With three minutes of normal time to go they were safe. Villarreal, after appearing in the same Champions League group as Bayern Munich, Manchester City and Napoli earlier in the season, would be spared the embarrassment of relegation with Rayo Vallecano going down instead. Then it all changed.
The prolific Radamel Falcao headed his 36th goal of the season past Diego López with 88 minutes on the clock. No matter. Although Zaragoza were 2-0 up away to Getafe, Granada were holding Rayo to a goalless draw in Vallecano; it would be Rayo who went down. Until injury time, that is.
With Rayo needing a goal to stay up, they won a corner. The goalkeeper, David Cobeño, came up, hoping to make himself a hero. The corner came in; cleared. Cobeño began to sprint back towards his own goal; Rayo were more vulnerable now as they had been all game. The ball broke kindly for them and a shot came in – deflected off the legs of a defender, it fell for Michu, who stretched out a leg and got the ball past the goalkeeper. It hit the bar but bounced down on the line where Raúl Tamudo headed in. The stands exploded. Rayo had done it and Tamudo’s goal meant that Villarreal were down.
The news filtered through to El Madrigal but the President, Fernando Roig, had already left the directors’ box after Falcao’s goal. When he left his seat, his side were safe, when he got to his office, they were down.
It is extraordinary that this is the same club that was a Juan Riquelme penalty away from the Champions League final in 2006. In the past season they have had three coaches – the same number as in the seven preceding years. Chaos has taken over from continuity.
Last summer they had a choice: their two best players, Santi Cazorla and Giuseppe Rossi, would be subject of speculation and it was anticipated that bids from bigger, more ambitious clubs would come in. Villarreal, realistically, could get away with selling one and keeping the other – which is what they did. Cazorla moved to Málaga for €21m, Rossi stayed despite reported £40m interest from Barcelona and Tottenham. However, disaster would soon strike.
In a 3-0 loss to Real Madrid in October, Rossi suffered an injury to his anterior cruciate ligament which would leave him out of action for six months. Upon his return in April he was unfortunate enough to suffer a relapse and picked up the same injury in training, leaving him sidelined for another ten months. By the time he is scheduled to return he will have missed over a year’s worth of competitive football as well as Euro 2012, where it was expected that Rossi would lead the Italy frontline.
Had he not been injured, perhaps things may have been a lot different for El Submarino Amarillo. Villarreal decided to take the gamble and have now lost with the harshest consequences.
The question now is what do Villarreal do with Rossi or what does he do? With relegation comes a plummet in value. At the end of last season, in which he scored 32 goals in all competitions – averaging a goal every other game in the league – they could have asked for over €20m for arguably the best player outside the monopoly of Barcelona and Real Madrid. Now, though, the circumstances have changed and, accordingly, Rossi’s market value has too.
Signed from Manchester United for €10m after 70 goals in 72 reserve games, limited first-team opportunities and loan spells with Newcastle and Parma, Rossi began to stake his claim for a place in the Italian national side. Although he was born in New Jersey, the 25 year-old moved to Italy at the age of 12 to become a part of the youth setup at Parma. He was handed his full international debut by Marcello Lippi after impressing at the Beijing Olympics of 2008 in which he was the top-scorer with six goals in six games.
Having his allegiances firmly with Italy has left Rossi open to a tirade of abuse from those of his country of birth – particularly on Twitter, where complete strangers celebrate the ACL injury whilst calling him a “turncoat”, “traitor” and “Judas”. The same people conveniently ignore the fact that José Torres decided to represent America at international level rather than Mexico.
As a striker of international and Champions League caliber, it seems ridiculous to even contemplate the possibility that Rossi might play in the Segunda División. He is a player who should be facing Barcelona at the Camp Nou, not their B team at Mini Estadi.
There have been reports linking Rossi with a €25m move to the newly-crowned Italian champions, Juventus, though it is now claimed that the injury has seen them seek other targets such as Arsenal’s Robin van Persie and Liverpool’s Luis Suárez.
A transfer to another big-name European side could still be on the cards if it is decided that the risk regarding Rossi’s right knee is one worth taking. However, a February return, at the earliest, would need to be consideration before any transfer is agreed.
