Benelux Hostilities – Anderlecht Ajax Europa League Preview

As Hermann Van Donk pointed out in the superb book Brilliant Orange, that Holland “always says that the Germans are arrogant – but we are arrogant towards the Belgians. These are very normal feeling that you have between neighbouring countries”

This attitude was best illustrated in 1999 when the two nations shared a manic 5-5 draw. The defining moment falling to Patrick Kluivert, who had the goal at his mercy, but goaded the Belgian defence to tackle him as he tapped it in.

Over the years, Dutch and Belgian clubs have traded talent constantly, from Rob Rensenbrink’s flourishing career at Anderlecht to today, as Jan Vertonghen’s defensive attributes are vital to Ajax. This mutual relationship is coupled with a friendly rivalry between the European neighbours. They met in the Cup Winners Cup of  1988 (between Mechelen and Ajax), with the Belgians shocking the world, but in general, pragmatic Belgium has been in the shadow of its more flamboyant neighbour

But surprisingly their two biggest clubs, having shared almost 60 domestic championships between them, had never met in European competition until last year’s Europa League group stage. But 12 months on, the last 32 draw put these two greats together to tussle once again. You could argue it was a draw neither wanted, both incredibly respectful of each before the tie.

Mohamed Moallim is your guide for AFC Ajax, whilst I’ll do my best to outline the dangermen of RSC Anderlecht. It promises to be a free-flowing fest of football and the match of the round. Well for us two anyway.

RSC Anderlecht

Strengths and Key Players

Let’s get the obvious candidate out of the way. Les Mauves’ prized asset and wonderkid Romelu Lukaku normally leads the line in a 4-3-3 formation. He’s been linked to just about every European juggernaut there has been, since bagging 20 goals in his first full season at Anderlecht, at just 16. I’m fairly certain you will have heard the comparison to Didier Drogba as well, in terms of the teenager’s immense strength and power for his age. It is a truly phenomenal thing to see; George Leekens has already used him (fairly unsuccessfully so far) as the figurehead of a fluid team and his influence is huge.

Take last weekend for example: Anderlecht chose to rest Lukaku for the game against Cercle Brugge. Even against ten men they struggled to break down the ultra-defensive Cercle. Jacobs put him on (replacing Tom De Sutter) in the second half to try get his team that vital goal, which they did in the 90th minute.

 

Talisman, Mbark Boussoufa (Picture courtesy of Kzel)

The breakthrough came from inspirational winger Mbark Boussoufa. The Morroccan narrowly edged out Lukaku to win his second Belgian shoe. He is key to their system, creating on the wing then cutting inside and switching positions with Jonathan Legear which causes havoc. Of course this game will be probably more important to him than anyone, having learnt his trade through the Ajax youth-system. As high as mark of class as any.

Others players to look out for include recent Argentinian call-up Lucas Biglia, who orchestrates the midfield with wonderful passes – a very similar player to Andrea Pirlo, complete with Loreal hair. He’s aided well by Guillaume Gillet, a very flexible midfielder.

The goalkeeper, Silvio Proto broke a club record this weekend, having now gone 840 minutes without conceding in the league. Once accused of being erratic with his tendancy to rush towards any attacker, he now has cemented his place as Belgian’s No. 1.

Weaknesses

It may seem harsh, and possibly ludicrious to some, to criticise a defence that have conceded just 14 times in the league this season. But when put up against much tougher opponents, Zenit St. Petersburg for example, the usually rock solid defence tend to crumble in awe of their opponents. The centre-back pairing of Hungarian Roland Juhasz and Czech Ondřej Mazuch have been almost everpresent for Les Mauves, forming a great understanding. But you have to feel they will be tested severely by Ajax’s forwards. Mazuch is only 21, and has little experience at this level so could be the prime man to target.

Right-back, Marcin Wasilewski has fought back from a career-threatening double leg-break and you’d expect with someone who had suffered such a bad injury, they would lose a yard of pace at least. ‘Wasil’ scored against Zulte Waregem in December and immediately ran to the away fans and thumped his badge with honour. A tremendous servant to the club, but having hit 30 and with said previous injuries, he could be the weak link.

Another huge problem with Anderlecht is their lack of strength in depth. Bar the obvious suspects, you wouldn’t expect any of the benched players, other than midfielder Kanu or US international Sacha Klještan to make an impact in any shape or form. Strikers Matias Suarez, Tom De Sutter and newly signed Dalibor Veselinovic are simply not good enough for this level. Without Boussoufa and Lukaku, they look incredibly average.

Form (in the league)

Anderlecht are currently in the midst of 15-game undefeated streak, which stretches back to the end of October. Right before that they were humbled 5-1 by bitter rivals Standard Liege, which seemed to give Jacobs’ team a wake-up call and they’ve not looked back. They currently sit three points clear of Genk at the top of the Jupiler Pro League and have yet to concede in 2011. Just the right kind of form to bring into European competition.

