardo
Coach of the Year: Chris Thompson, Bonita Vista
It’s almost a decade ago now since the New York Times published a piece by David Foster Wallace about Roger Federer. In it, he sought to convey the experience of watching the Swiss wave his willow wand around the tennis court. What Foster Wallace came up with was the term Federer Moments. He defined them as times “when the jaw drops and eyes protrude and sounds are made that bring spouses in from other rooms to see if you’re OK.”
Lionel Messi provokes the same reactions and stirs the same emotions. One of the moments of the year so far was in March when Pep Guardiola returned to the Camp Nou for the first time since he left in 2012. Barcelona were playing Manchester City and after half an hour or so Messi had him out of his seat.
Messi had just slipped the ball through poor old James Milner’s legs and as he did Guardiola, up in the stands, puffed out his cheeks, put his head in his hands and turned in disbelief, a look of childlike wonder manifesting itself on his face. Here was a Messi moment. That ability to surprise and leave us aghast even after many years of following his career. It consolidated another feeling too.
Between Dec 1, 2014 and Nov 23, 2015, the Argentine was involved in 49 league goals (36 goals, 13 assists) – more than any other player in the top five European leagues.
Getting even better
After making his debut at 16 and playing around 600 games, there was a sense with Messi that burnout and decline was around the corner. Had we seen the best of him? Would we now have to come to terms with him slowing down and beginning to decline? Instead, quite improbably given the unprecedented standards he had set before, he was getting even better. Messi went to another level. Even after all the goals he has scored and all the trophies he has won, he looked like he still had a point to prove.
The previous season had ended in disappointment. Barcelona had finished as runners-up to Atletico Madrid in La Liga. They were knocked out of the Champions League by the same opponent and lost the Copa del Rey final to Real Madrid. Then came the World Cup where Argentina reached the final and Messi was named the tournament’s best player – a decision that divided opinion. But their defeat to Germany at the Maracana left him unfulfilled and the claim that he is the greatest ever in some doubt.
In the days and weeks of introspection that followed, Messi did what true sporting legends do. He appears to have subjected himself to rigorous self-criticism and identified areas where he could improve.
After all the goals he has scored and all the trophies he has won, he came back hungrier, which is ironic, because one of the major changes he made was to go on a diet. There were trips to Sacile, a small town north of Venice, to consult Giuliano Posner, a specialist in these matters recommended to him by, of all people, Martin Demichelis. Messi lost 3kg and was able to play and train at a greater intensity. The effects were noticeable after the New Year.
The timing was poignant if coincidental, not least because it came when Cristiano Ronaldo received his third Ballon d’Or. The Portuguese’s entourage were still very much concerned about Messi. That much is clear from his recent documentary.
When Portugal were eliminated from the World Cup at the group stage, shots of Ronaldo in the shower, washing away his sorrow, are spliced with Messi reaching and then – what a relief! – losing the final against Germany. At the Clasico that October, an associate of Ronaldo’s representitive, Jorge Mendes, sat beside him at the Bernabeu, turns and says: “The other guy could destroy everything.” Barça lost that game 3-1 and when tensions between Messi and coach Luis Enrique flared at the beginning of this year, it looked like they might implode. Instead they blew everyone else away and Messi ascended to a higher plane.
Before Bayern played Barça in the Champions League semi-finals, Guardiola admitted: “There is no defensive system that can stop him. Messi is unstoppable.” If versions of Messi exist, this one has to be the best ever. He scored twice in the 77th and 80th minutes and wasn’t done yet. He set up Neymar. The Messi moment here was the feint before his second goal. It was to Jerome Boateng what a tranquilizer dart is to an elephant, as Barcelona became the first ever team to do the Treble twice. Messi is the symbol of both. After moving to within one of his rival, Cristiano Ronaldo will once again find himself behind in the Ballon d’Or count by two. What was that line from his documentary again? “The other guy could destroy everything.” And in one moment too. A Messi moment. The 2015 collection has been pretty special and as a vintage it might well be considered the best yet and Messi’s best ever.
The personal battle with Messi goes on for Cristiano, who loses his top spot in the FFT100 after a trophyless 2014/15…
The Wikipedia article entitled ‘Messi-Ronaldo rivalry’ runs to nearly 9,000 words, or a third of George Orwell’s Animal Farm. The most important word is its sixth, an adjective which describes the rivalry neatly: ‘supposed’.