To injure the anterior cruciate ligament once is bad enough; to do it twice in such a short space of team leaves doubts over the durability. Perhaps he will need to return in the yellow shirt and prove to those who doubt him that his knee can take the strain of playing professional football again, albeit at a poorer level that what he has been accustomed to.
If he can find full fitness and previous form, the chances of Villarreal keeping hold of Rossi are slim whether they win promotion back to La Liga or not.
(Credit to Marco Jackson – Twitter @Marco4J – for the graphs.)
Roy Hodgson seems to have developed an unenviable habit of picking up prestigious jobs in rather unfortunate circumstances.
Appointed as the manager of Liverpool in the summer of 2010 following Rafael Benitez’s departure amongst the clamour of the fans for club legend Kenny Dalglish to take charge, Hodgson was always going to find it tough to be a success and win the fans over at Anfield. Ultimately, he was given 191 disastrous days and then his P45 after a poor half of a season.
Now, he finds himself as manager of the England national team with the backdrop of Harry Redknapp being seen as the popular choice for the job. This, however, is not the reality of the situation, no matter how much the national press attempt to dress it up as being so.
The last few days have seen Hodgson belittled by the majority of newspapers in the country. Martin Samuel of the Daily Mail claimed that the media don’t “hound” managers, nor are they “out to get them”. Ironically, this came a day after Samuel published an article for his newspaper calling Hodgson “Mr Average” and questioning whether or not he was up to the job before he had even been officially appointed.
The Guardian ran an online page dedicated to YouTube videos of Hodgson during his career which included infamous scenes like his violent face-rubbing at Newcastle whilst in charge of Liverpool and his head-banging antics against Everton earlier this season at the Hawthorns. There is also a video on there of him showing his frustration during a Blackburn game when he was the manager at Ewood Park. You know, the same thing that most managers do every week.
Similarly, other newspapers have taken to bastardising Hodgson and glorifying Redknapp in a grossly unfair manner. The Sun has even gone as far as mocking his rhotacism, which can be classed as a disability, on their front page with the headline “Bwing on the Euwos! (We’ll see you in Ukwaine against Fwance)”. One would suspect that they had a similar front page lined up to mock Redknapp’s twitch had been given the manager’s role by The FA.
Then again, perhaps not.
It would seem that all of this vitriol is an apparent backlash towards Hodgson’s appointment; the media had considered it to be a formality that Redknapp, known for being friendly with journalists, would be given the job. With the former Fulham manager being given the role, they are now left with egg on their collective faces and are left trying to wipe it off by undermining a man who has not been in his new job for more than a few days.
The press are determined to stick by their mantra of Redknapp being “the people’s choice” when the majority of the feedback to the articles written about Hodgson would suggest the opposite: Redknapp was, in fact, the media’s choice. The Tottenham manager has offered his congratulations to the new England manager, holding no grudges about missing out on a job that he was never offered.
Contrary to what the newspapers say, most people appear to be quietly pleased by the appointment and hope that he is given a fair chance. If anything, the lambasting given to Hodgson by the press has galvanised the support for him. Whilst he may not want the sympathy, it is difficult not to feel sorry for a man who is being portrayed as an abject failure before he has taken charge of one game.
Described by the media as “a shock choice”, translated as “not the man we wanted”, Hodgson’s credentials suggest that he is capable of getting the best out of a group of players that can be seen as mediocre. In terms of international football, England sits a long way behind the likes of Germany, Spain, Holland, France, Portugal and Italy in their own continent. If you take into account the rest of the world, it could be argued that the likes of Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay are also in better stead than the England team. This makes them mediocre; this makes them a working progress which Hodgson can oversee with a great deal of success -even if it is not tangible.
Hodgson has been accredited with transforming Swiss football during his tenure from 1992-1995, giving a strategy for the development of youth players in the country. They are beginning to reap the rewards with players like Stephan Lichtsteiner, Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri making their mark for the national team. If he is not successful in the short-term, he may at least be able to lay foundations for potential success in the future.
It has been said by Henry Winter of the Daily Telegraph that the cerebral Hodgson is a “broadsheet man in a tabloid world” and one of his first tasks as England manager is to “win over the media”. Perhaps if they weren’t so collectively dismissive of him, he’d stand a chance.