The manager – Ariel Jacobs

The veteran manager began his coaching career in the Belgian FA, managing various youth teams and nurturing new talent in arguably Belgium’s most exciting era in the late 1980’s into the 1990’s. He then became assistant to Wilfried Van Moer and current coach, George Leekens’ first tenure. He made the step-up to club management in 1998, managing RWD.

His first trophy was with now extinct club La Louviere in 2003, when he won the Belgian Cup. This was a fantastic achievement and Jacobs was (and still is) known for that nurturing of talent, giving Peter Odemwingie his break in Europe for example. Eventually he wound up at Anderlecht as assistant coach to Franky Vercauteren (strangely enough his rival for the title this year, since he’s at Genk). This seemed an appointment in waiting, and Vercauteren left in November 2007.

Jacobs had to wait until last year to taste championship success, ending the dominance of Standard Liege for the time being at least. His policy of integrating youth players into the side has reaped dividends on the pitch and certainly off it too, with an astronomical fee for Lukaku expected in the next transfer window.

AFC Ajax

Strengths

Historically, Ajax’s strengths have been its attacking play. This still applies today, even though they are a far cry from some of their glorious sides of the past, they still play to attack.

With Luis Suárez departing in late January for Liverpool, it diminished somewhat – the Uruguayan was responsible for 35 out of Ajax’s impressive tally of 106 goals in the league last season – if you also add what else he brings, it’s a massive loss if an adequate replacement isn’t found soon. Although, Suárez hardly featured in Frank de Boer’s XI, due to a domestic ban he was serving prior to his move.

De Boer’s arrival after Martin Jol’s departure in early December brought a feel good factor back to the club. On the pitch he reverted Ajax back to their traditional 4-3-3, and more emphasis on wing-play and having an able playmaker playing off a number 9.

The goals haven’t flown in at an incredible rate but he has somewhat rekindled some players, who have already shown more than they did in the first half of the season.

Weaknesses

If attack is the teams strength, then defence/defending is the weakness. In saying that Ajax doesn’t have a bad defence theoretically (on paper) Gregory van der Wiel is one of the brightest young right fullback around, Jan Vertonghen has been Ajax’s most consistent player and a all round talent and Toby Alderweireld has come on strong.

What lets them down is the concentration level, if one nods off then chaos ensues.

The left-full back position has been a worry, especially as Urby Emanuelson has left – even though it’s not really his best position De Boer would rather trust him than say Anita. Right now it’s held by Daley Blind, despite the immense talent he posses, I’m of the mind that it’s too not his best role.

Another weakness stems from the strength, the tempo, De Boer in the system he wants to play, requires quick movement. So far the play has been languid which tends to mean any build-up or counterattack is broken down. It’s still early days in his tenure, but this is one area he would like to correct immediately.

Key players

With Suarez gone, Ajax has to look for other players to emerge from the shadows and take a great degree of responsibility. There are some candidates, and good ones. Siem de Jong whose been a mainstay in the team for the past year has emerged as De Boer’s number 9 of choice, despite being a natural midfield he’s taken to the role of playing the false #9 – he keeps the ball moving, holds it well and allows team mates involved in the play and he has the knack of finding the goal.

Another player is the rejuvenated Miralem Sulejmani, often played as a left-forward under Jol. It looked like he would be surplus to requirement last summer, but a possible loan move to West Ham broke down but its under De Boer that he is showing glimpses of the player that Ajax broke the bank for – playing as a right-forward, Sulejmani has everything to succeed, his dribbling is a strong suit and so is his finishing, taking on a fullback is no problem and so is crossing. He has become the face of De Boer’s tenure so far, he or Christian Eriksen.

Christian Eriksen, another of Europe's most exciting emerging talents (Photo courtesy of Martini DK)

The 19-year-old Danish sensation was a bit-part player under Jol (which is fair enough) but he’s now a crucial component in the makeup of the team. As a trequartista, Eriksen pulls the strings – though he’s not known to be a proven goal scorer, it’s his vision, passing and playmaking abilities that excite De Boer more than anything, and as soon as he took charge he highlighted Eriksen as the one who could take Ajax back to the top. A player mature for his age, he has spoken of his desire to stay at the club to develop instead of moving elsewhere, and there are a plenty of suitors.

Form (in the league)

As a season overall, it’s not been the best. What started as a promise faded as Jol’s tactics became stale and players frustrated. De Boer revitalised but a 3-0 defeat away to FC Utrecht derailed any comeback for the league, they’ve since gone on to record wins but a recent 2-2 draw at Roda means the side are 5 points behind the joint leaders PSV and FC Twente. Of course that lead can be cut down but with games running out Ajax’s priority could mean qualifying for the Champions League for next season becomes the major goal.