Football is a team sport; the constant self-improvement that coincidentally resembles one-upmanship between Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi is not, as such, a rivalry. Although to Ronaldo, it probably is.
The Real Madrid forward’s unstoppable rise was, in late 2015, documented in a film titled Ronaldo. Directed by Anthony Wonke, a man whose most recent films were about Afghanistan, the Syrian civil war and the 1988 Piper Alpha oil rig disaster that killed 167 people, Ronaldo is no less serious in the treatment of its subject matter, charting the journey of a Madeiran schoolboy to the pinnacle of world football.
On September 30, Ronaldo scored his 500th career goal in a Champions League game at Malmo.
Messi is almost nowhere to be seen. It’s not that he isn’t relevant; Ronaldo focuses on its eponymous hero pipping Messi to the Ballon d’Or, seemingly the most important trophy a footballer can win. The narrative is framed by successive Ballon d’Or wins that ended Messi’s four-year run. Meanwhile the Argentine – runner-up both times – is largely conspicuous by his absence, cast in the role of Godot. Ronaldo passes the time. It would have passed anyway.
Ronaldo vs Real Madrid?
Ronaldo is one of the most ambitious characters football has ever seen in the century-and-a-half since the sport’s codification
In the film, his greatest achievements are personal. In 2015 it was the same. Ronaldo won his third Ballon d’Or in January. The same month, he was named the greatest Portuguese player of all time. In May he finished as the season’s top scorer in the Champions League, the Spanish league and all European leagues. In September he became the European Cup’s all-time top scorer, and in October, Real Madrid’s. In many ways, 2015 was his annus mirabilis. Yet his teams won zero trophies.
Does this matter? Ronaldo gives the impression that it doesn’t. Every vainglorious goal celebration, every overambitious shot, every frustrated wave of the hand as one of his less talented team-mates misses (or scores) when he’s on the pitch, and every new fragrance, film and hairstyle off it, presents a man who seems to care more about his image than leading a team to greatness. That isn’t the case.
He wasn’t going to be content until he was the world’s greatest player, bar none, and he won’t be content now until he’s the greatest of all time
Cristiano Ronaldo is one of the most ambitious characters football has ever seen in the century-and-a-half since the sport’s codification. He has a high sense of self-worth because he has made himself worthy.
If he appears to think he’s perfect, it’s because he’s driven to be perfect. That six, eight, 12, 36-pack on his torso didn’t come about by accident. Ronaldo has dedicated every single day to reaching the twin peaks of physical fitness and technical prowess.
Ronaldo vs Rooney
It’s hard to believe now – increasingly so – but there was a time when Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney were on the same path, at the same crossroads, facing the same divergent roads (and the same strained metaphors). They were, then, of similar quality, and of similar age. During the 2006/07 season even their scoring statistics were almost identical: Rooney netted 23 goals in 55 games for Manchester United; his team-mate scored 23 in 53. Both were on the cusp of something big. Something massive.
Only one of them scaled that height. Rooney has fulfilled a very creditable career, becoming top scorer for England and, soon, Manchester United (he’s a dozen goals away from giving Bobby Charlton a second kick in the shins). For several years, he was counted among the 10 best players in the world. He worked for that. All the while, Ronaldo worked for much more. He wasn’t going to be content until he was the world’s greatest player, bar none, and he won’t be content now until he’s the greatest of all time. Which is why he may have to consider leaving Real Madrid.
It’d be much harder to win the Champions League with PSG. So if he could take them that far… well, that is a legacy
It sounds nonsensical – he’s averaged a goal per game in each of his six-and-a-bit seasons there, and he isn’t yet at the stage where he must think about preserving his status. However, as Paris Saint-Germain flirt with Ronaldo, and Ronaldo coquettishly accepts their offer of a drink while saying he really shouldn’t because it goes straight to his head, you feel they’d make good bedfellows.
Joining PSG isn’t seen as a brave move. They’re virtually guaranteed to win Ligue 1 each season (current lead over second place: 13 points after 16 games) and don’t skimp on wages. For Ronaldo, though, it would be brave: at Real Madrid he’s head honcho, with the power to crush any new rival. It’d be much harder to win the Champions League with PSG. So if he could take them that far… well, that is a legacy.
Ronaldo turns 31 in a couple of months, and his greatest assets stem from his physical attributes. It’s not inconceivable that Florentino Perez may sell the forward while he’ll still fetch an absolutely massive sum.