They say you should never go back; especially in football. It doesn’t work. Steven Pienaar would disagree. Returning to Everton, he says, has been like “coming back home”. Goodison Park was a home he should never have left in the first place.
Pienaar signed for Tottenham on a four-year contract in January 2011 with dreams of Champions League football. However, injuries and competition for places saw his playing time at White Hart Lane limited – he has made only two substitute appearances in the Premier League this season and has found himself deployed in cup competitions to allow Harry Redknapp an opportunity to rest his star players.
It hasn’t been enough for the 30 year-old South African, who craved more time on the pitch than he was receiving at Spurs. On the last day of the January transfer window Pienaar, with his pride well and truly swallowed, was given permission by Redknapp to leave Tottenham, rejecting the advances of Stoke and QPR to go back to Everton – a club whom he can only speak of with the greatest fondness.
Spurs are reported to want to make back the £3m they spent on taking Pienaar to White Hart Lane though some sources claim that the fee could be doubled. Everton must find the money to bring him back for the long term because his form since the loan move will have put him into the shop window. A Goodison stay is likely, though, with the player reported to want the move to go through “100%”. Everton manager David Moyes is also confident that the South African wants to stay with the Toffees.
One squad member who may play a big part in getting Pienaar to stay is Leighton Baines. The England international, who was selected in the PFA Team of the Year, had an excellent partnership with Pienaar during his three-and-a-half year spell on Merseyside and that immediately continued upon his return. Pienaar says that the pair have an “understanding both on and off the field”.
It is an understanding which Everton dearly missed in their 2-1 FA Cup semi-final defeat to bitter rivals Liverpool. Although Pienaar played in the 3-0 league defeat at Anfield, Everton played with a little more attacking intent at Wembley – something Pienaar would have loved to have been at the heart of. His performances have demanded more from other members of the squad who have duly stepped up their own game.
Marouane Fellaini, consistent though he is, has been unplayable in recent weeks; he and Pienaar were the two best players on the field in the 4-4 draw with Manchester United at Old Trafford. Meanwhile, new striking addition Nikica Jelavic has been in deadly goalscoring form since his arrival as the major beneficiary of Pienaar’s creativity.
Despite all of the praise, Pienaar’s main weakness which will limit his chances at Tottenham is his lack of pace. With Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon on either wing at his parent club, he could find first-team opportunities at Spurs as limited upon his return as they before he rejoined Everton. Bale and Lennon will be Harry Redknapp’s first-choice wingers and he is unlikely to drop either Luka Modric or Scott Parker in favour of the South African.
If Everton is “home” to Pienaar, as he says it is, the wisest choice – should the chance arise for him to move on from Tottenham this summer – would be to come back to Merseyside for a third time. For him to turn up anywhere else would be ludicrous. It is the proverbial no-brainer. Everton is a club that suits Pienaar and his style of play; he plays his best football in the blue shirt and both parties reap the benefit.
There would seem to be a correlation between Pienaar’s presence at Everton that matches his form, confidence and happiness. Indeed, in Everton’s last four games they have scored thirteen goals and Pienaar has been directly involved, scoring or assisting, in six of those. Since his return he has three goals and seven assists in twelve starts. It is the type of form that has won over the small section of fans who were unhappy with his return and it should have David Moyes begging his chairman, Bill Kenwright, to give him the money to secure a permanent transfer for the South African captain.
Money may be reported as being in short supply at Goodison but Pienaar is a player that the club simply cannot afford to miss out on. It was Moyes’ shrewdness in the transfer market which originally brought Pienaar to Goodison Park and it is of the utmost importance that he brings him back for a third time.
Bayern Munich and Real Madrid met in the first leg of the Champions League semi-finals in what was a hotly-anticipated clash of two European giants. As it turned out, the game wasn’t the spectacle that everyone would have been expecting but it was still an intriguing battle, nonetheless.