The manager

One of Ajax’s greatest players, Frank de Boer played under Louis van Gaal in Ajax’s great side of the mid 90’s with a degree of success. That greately inspired his footballing vision and how he wants Ajax to play.

This role is his first major one and becomes only a select few to have managed the side after previously playing for the club with distinction, before the role his major position was Bert van Marwijk assistant with the Dutch national team that got to the World Cup final.

At the same time he worked at De Toekomst, Ajax’s fabled youth academy, and it’s this education and expertise of the future talents that might have gotten him the job – the cynic in me see’s a couple of first team players leaving in the summer. If Ajax decide to invest by bringing through some of the young talents then who better to coach them.

Already the likes of Jody Lukoki, Lorenzo Ebecilio and Araz Özbiliz (albeit he played one game under Jol, after being pressured into playing with wingers) have made their debuts and featured under him.

So there we have it, a quick guide into Belgium and Holland’s most successful teams. Here’s an interesting stat: Anderlecht have played ten games against Dutch opposition with a record that reads W8 D2 L0. Only one winner then…but for balance here’s Edgar Davids goal in that ten goal thriller:

Reflection on 2010 where I give myself a Lifetime Achievement Award

Welcome everybody to what was intended to be an awards ceremony. That has now fallen by the wayside since well, Zonal Marking put it best to me when I asked the good world of Twitter for categories – ‘the best blog award of the year award’. Everyone’s done one, so I’ll hold back until the end of the football season.

Instead, I thought it would be appropriate to thank all those who’ve made 2010 quite a good year for myself.

I had a minor brainwave in August (well startling revelation) that I needed to actually write things for my degree. This blog was half running, after all I did write a lot of World Cup stuff, but most of that incoherent ranting about Marcel Desailly’s patriotism. That makes me sound like Ron Atkinson doesn’t it?

Anyway after that tournament, I decided to research a club called Arles-Avignon. I can’t exactly say why I did this, I think it was because I saw the Ligue Un table and had never heard of them before, so delved in to some French websites. Their back-story became more and more interesting as I went on.

I wrote it. Then through word of mouth (Michael Cox reading it and retweeting it), people flocked to it. Since then, I’ve not done anything as good. But neither have Arles-Avignon. They have won a game though, somehow.

Shortly after that, Andrew Gibney was appealing for podcast guests and I stook my hand up. I was thinking about starting a podcast anyway, but that was in the preliminiary stage so I gladly took up his cordial invitation. I’ve enjoyed every Skype conversation (sorry I’ve ruined the magic of it) with the guys and it feels weird that people actually listen to my Barry White-esque voice and often bumbling pieces of information. I can’t praise how hard Mr Gibney works on his sites, as does Gav, Charlie, Brent, Ethan and every guest we’ve had: all with great websites.

I’d also like to thank Jeff and the team In Bed With Maradona, without doubt one of my favourite reads. To set up a site as great as that within a year, with contributions from that great and good of football blogging (and once in a blue moon me) is a superb achievment and they deserve all the plaudits they get

Through that, I’ve taken an somewhat unhealthy and life-shortening interest in the Jupiler Pro League in Belgium. Why? Because no one else in their right mind would. It’s been fun watching some of Europe’s premier young guns duel it out and also watching not as youthful Tomasz Radzinski at Lierse. My highlight of the year was Zulte’s Habib Habibou throwing a duck off the field against Lokeren; a truly beautiful moment which strangely enough kick-started his season. You could say he found his wings. I thank y0u.

Anyway, to avoid this tone of the article becoming ‘look how great I am’, I’d like to thank all of you for reading the blog at some point in the past year. I’d also like to thank Freddie Shires and Dave Stubbings for their contributions, although I suspect Dave will live to regret his lambasting of an United team that remains unbeaten. We can’t call em all correctly can we, and I should know; I said Mauro Boselli was a good signing.

So what can you expect in 2011. Well a hiatus unfortunately. January sees me visit Champions League magazine for some much-needed work experience and then it’s the final push towards getting a degree. So if anyone wants to contribute to the Player Profiles section, it would be muchly appreciated.

Right, I think my end of year honours list will come to an end now. Thanks to all of you again.

Here’s to 2011 *raises a glass of finest Buck’s Fizz.

Oh and if you can check out this great list of the 100 football blogs to follow in 2011. Don’t know how I made that list, but it is a list of 100, someone was bound to scrape in.

Here’s that moment again. No ducks were severely harmed during the match.

Top 10 Goals from Centre-Backs

After a long hiatus (thanks to uni work and work placements), I’d thought it was best to actually keep this website running a bit. So what better early Christmas present could I give than ten of the best goals from central defenders.