If that possibility becomes a probability, Ronaldo could channel the ambition that got him this far and back it with courage, taking on the challenge of improving an inferior team and potentially becoming a legend.
He’ll go down in history as one of the greats, with an array of personal awards and a galaxy to his name. Cristiano Ronaldo, though, wants that stage to himself. So, CR7: what next?
‘Yeahbut’ can be a terrible, debilitating affliction.
“Yeahbut,” you’ll hear your hipster friend say, “Kid A is Radiohead’s best album because you have to work so much harder to ‘get’ it.”
No player was involved in more Champions League goals than Neymar (10 goals plus 3 assists) between Dec 1, 2014 and Nov 23, 2015.
It’s the same with James Bond films. “Yeahbut,” your film-geek mate, the one who goes to the cinema with a torch-pen to make constant notes, will say, “if you don’t focus on George Lazenby, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is comfortably the best Bond film from start to finish. Skyfall and Spectre just don’t cut it.”
It’s infected football, too, and one player in particular. In 2015, he won the Treble. He scored in the Champions League final. And for two months of the year, he’s been the best player in the world. His name is Neymar da Silva Santos Junior.
Fitting in with Messi
“Yeahbut Messi.” Two words (OK, three if you’re going to get all grammatical), yet they cut to the heart of the problem. Such is the draw of Neymar’s Barcelona team-mate, the Brazilian’s star can be subsumed by the supergiant with whom he shares a pitch. They’re friends, even the most cursory glance at their social media interaction proves that. “I have changed my game and my life a lot: before I came they said that I would fight with Messi: I knew that wouldn’t happen,” Neymar said. “From the start Messi has helped me.”
There must, however, come a point when the 23-year-old warrants exclusive top billing. His statistics are incredible. Neymar scored 13 goals in his final 13 games of last season for Barcelona – including in the Champions League and Copa del Rey finals – and no player in Europe was directly responsible for more goals than the Brazilian’s 15 goals and nine assists until the end of November 2015.
Best player in the world?
Those latter numbers are the most telling. From the end of September until the end of November, he has been the best player in the world. “He’s electric,” Barça boss Luis Enrique recently said.
“When he runs into the area, either they commit a penalty or he scores.” Goals and assists every game to go with the flicks, tricks and showboats that are permanent fixtures in the Neymar armoury, the consistency lacking in his game evaporated.
“Yeahbut Messi was injured.” True, but Barcelona needed someone to fill the void, to shoulder the responsibility in the Argentine’s absence. Los Cules lost 2-1 at Sevilla in the first Messi-less outing, the knives sharpening, yet Neymar led a fightback from 2-0 down, scoring and putting his hand up to lead.
Barça won the next game 5-2 against Rayo Vallecano. Neymar scored four of them. Crucially, he has maintained his form, even now Messi is back. In the No.10’s first start back from knee ligament damage against Real Sociedad, Neymar scored twice and was man of the match in a 4-0 win.
All of which augurs well for the next progression. Neymar adapted quickly to Europe and has improved season-on-season to become an undisputed member of the world-class elite alongside Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. With CR7, who turns 31 in February, potentially on the wane, this is the time for Neymar to split the planet’s pre-eminent stars. Some believe he’s already there. “He is the second-best player in the world, just behind Leo,” Luis Suarez recently said of the man topping La Liga’s scoring charts.
“Yeahbut he didn’t exactly shine at the Copa America.”
That may be something of an understatement, his tournament lasting just two games after a red card for headbutting Colombia’s Jeison Murillo and subsequent tunnel confrontation with referee Enrique Osses. “You want to make yourself famous at my expense, you son of a b***h,” Neymar was overheard shouting, resulting in a four-match suspension and the end of his participation.
Without their best player and captain, an inert Brazil went out in the quarter-finals to Paraguay on penalties. Neymar is the Selecao’s inspiration – 46 goals in 69 games is a staggering international record – which means he can ill afford further acts of petulance.
Crucially, next summer brings another Copa America – to mark the competition’s 100th birthday – and offers a shot at redemption.
“There’s no pressure,” he told FFT last summer. “Being ‘the guy’ in the national team isn’t something that I feel. The penny has dropped. I’m just one member of the squad and I’m there to help. I have to score goals, otherwise Brazilians will kill me!”
He was joking, but there is certainly an element of truth to this, thanks to a country of 200 million people still coming to terms with the 7-1 defeat to Germany at the 2014 home World Cup.