Both sides have their motivations to reach the final. The Allianz Arena, home to Bayern Munich, is hosting the final on May 19th which gives the Bavarians more than enough incentive to get past Madrid whilst José Mourinho’s side could complete a double if they hold onto their lead in La Liga. There is, of course, the possibility of usurping Barcelona in doing so, which would be the biggest of bonuses for Real Madrid.
Bayern lined up with their usual 4-2-3-1 formation; Toni Kroos preferred to Thomas Müller in the central attacking role behind Mario Gómez, perhaps because he is not as attack-minded and offers more stability to a midfield five, which Bayern formed when they didn’t have the ball. As it turned out, that didn’t happen all that often with the home side dominating possession throughout though Madrid did have more shots on target than their hosts and were the better side in the opening quarter of an hour or so.
Real started with Karim Benzema, a more willing runner than Gonzalo Higuaín, up front, which would be vital away from home. Fábio Coentrão began the game at left-back with Marcelo left on the bench.
Coentrão was seen as the weak link by Bayern. He has often been deployed in midfield by Mourinho this season and was susceptible to being dragged out of position which would leave space in behind for ex-Madrid man Arjen Robben to exploit. Indeed, there were a few occasions in the first half alone when Coentrão tried to get too tight to Robben and he was left desperately trying to get back after the Dutchman had lost him. Bayern were breaking quickly and often with Madrid slow to recover without the ball.
Madrid themselves looked to take advantage of the Bayern Munich full-backs with Xabi Alonso frequently spraying passes towards the wide men, Cristiano Ronaldo and Ángel Di María, hoping that they would bypass the 5 foot 7 Phillipp Lahm. However, the away side were more likely to score on the counter-attack than they were by playing with a more direct style. It was expected that Lahm would have his hands full with the threat of Ronaldo down Bayern’s right hand side. Robben would be expected to track back and help out his captain.
There were signs early on that Madrid might have some joy with Benzema up top. Despite Mesut Özil already having the attention of Luiz Gustavo, Holger Badstuber deemed it necessary to storm out of defence towards the German, who promptly slipped the ball past his fellow countryman to set Benzema away into space but he fired straight at goalkeeper Manuel Neuer.
The breakthrough came from a corner kick that should have been defended in a much better manner than it actually was. Former Real Madrid full-back Míchel Salgado, a pundit for Sky Sports, claimed that “big clubs in Spain do not like defending set pieces”. It was to be Madrid’s downfall. The ball fell to Franck Ribéry in the penalty area and, with his marker Di María watching on a few yards away, rifled the ball past Iker Casillas.
It was evident that Bayern’s width would be their greatest asset if they were going to take a positive result to the Bernabeu with them for the second leg, which is a week on Wednesday (25th April). Madrid never looked comfortable when defending crosses; Gómez wasted a few opportunities and planted a header straight at Casillas.
In the second half, Álvaro Arbeloa was beginning to fall into the same trap as Coentrão by tracking his man too high up the pitch. A simple ball in behind Arbeloa sent Ribéry scampering down the wing but, alas, it came to nothing for the French international.
As stated earlier, Madrid were likely to score on the counter attack and they did so after Bayern were caught out from their own free-kick. Bastian Schweinsteiger lost the ball to Xabi Alonso on the edge of the Madrid penalty area and the Spanish midfielder sent a pass straight out to Di María on the halfway line, giving Real a situation from which they profited to the maximum.
Benzema was sent free down the right by the Argentine before crossing for Ronaldo, whose shot straight at Neuer came, somewhat fortuitously straight out to Özil; he gave the ball to Benzema, who danced past a couple of defenders and again squared again for Ronaldo, who pulled the ball back for Özil to tap home the equaliser.
The away side began to find some joy on the flanks with young left-back David Alaba showing his naivety by drifting infield towards the ball, allowing Di María time and space to get his shot away but it was blocked by the Bayern defence.
Both managers decided to shuffle their packs. Bayern replaced Schweinsteiger with Müller. As a result, Kroos dropped deeper to support Luiz Gustavo in front of the defence whilst Müller moved into the vacated space behind Gómez for the remaining half an hour. Real replaced Özil and Di María with Marcelo and Esteban Granero to provide more stability down their left-hand side. Coentrão, booked for a rash foul, was walking a tightrope and needed the support of the Brazilian defender.