Of course, we’d rather see a centre-back make a last-ditch sliding tackle that keeps the team in the game or fly in with a diving header deep into stoppage time. But it’s even better when your favourite lumbering oaf at the back unleashes a rasping 30 yard screamer, confusing the entire ground.

There are a few rules though. No free-kicks so that rules out every goal by Chelsea’s Alex. Also, Dion Dublin can’t qualify since he’s clearly a striker and was only playing centre-back because he’s huge. No headers – most centre-backs can do that. I’ve also tried to mix the type of goals a bit to add a bit of variety as well.

I apologise in advance if they are slightly Premiership-centric as well, but I’ve included AEK Athens in this so…

Tony Adams vs Everton 03/05/1998

The goal that got me thinking about this Top 10. It gets even better when you consider it was fellow centre-back Steve Bould whose lovely chipped through-ball that sent Adams in with acres of space. Sure, you could criticise the entire Everton team for being as static as a caravan park, but Martin Tyler’s commentary sums up that entire season for Arsenal. Wonderful stuff.

Gerard Pique vs Inter Milan 28/04/10

This game will no doubt be remembered for the Inter Milan masterclass at the back to keep Barcelona at bay and secure their place into the final. But it’s easy to forget how good this goal was. Slight suspicions of offside but I don’t care, Gerard Pique’s deceptive turn and finish is magnificent and left Ivan Cordoba on the deck, after he left Pique in the first place. Shame it didn’t count for anything other than me loving Pique more.

Philippe Albert vs Manchester United 20/10/96

Slight ambivalence to this goal. It was scored against Manchester United but it’s from a Belgian. But what a fantastic goal, leaving Peter Schmeichel knowingly lobbed and the final goal of a crushing 5-0 defeat for Manchester United. The Great Dane just watches it glide over his head compiling more misery on the side.

Edmilson vs Costa Rica 13/06/02

The award for most outrageous piece of innovation has to go to Edmilson at the World Cup against South Korea. An overhead kick that most strikers would want on their greatest hits Youtube video, Edmilson performs some sort of zero-gravity flip and scores a fantastic goal. His only strike for Brazil but an absolute pearler.

Ugo Ehiogu vs Celtic 11/03/07

If there’s one man I’d not expect to score an overhead kick, its probably Ugo Ehiogu. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing him score at both ends at a charity match but this goal was quite superb in the Old Firm derby. Such power, such grace, so very not Ugo Ehiogu.

Daniel Agger vs West Ham 26/08/06

Little was known about Liverpool’s newest centre-back in 2006 but he announced himself very early on to the Anfield crowd. The curve on the 30-yarder is glorious as Agger unleashes a thunderous strike, leaving Roy Carroll stranded. Hardly his fault this time though. Just remember, allowing Agger space is very Dane-gerous (please shoot me in the head)

Roland Juhasz vs AEK Athens 21/10/10

Another contender for the innovator award, after Hungarian Roland Juhasz met the end of Mbark Boussoufa’s cross with a sensational back-heel volley. Pick that one out. Have a feeling he could be on the move soon, so keep an eye out.

Williams Gallas vs Spurs 11/03/06

A vital goal from London cab driver William Gallas, this time from his Chelsea stint. He scored this in the last minute against his current club Spurs after a fiercely contested game. It proved pivotal in the run-in for Chelsea’s second title win.

Jason Cundy vs Ipswich 30/08/1992

I’m no fan of Mr Cundy. Let’s forget about his media work and celebrate this unintentional hoof from near the half-way line against The Tractor Boys. Certainly Cundy’s best moment in football, but there’s not much else to compete with.

Gary Cahill vs Birmingham 16/04/06

And finally we visit the West Midlands derby and Gary Cahill’s creative volley against Birmingham City. Maik Taylor didn’t have a chance. Not bad for your first goal.

 

So there we have it. If you want to add some to the list, comment below. Although I was going to add Distin’s goal against Charlton where he ran about 80-odd yards, but the footage is missing. That means it never happened.

Gibfootballshow Podcast

WARNING: Self-indulgent plug alert.

I have now been podcasting for a good 2 months and I’m relatively certain that I can safely link you to these podcasts, as my podcasting skill has truly stayed constantly at an average level. So with that hearty endorsement, here are the fine Gibfootballshow podcasts.