Neymar’s international situation, however, is of relatively minor importance. Messi and Ronaldo have actually won fewer major international honours – discounting the Olympics – than the Brazilian’s 2013 Confederations Cup. Is Neymar as good as those two now? No, but he soon will be. And he’s just 23.
Is he the greatest all-round striker in the world? Find us another. His staggering season so far means Bayern Munich have as good a chance as any to dethrone Barcelona…
Robert Lewandowski strikes a pose for the FourFourTwo cameras at Bayern Munich’s Saebener Strasse training ground. We’ve got the Poland striker doing all sorts – shouting at the camera, pretending to use a fire extinguisher, trying to raise an eyebrow (which he manages quite comfortably) – all for the cover of our November issue, for which he’s the star.
There is one problem however: we’re shooting in the club’s underground car park, where other players and coaches are intermittently parking up, eyeing with curiosity, thinking about dropping some cultured European banter in Lewandowski’s direction, before going up to train with the Bundesliga leaders.
Pep Guardiola, Xabi Alonso and Philipp Lahm drive by without incident and distraction. The Pole keeps his mind on the job. It’s only when Thomas Muller starts imitating Lewandowksi’s finger-in-the-air pose with full gurn, honking his horn, we’re worried our cover star might lose focus. Thankfully, he doesn’t bat an eyelid: it appears that the Bayern No.9 strikes a pose with the same unerring efficiency as he strikes a ball.
Confidence on and off the pitch
Speak to anyone who knows Robert Lewandowski and they’ll tell you that part of his development over the last 12 months is down to a new-found confidence and maturity on and off the pitch.
We last shot him for the cover of the magazine in March 2013 as part of our big feature on Borussia Dortmund.
Back then, he had to be convinced and cajoled into doing anything more than smile at the camera. This time he was much more comfortable. Point, wink, roar, flex: no problem. He was a natural.
But then of course, goals will do that for a striker. In the period we were negotiating with Bayern Munich to speak to their star forward – roughly 20 days – he scored 15 goals. In just under three weeks.
This included five-goals in nine minutes as a substitute against Wolfsburg and three goals for Poland against Scotland and the Republic of Ireland, guaranteeing the White Eagles’ qualification for Euro 2016.
All in, Lewandowski has scored 26 goals in 25 games for club and country so far this season. More than Ronaldo, Neymar, Suarez and anyone else in the top 100. He managed 31 goals during the whole of last season. This is why he’s up 17 places from last year’s Best 100 Players in the World and perhaps, most crucially, ahead of Luis Suarez in the shootout to be the FFT100’s best striker.
Proving the perfectionist wrong
Perhaps Lewandowski’s biggest achievement over the last year has been to convince Guardiola that he might be wrong. It was, after all, Pep who made the concept of the ‘false nine’ a thing in football. Yet having made the switch from Catalonia to Bavaria, the Bayern boss now finds himself in a position where Lewandowski – about as classic a No.9 as you could find – is arguably his most important player.
As was noted in our November cover feature, this change in style represents a move away from the Barca-influenced possession obsession to a more direct approach closer to the traditional Bayern style.
It’s a shift borne out by the stats (up to the end of November): one goal in every 16 scored in the Champions League by Guardiola’s Barcelona came via the aerial route.
At Bayern, one goal in five is headed in. This was Pep’s way of saying he got it wrong; tacit admission that there is another way, not something the ultimate tactical puritan does very often. It’s a shift that might not have happened without Lewandowski.
The key now is to transfer this form into the second half of the season, especially when and if they come up against Barcelona in the Champions League. Of the top five in this list, Lewandowski is the only player not to win the European Cup.
If he’s to remain in this elevated company, success in Europe is key. The Bayern forward does start with a natural disadvantage to Messi, Ronaldo, Neymar and Suarez though – he needs others to create for him. So as is the case with every No.9, his destiny isn’t entirely in his own hands.
Lewandowski will be hoping that Douglas Costa and Arjen Robben stay fit for the Champions League knockout rounds. Neither Robben or Bayern’s other flying winger, Franck Ribery, were fit for last season’s semi-final defeat to Luis Enrique’s side at Camp Nou, nullifying Bayern’s attacking threat and leaving Lewandowski isolated in attack. But if they stay fit, you imagine Lewandowski will be firing.
Because while he doesn’t have the flair of Neymar, the raw ability of Suarez or the magic of Messi (but then who does?) he does offer something unique. And that something was best summed up by Wolfsburg manager Dieter Hecking after suffering that quintet of goals in nine minutes from the substitute in September. “What can I say? A world-class striker shot five times on goal and could have scored seven”.
In another year he may well have been even higher had others not excelled so much elsewhere, but even as (somehow) the less-heralded third of Barcelona’s devasting frontline, it’s been another season to remember individually…
Tracking down and signing up a striker should be a fairly easy business for a football club. It’s a process consisting of a tick-list with two boxes. Will candidate A score a ton of goals for us? Is candidate A likely to be found on the floor of a bar at 3am for most nights of the week? Tottenham Hotspur, for one, clearly didn’t use that for Giovani dos Santos.
Barcelona’s checklist runs into multiple pages and the actual use of a clipboard. Of course the previous two requirements are present but clustered away among a host of other boxes. What will happen if the candidate gets to a drinks machine the same time as Leo Messi? Will he let him go first? Is he likely to try and spark up conversations with Messi at the photocopier? Will he be able to play alongside Messi yet not get in his way? Will he also score enough goals to support Messi but not steal them off his boot? And so on, and so on. Being able to tolerate the various antics of Gerard Piqué and Dani Alves is another must.
Finding a Barcelona forward is more like a Hollywood casting couch, although not quite how it was back in the day. Some of the best forwards in the world have not quite clicked with Messi both on and off the field – Zlatan Ibrahimovic, David Villa – despite being striking beasts of the game, and have been moved on.
Between Dec 1 and Nov 23, Luis Suarez proved 23 assists in all competitions – more than any other player.
The role has been made even more complicated with Neymar now rattling around the Camp Nou. Similar requirements are also needed as those relating to Messi, as well as being able to put in a defensive shift to cover for the Brazilian’s occasional tracking back lapses. Despite all this tactical kerfuffle, Barcelona have struck absolute gold in Luis Suárez, a player completing a year of official playing time with the Catalan club having spent his first few months on the sidelines due to suspension.
The contribution of the Uruguayan forward was invaluable in dragging a team in the doldrums last January to one that eventually won the Treble. And the contribution of the Uruguayan forward was once again invaluable in carrying a team through a tough start to the new season with Messi sidelined for two months, combined with a squad weakened by a succession of injuries and a transfer ban.
What can be best described as a series of indiscretions from Suárez over the years at Liverpool and Ajax – even before the World Cup biting incident with Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini – had some Barca fans of a more prudish bent turning their nose up at the player. The transfer fee of £65 million also hit Barcelona’s accounts hard, registering a significant increase in the side’s debt.
But the club and supporters are quite united in the fact that Barcelona have a near perfect player on their hands. Suárez has been able to make himself, Neymar and Messi not just a combination of the best forwards of the world but a symbiotic, psychically-linked, almost unplayable scoring machine.
His mind talk his feet
The 28-year-old striker is selfless on the pitch, but not to the extent that he overly defers to his playing partners. A footballing brain of almost super-computer speed is able to instantly calculate whether the best percentage of scoring a goal lies with either himself or a team-mate. The chances of that being the former are heightened by the fact that Suárez is equally adept with both feet, his head and has near flawless technique.
As one former England No.1 told FourFourTwo, Suárez has the near psychic ability to know where the goalkeeper is at all times, meaning the footballer has an immediate advantage in the box. While Messi beats the keeper through incredible technique – you know what he is going to do, but can’t stop him anyway – Suárez knows where the goalkeeper has been, will go to, what he had for breakfast and what he is planning for his next Netflix binge.
Jermaine Jenas (in no order):
Messi, Neymar, Suarez, CR7, Aguero
When a manager behaves like a fan in celebrating a goal with giddy joy and abandon, something rather special is clearly taking place. When a stern character like Luis Enrique is applauding, completely gobsmacked as during the four-day destruction of both Real Madrid and Roma in November, a footballing miracle is taking place. Luis Suárez was already one of the best forwards in the world. But in tandem with Neymar and Messi, the striker has become an instrumental part of the best attacking line-up of all time.
Bayern Munich and Germany’s goal-getting space invader seems to have no ceiling to his excellence…
Thomas Muller thought carefully as he tried to explain how the one of the world’s most ungainly footballers had also become one of the world’s greatest footballers. His answer was simple: “Ich bin ein Raumdeuter.”