Peruse for general global football chat with

  • Andrew Gibney – a superb conductor in the event of madness on the pods plus a fine website to boot.
  • Me, you don’t need to hear any more about me.
  • Brent Atema of the great GlobalFootballToday website, a very knowledge Chelsea fan from Texas who always brags about the fine weather there.
  • Charlie Anderson – An oracle of  Scandinavian football. He can’t be floored by a question on the Tippeligaen. His own blog is here and writes for IBWM as well.
  • Gav Stone – a purveyor of Englishmen who have fled the destruction of these shores and plied their trade across the globe. He runs the sensational LesRosbifs.net
  • Ethan Dean Richards – I’ve clearly saved the best until last. The comedic foil for the group who never reveals the strategem behind his predictions. West Brom fan with some great views and his great site Surreal Football. Drinks Vimto.

And that’s about it really. This week’s talk revolves around how rubbish the Balon D’Or is now, Eredivisie (predominantly PSV), a sprinkle of Serie A and finally Michael Owen. Don’t worry, we don’t go all Henry Winter on him. Well I do, but that’s beside the point.

Please do listen, I will love each of you for doing so.

Honest.

Six Pointer: Opening Day

The Premier League has returned after what seems a very short amount of time since John Terry lifted that famous trophy above his head in front of a packed Stamford Bridge. Well, of course we’ve had the worst World Cup ever in between all that, if you are to gauge punditry opinion across the board. I can ramble and rant about that again (believe me you don’t want me to) but instead we shall focus on a spectacular opening day in the English top flight and other events across Europe. Yes, that’s right the format is back. Six points recapping the best European football topics of the last week. Let’s crack on shall we?

1 Blackpool tower above woeful Wigan

Tangerine sea, amazing scenes

The start of the 10/11 Premier League will only be remembered for this game I feel. Chelsea and United played their opposition off the park, the chasing pack drew with each other. Not that these games were particularly low quality, far from it. But there was no shocking result. Fortunately for us, Blackpool announced their arrival to the big stage in the best possible manner, humiliating Wigan at the DW Stadium.

As good as Ian Holloway’s side were, Wigan’s first half performance was utterly shambolic at the back. It’s quite clear to me for the £9.5 million Wigan have spent this year, they lack a leader. No Scharner, Bramble or Melchiot to lead the troops and it showed. The back four weren’t organised, and Martinez looked despondent at what was going on. He needs to sign someone with experience to get Wigan structured. To be fair to Martinez, his substitutes worked at half time. Ronnie Stam looked decent when he came on. But all in all it was a fairly disasterous day for Wigan.

Full credit to Blackpool was laying down a superb marker in what is sure to be a tough season. Holloway is certainly creating the right atmosphere and team ethos and they’ll love every minute of being the underdog in practically every game. Doesn’t exactly get any harder than Arsenal away next. Wigan have Chelsea at home, but they did win that fixture last year. Can’t really see it this time.

2. Bellamy comes home (sort of)

39- Number of clubs Bellamy is either wanted by or played for

The first real casualty of the mega-bucks spending of Manchester City, for this year at least, looks to be Craig Bellamy. As much as I find some of his behaviour in the past to be reprehensible, I can’t really deny how good he was last year for them. His performance in the first Manchester derby last year was brilliant. It’s real shame that at the time he’s got his act together, he gets treated fairly badly by City and shipped off on a season loan to Cardiff City.

A very shrewd business move by City. He was highly sought after by their rivals, so why not give him to an aspiring club one tier lower. No doubt for me now that Bellamy will be sensational in that league and he might obtain cult status at the club (more than likely already has with that amount of Bellamy shirts printed).

It still baffles me how Bellamy didn’t make the 25 man squad for the league considering his level of performances last year, and I kind of hope that decision backfires on City. It probably won’t and of course this is me being slightly biased.

3. Steve Bruce loses rag, contrast between red face and blonde hair stark

Anthony Taylor gives Cattermole a record 234,690th red card,

He may well be one of the best centre-backs I’ve seen at United, but he’s becoming an irritating fool now. As we all know, Lee Cattermole is prone to a rush of blood to his noggin, and also drawing it from opponents with his elbow. How Bruce can slag off the ref for his officiating in the game against Birmingham is beyond me really. First yellow card may seem harsh, but I think the second offence warranted a red so it balanced out.

Bruce complained at the fast-tracking of referees. He said: “The ref (Anthony Taylor) was totally inadequate. I believe he’s only been refereeing four years so that is a huge decision to promote him to the Premier League.” Has it not occurred to you, Mr Bruce that for a referee to obtain Premier League status that quickly, he must be doing something correctly and furthermore, for us to get good referees, they need to officiate at the highest level sooner or later.

Bruce added “The last thing I want to do is criticise a young lad trying to make his way in the game but he was absolutely awful” Yeah well done there, Steve. Do exactly what you say you’re trying to avoid.

It’s opening day, it’s not going to cost you in the long run surely. He’ll escape FA punishment as well it seems.

4. European elites get off to slow start

A change of pace now as we take a Euro-trip across the other top leagues, except not as beer-fuelled.