It may not have been quite up there with JFK’s ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ speech in the fame stakes, but Muller quickly found he had coined a phrase. A new footballing term had been born, a term chiefly associated with just one man.
If the phrase is starting to be used to describe others too – Football Manager even added the term to their computer game – Muller will always be the original Raumdeuter, ‘the interpreter of space’.
Every game Muller scored in between December 1, 2014 to November 23, 2015 Bayern won. All 21 of them.
Muller is the man who has always understood how to be in the right place at the right time, the man who can find space in the penalty area when it seems there is none. The man who can always find a way to goal, no matter the fact that every conventional gauge suggests he shouldn’t be a world-class footballer.
In many ways, Muller is the anti-Ronaldo: questionable technique, not particularly quick, shabby appearance, no discernible ego and the sort of wiry physique that gives the impression he’s never visited a gym in his life. He has, of course he has. The trick is just to give the impression that he hasn’t.
I know that I’m constantly in a grey zone: a footballer who doesn’t always look like a very good footballer
“I know that I’m constantly in a grey zone: a footballer who doesn’t always look like a very good footballer,” Muller admitted in an interview for Raphael Honigstein’s enlightening book Das Reboot.
“I understand that many find it hard to get me. But at some point they maybe start thinking: ‘Oh he’s quite good after all’. It’s not easy to find somebody who plays this strangely. I follow my instinct. It’s something that’s deep inside.” Aesthetics have never been a priority for Muller. The scuffed finish that scrapes over the line counts just the same as the howitzer into the top corner.
If some thought his impact at the top level wouldn’t last, they have been proved wrong time and again. Year after year, Muller continues to deliver, and 2015 has been no different. By mid-November he had 27 goals for Bayern Munich in the calendar year, taking his total for the club to 179. Eight of those 27 goals came in the Champions League, in only 10 matches, while a fourth Bundesliga title arrived in April. Little surprise, then, that while Bastian Schweinsteiger was expendable in the summer, Muller was not for sale. Not at any price.
Manchester United reportedly offered £60 million, but Karl-Heinz Rummenigge could not have been clearer in his stance about the player who has become the essence of the modern Bayern Munich, just like namesake Gerd was in the 1970s. “There are some players who just don’t have any price tag,” said Rummenigge, Bayern’s chief executive. “We would be out of our minds to sell Muller.”
He may not have the elegance of a Mesut Ozil or a Mario Gotze, but he’s the key man in the modern Germany team too, the world champions no less. His 10 goals in just two World Cups are testament to his ability to perform at the highest level, and make him the man most likely to challenge compatriot Miroslav Klose’s all-time record of 16 strikes at the tournament. Not that the Raumdeuter has ever interpreted life too seriously. If Ronaldo appears driven by individual accolades and legacy, the anti-Ronaldo seems just happy to live in the moment, to enjoy playing for not one but two of the world’s greatest teams.
Bayern’s players know it’s rarely dull when’s he around – whether it’s barking like a dog midway through a Philipp Lahm TV interview, dancing bizarrely in full lederhosen, appointing himself ‘managing director of carrots’ for the horse he owns called Dave, or making fun of his team-mates’ international miseries.
Asked whether he would be making the most of Arjen Robben’s failure to qualify for Euro 2016 with the Netherlands, Muller replied: “If not now, then when? You have to take advantage of these moments.”
He did the same with centre-back Dante when Bayern Munich returned to training after Germany’s crushing World Cup semi-final win over hosts Brazil in Belo Horizonte. Eventually the defender could bear no more, telling Muller: “If you don’t stop, I’m going to hit you in every training session.”
That he felt comfortable even to quip about Pep Guardiola – asked who at Bayern took the longest to do their hair before a match, Muller replied ‘Robben and the coach’ – says much about the strong relationship he has with his follicly-challenged boss.
Starting at centre-back
It could all have been so different for Muller. A centre-back in his youth because of his lack of skill on the ball, he moved further forward but even Jurgen Klinsmann was ready to let him leave for Hoffenheim before Louis van Gaal took the helm. Van Gaal gave the youngster his chance, soon insisting that no matter who else was fit, ‘Muller always plays’.
The Dutchman’s successors at the Allianz Arena have stuck with that philosophy – for one very good reason, it works. It is a philosophy that is unlikely to change, as Muller shuffles on in his own unique, unlikely but unstoppable way. At Bayern, just like in the penalty area, there will always be room for the Raumdeuter.
The difference between keeping goal for a run-of-the-mill top-flight team and doing so for one of Europe’s elite is so profound in terms of concentration that fulfilling the latter role is akin to playing a different sport. The feeling that Manuel Neuer is doing just that is inescapable every time we watch him play for both Bayern Munich and Germany.
No goalkeeper kept more clean sheets than Neuer in all competitions between Dec 1, 2014 and Nov23, 2015 (25 out of 48 games) among keepers in the top five European leagues.
Another product of Schalke’s prolific academy to reach his full potential away from Gelsenkirchen (much like Mesut Özil, who attended the same high school as Neuer two years below), he always had presence, and he needed to have it.
Schalke, the original giant of German football, is an intensely demanding arena and as such is no place for shrinking violets.
This makes it all the more remarkable that Neuer made his first-team debut at the age of 20 in 2006, replacing the experienced Frank Rost and quickly establishing himself as first choice.
Neuer first came to international prominence in March 2008, almost single-handedly steering Schalke into the Champions League quarter-finals at the expense of Porto. Still only 21, he mustered a virtuoso display in the second leg, making a number of great stops and beaten only by a Lisandro Lopez blockbuster.
In extra-time, he denied Ricardo Quaresma a winner, spreading himself to improbably turn the winger’s effort around the post. He pulled another couple of jaw-droppers out of the bag in the penalty shootout to deny Lisandro and Bruno Alves, sealing passage through for Mirko Slomka’s team. All of those saves, if you looked back at them now, would draw the same reaction; they’re what’s become recognised as classic Neuer, stretching every sinew of that 6ft 4in frame wide to make himself into an impassable wall. It was also the beginning of a notable relationship between the keeper and the Champions League.
In 2011, his influence in Schalke’s run to the semi-finals – where they were knocked out by eventual runners-up Manchester United despite Neuer’s sterling resistance – was such that he was named German Footballer of the Year for the first time, as voted by the country’s sport journalists.
The fans turn
Despite being a big year for Neuer, it was far from an easy one. Some fans at his hometown club turned on him after he made it clear that he wouldn’t be extending his Schalke contract, which expired in 2012.
In the public celebrations that followed the 5-0 win over Duisburg in the DfB Pokal final, his last game for die Königsblauen, one supporter stepped forward from the crowd and slapped Neuer.
After completing his move to Bayern Munich for a €22 million fee, making him the second most expensive keeper ever (after Gianluigi Buffon), the welcome was not too much warmer at the Allianz Arena. A union of five Bayern ultra groups issued a code of conduct outlining the limits of Neuer’s relationship with them, after he had previously poked fun at Oliver Kahn, aiming to limit his role in post-match celebrations.
Neuer brushed off these “trivial matters,” as he put it, although the club organised a meeting with fans to smooth things over. Either way, he had won sceptics over by the following April, being called over by the travelling fans in the Bernabéu to lead the chants after more shootout heroics in the Champions League semi-final second leg, saving Cristiano Ronaldo and Kaká penalties to deliver Bayern to the Munich final.
Victory at Wembley
Like his Schalke exploits, it didn’t yield the trophy, but it wasn’t long coming, with Bayern winning an all-German Champions League final in 2013 before his displays at the World Cup the following summer earned him a podium spot at the 2014 Ballon d’Or and the Golden Glove award for the tournament’s best goalkeeper. He did win German Footballer of the Year for the second time shortly afterwards, though.
Quite whether Neuer is the innovator that he is so often said to be is debatable – Bruce Grobbelaar brought the sweeper-keeper role, recycling possession for an all-conquering side, into mainstream consciousness decades ago, after all – but what is indisputable is his impact on the modern game, and upon his peers.
The struggles of Borussia Dortmund’s Roman Weidenfeller last season were a case in point. The experienced Weidenfeller spent the 2014 World Cup shadowing Neuer while not playing a minute, and it seemed like his Bayern counterpart got into his head. One of the Bundesliga’s outstanding goalkeepers for the best part of a decade became prone to rushes from his line that he was ill-suited to, precipitating the eventual loss of his Dortmund place.
Like any truly great goalkeeper you might wish to name – Peter Schmeichel, or Gianluigi Buffon immediately spring to mind – Neuer has created an aura for himself, where myth and projection surround and supplement an already outstanding talent.