  • Things in France are certainly intriguing and not just with the France national team investigation that has just concluded. Champions Marseille are in an early season crisis (and no I don’t mean an Arsenal crisis as hinted at by the Telegraph). Didier Deschamps hinted at club unrest, most likely down to the decisions of Mamadou Niang, who has since left to join Fenerbahce, and Hatem Ben Arfa trying to broker a Premier League move.Deschamps said: “There are a lot of negative things going on off the pitch, but we are making a lot of mistakes on the pitch also. They are not excuses, they are explanations”. Marseille have lost both their games in Ligue 1 this season against Caen and Valenciennes.
  • Over in Portugal, Benfica were stunned with an opening day defeat to Academica, with a glorious last minute winner from Laionel. Interesting to see how Benfica do this year, they’ve been well and truly raided by other European clubs, and I for one am amazed to see Fabio Coentrao still at the club. I don’t think this defeat will lead to a slide, but I think it will be a lot closer title race that last year, with Porto and Sporting both hoping to improve on last years efforts. Here’s that strike by the way, the first winner of 6Pointer Goal of the Week

5.  How to make your debut, Joe Cole style

Not that type of player.... apparently

The biggest talking point from the Super Sunday game between Liverpool and Arsenal. Now remember ‘Joe Cole isn’t that sort of player’, what a ludcrious argument that is. It was in an area of the pitch where tackles like that aren’t needed and Martin Atkinson was right to send off Joe Cole. The Koscielny red card was more contentious only for the fact he wasn’t consistent with hand balls but I thought he looked reasonably assured on his debut.

Not that it really mattered, Joe Cole was kept incredibly quiet by Arsenal and was outlassed by his Arsenal counterpart in Samir Nasri. Liverpool kicked on from that to take the lead through David N’Gog, who often recieves harsh criticism and unfair comparisons to Fernando Torres. He was aided by some poor defending from Arsenal though.

Arsenal came back, as you’d expect and grabbed a late equaliser from Pepe Reina not being able to see a football through the sun. According to Andy Gray. Either way it ended in a draw, no surprises.

6. Toon Army  Facial Hair Watch – Fixture 1

Every villain needs a moustache. Mr March perhaps for Joey?

Last night Twitter exploded with the news of Joey Barton’s moustache. The Newcastle squad have vowed not to shave until they win a league game.

Now some people can pull of facial hair. Tom Selleck, Ian Rush (sort of) and the Red Baron from the Wacky Races. Unfortunately for none of the Newcastle players can and it could be seen for a long time yet with the way Newcastle performed last night. It wasn’t bad but they were outclassed.

Could we see Joey go through different stages as the season progress? In fact I call for a calendar just for Joey Barton’s Moustaches. May’s offering could be a Fu Manchu if the situation doesn’t improve. 6pointer will keep you informed with a new feature – Toon Tash Watch.

I’m off to watch Zenit Auxerre, hopefully an entertaining game, see you next week

6 Players to Watch in Premier League 2010/11

Well it’s time for that obligatory Premier League Preview. However due to lack of time and the fact that several esteemed journalists (and some not at all esteemed) have previewed the league, I feel it’s best to highlight 6 players who have all the tools needed to be proficient and efficient in the Premier League.

It’s been a strange transfer window really. Very quiet bar the big spenders Manchester City and also a case of ‘chase the hottest prospect around Europe’ game (Loic Remy, Mesut Ozil) in which several managers have participated in and ultimately coming up with no signing.

I’ve imposed certain rulings here. Firstly I cannot go with obvious suggestions that media darling pundits have, so this means Javier Hernandez will not be selected due to the fact the world and his dog know he will be good this year and if you’re a eagle-eyed World Cup viewer, you’ll know exactly what he will bring to Manchester United. This also means no David Silva, Jack Wilshere, Gareth Bale, Joe Hart et al.

The other ruling is that I’m going to try and highlight players outside the Big Four if possible unless I feel a certain player at a big club deserves attention. So sorry Joe Cole, but I wouldn’t have picked you anyway despite the fact that you are clearly more  skilful than Lionel Messi, according to your club captain (surely a contender for Biggest Heaping of Pressure on an Overrated midfielder.)

So here we go, 6pointer’s guide to 6 players you should put into your fantasy football team if you can:

1. Mauro Boselli (Wigan)

I’ll be honest I was worried about Wigan at the beginning of this transfer window. Several players have left the club after their contracts expired, such as Mario Melchiot (who was beginning to become a liability anyway) and Paul Scharner. Other key players had jumped ship too, like Titus Bramble joining his former manager Steve Bruce at Sunderland.

Martinez had a massive summer scouting mission ahead of him. Fortunately, he’s managed to make some great signings. Antolin Alcaraz from Club Bruges, was instrumental in Paraguay’s World Cup success, forged upon a tightly knit defence. Ronnie Stam has signed from FC Twente, who’s continually improved there as a right-back and got a Holland call-up too.

But one thing that Wigan have always lacked at this level is an out and out frontman, who’s capable of consistently performing. Step forward Mauro Boselli. Signed from Estudiantes for an estimated £6.5million, he swaps the bustling streets of Buenos Aires for a wet and windy Wigan.

He’d managed to build quite a reputation for himself in Argentina, scoring 32 goals in 57 appearances for Estudiantes. He’s an intelligent striker, who knows exactly where to be at the right time.

Martinez describes him as ‘a goalscorer, who lives to put the ball in the back of the net’ and if he links up well with Hugo Rodallega or Jordi Gomez, I feel we might see a barrage of goals at Wigan this year.

Why Terry Venables thinks they’ll be 19th I don’t know, when Martinez has added some quality to a pretty ropey side. Boselli has even made a Argentinian call-up. You may see this as Diego Maradona experimenting, after all he’s used about 50 players in the last 2 years, but you have to some sort of quality to challenge that front-line.

He could flop like so many South Americans before him in this league, but I feel the top scorer in the Copa Libertadores in 2009 might just be this season’s best purchase, and will warrant a big move the year after.

EDIT – 23/9/10 – After seeing Mauro Boselli, live in the flesh, discount any information you see here. He looked sluggish against Preston. Sean St Ledger kept him in his pocket the entire night pretty much. Don’t listen to me, I have sinned.

2.Daniel Sturridge (Chelsea)

Ok, I’ve broken the Top Four amnesty. But I don’t think many people realise the quality of this young English centre-forward. This decision was mainly down to his performance in last week’s Community Shield, where came on 2nd half replacing Nicolas Anelka. I feel this might happen a lot this year, since I think Anelka is under serious threat of finding himself at another club. He’s hardly had a good summer either, and I think his time at a top level is coming to an end.

This is why I feel Daniel Sturridge is an ideal replacement. He has power and pace in abundance and Carlo Ancelotti found opportunity to play him a lot in the later months of last season, particularly in Chelsea’s FA Cup winning side. He ended up with 4 goals in the FA Cup and finished as the leading scorer for Chelsea.

If Carlo Ancelotti integrates him more this season, we may well see Sturridge challenge for national selection. The future’s bright for this young man I reckon.

3.Jerome Boateng (Man City)

If you were to ask me last season where City needed strengthening, the answer is obvious. The back four last year began superbly but then collapsed as the season progressed. For all your attacking options, you need players capable of offering protection to a solid goalkeeper. Roberto Mancini has acted this summer and brought in German international Jerome Boateng from Hamburg. Of course £11 million isn’t cheap but compared to the £24million City paid for Joleon Lescott, it looks a bargain.

Boateng is a strong and versatile defender, capable of playing really anywhere across the defence. He’ll thrive in this league, as he’s renowned for last-ditch defending. He was unsung really in Germany’s World Cup exploits, the plaudits of a free-flowing attack were well noted but it was underpinned by a strong defence. City should be improved this season as I think their major weakness has been sorted out to some extent.

4.Dani Pacheco (Liverpool)

He’s often been touted as the next best thing at Liverpool, but former manager Rafa Benitez never really used him or got the best out of him when he did. I think under Roy Hodsgon we may see that change. Pacheco was instrumental along with Sergio Canales in the Spanish side that were runners-up in this year’s U19’s European Championship in France. What Dani lacks in height, he makes up double in creativity and all-round trickiness, a general requirement of any Barcelona youth player.

If given the chance this season under Hodgson, he could link up well with a fully fit Fernando Torres (will this ever happen?) and we should see more of the man nicknamed The Assassin by team-mates due to his ability to score from anywhere.

5.Graham Dorrans (West Brom)

I feel it’s only fair to highlight someone from the promoted teams, and while Charlie Adam seems a good pick, I’ve decided to go with the Baggies playmaker. He was unbelievable last season in the Championship, and certainly worthy of his place in the Team of the Year. He’s the linchpin of the side, and his partnership with Chris Brunt was key to West Brom’s promotion last year. He’s an all-round central midfielder with a sweet shot on him too.

I still think West Brom are relegation candidates, after all the club is a yo-yo side, but if they want to avoid the drop look no further to their young midfield driving force. All they need a good striker and they may have a chance to get mid-table. Even if West Brom go down, I get the feeling he won’t find it hard to garner some Premier League interest.

Scotland, there is something to get excited about from a upcoming star.

6. Pablo Barrera (West Ham)

Another player to shine in Javier Aguirre’s exciting Mexican side, this winger could prove a real handful for some Premier League teams. The thing I remember most about Barrera at the World Cup was the torrid time he gave Eric Abidal in the France game (arguably Mexico’s best performance at the World Cup). He looks nippy and a decent crosser too, something that West Ham will need to feed Carlton Cole up top, or maybe Frank Nouble if he’s given a chance.

The 23 year old moved from Mexican side Pumas for £4 million. I’m not totally convinced about West Ham’s plans under Avram Grant but I think Barrera could be a hugely influential midfielder for them.

So there we have it. Let’s see next May how badly wrong I was.

Jon Dahl Tomasson: The Danish Dynamo

This weekend will be remembered as an utter farce from an international perspective. Several English players have retired from international careers, effectively down to said players not being selected for the World Cup. Maybe like some, they thought they weren’t going to be called up. Others effectively threw their toys out of their pram because of a tournament snubbing. At the end of the day, neither Wes Brown or Paul Robinson will be missed from the set-up.

Contrast that to another retirement this weekend. A player who’s contributed so much to his nation and captained his country. That player is Jon Dahl Tomasson.

It’s fair to say that Jon Dahl Tomasson is a journeyman of European football. Having played in Holland, Spain, Italy and England, he’s been recognised as a good front-man in Europe, certainly in the earlier part of the last decade. He’s accumulated several accolades during his career across the continent too, arguably the pinnacle being his Champions League medal with AC Milan in 2003.

But its at international level where the Dane has excelled. He has garnered 112 caps over 11 years with the national side and scored 52 goals.  This makes him the all time cap leader and goal scorer for Denmark. For a man who was often frustrated at club level, frequently left on the bench behind highly rated targetmen (Shevchenko, Vieri, Shearer) he’s done a superb job of flourishing for his country.

In fact, Tomasson’s better position was ‘in the hole’ playing off the front man towards the end of the 90’s but he was forced up front in his time at Newcastle. His finishing and positioning were key aspects of his game. But this proves that Tomasson is very versatile up front and can fit in anywhere. A true team player.

He first came to prominence when Heerenveen bought him from Koge in 1994. He was prolific in Denmark, and helped Koge up the division, scoring 37 in 55.  He was in great form for Heerenveen too, finishing top scorer for them in his 3 years at the club.

Kenny Dalglish decided to bring Tomasson to St James Park in 1997, in hope that he would provide the perfect foil for Alan Shearer. The problems began however when Shearer got injured right at the start of the season, which forced Tomasson to fill his position. But Tomasson failed to adapt to the English game, citing a lack of physicality for this and only scored 3 Premier League goals.

He then returned back to Holland this time at Dutch giant, Feyenoord. It didn’t exactly take long for him to regain his confidence and he led the club to the Eredivisie title, plus a Dutch Super Cup. More was to follow however when he was part of the UEFA Cup winning side of 2002, knocking out Inter Milan and PSV along the way. He scored in the final against Borussia Dortmund as well and was crowned Man of the Match. His link-up with Pierre Van Hooijdonk made them one of the most feared partnerships in Europe at the time.

Summer in 2002 was memorable for Tomasson. He lit up the 2002 World Cup with some fabulous strikes, and finished the tournament on 4 goals. Denmark should have gone further in that tournament but ran into England and capitulated.

This spell was the most fruitful of his career really, but he left on a Bosman to Milan at the end of the season. It’s fair to say Feyenoord have never looked as strong since. At Milan he was a bit-part player in their success after struggling to replace Shevchenko or Rui Costa in Ancelotti’s line-up. But  he still managed 1 in 3 games for the club and was part of a side that won Serie A, a Coppa Italia and a Champions League in Ancelotti’s golden years for the Rossoneri. Not a bad haul shall we say.

Cue the next tournament,Euro 2004 ,where he scored arguably the best goal of his career against bitter Scandinavian rivals Sweden. A powerful half- volley, which is exemplary of Tomasson’s technique and control.

The remainder of his club career has been less glittering with spells at Villarreal and now returning to Feyenoord. This World Cup he failed to live up to the pressure bestowed upon him by passionate Danes and he has faced increasing criticism to step down. He finally did so after the World Cup where Denmark were eliminated at the group stage, with captain Tomasson’s solitary goal against Japan.

But you don’t realise what you’ve got til it’s gone. The Danish manager, Morten Olsen called Tomasson ‘the ultimate team player’.

The man himself said: “It was not an easy decision because the national team was a huge thing in my life and I have always been proud of representing Denmark.” He’s got one year left for Feyenoord, so clearly wants to concentrate on club football, in his last season in football.

You’ve certainly done yourself proud Jon. Here’s a tribute to you:

And don’t worry Danes, there’s always Nicklas Bendtner in waiting…..