He could have even been sent off having dived in and wiped out Gómez with 87 minutes on the clock; although Sergio Ramos took the ball with the original challenge, the follow-through from Coentrão could have been deemed worthy of a penalty kick and a second booking had referee Howard Webb seen the incident clearly. It was an omen for what was to come.
Lahm, who had dealt with Ronaldo relatively well all evening, found space on the right and skipped past Coentrão, who dived in needlessly, and skedaddled towards the penalty area. Looking up, he saw a gap of six yards between the goalkeeper and the nearest defender and fired the ball into the empty space. Sure enough, the predator, Gómez, was on hand to tuck the ball into the net having manoeuvred himself into the fissure between the centre halves, Ramos and Pepe, and sent Bayern over to Spain with a slender lead.
At home, you feel that Mourinho will be more adventurous in his setup and will revert to starting with Marcelo at left back with Coentrão on the bench. Both, however, are in the precarious position of being a caution away from missing the final, should Madrid get there. Regardless, Mourinho will not be happy with what he saw from his full-back tonight and is likely to make changes for El Clásico at the weekend before focusing on the second leg of this tie.
Bayern travel to Bremen this weekend in the Bundesliga and are likely to rest a number of first-choice players for the second leg with the title all but out of their reach.
In terms of what Real Madrid need next week, Gómez’s goal didn’t make that much difference if any at all; a 1-0 win would still send Mourinho’s men through to the final though it is better for ex-Real manager Heynckes and Bayern that they have a lead to defend.
Following the departure of Damien Comolli from Liverpool earlier this afternoon, it has been suggested that the loss of his job is directly linked to the performances of Liverpool’s signings since the Frenchman arrived at Anfield. He has taken the bullet for the mistakes of Kenny Dalglish.
With an outlay of well over £100m, 8th in the Premier League does not represent a sufficient return on Liverpool’s investment, regardless of their progression in cup competitions. Liverpool has spent extravagantly on players like Andy Carroll, Luis Suárez, Jordan Henderson and Stewart Downing without getting much back from any of them.
Carroll has become a figure of parody; Suárez seems to be more trouble than he’s worth following the Patrice Evra racism row; Henderson has struggled to make any sort of impact and Downing has only two goals and one assist to his name all season.
Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson once claimed that there was no value in the transfer market. But the real question is does value in the transfer market even exist? If it does, what defines it?
Every transfer is a gamble, regardless of the quality of the player. There are examples of players not fitting in at one club for one reason or another but it may work out for them back at where they started – Steven Pienaar’s return to Everton exemplifies this – and there are examples of players losing all form and confidence following a transfer (see Fernando Torres of Chelsea).
With the introduction of Financial Fair Play (FFP), clubs who wish to compete in European competitions have to be more careful as to how they spend their money. Expensive transfers have to be well thought-out and as risk-free as is possible (unless you’re Roberto Mancini and decide that spending £27m on the Bosnian Andy Carroll is a good idea).
The price paid for a player, however, does not necessarily mirror their quality. Newcastle United is the perfect demonstration of this. The stars of the season: Yohan Cabaye (£4.3m), Cheick Tiote (£3.5m), Demba Ba (Free), Hatem Ben Arfa (£5m) are all cut-price and have been superb in this campaign. Even the £10m paid for Papiss Cissé looks to be shrewd investment.
Had any of the above players flopped in a Newcastle United shirt, they could have easily been written-off and replaced. However, with Liverpool, the money it has spent almost gives it an obligation to try and nurture what it has bought so that it can see some sort of return before giving up and sending the lot to Coventry. After all, it’s a lot easier to write off a Toyota Prius than a Bugatti Veyron.
Carroll, who cost £35m, is stuck with that price-tag whilst at Liverpool and, you presume, for the rest of his career. It is something he did not choose yet he has to live with it. The decision was made to value Carroll at £35m during negotiations between Newcastle and Liverpool. In short: the transfer fee is simply the outcome of negotiations, not a reflection of quality.
Every manager, though, looks for the ‘bargain buys’. In a world where more and more clubs appear to be falling into administration, how a club spends its money has become increasingly vital, particularly for smaller clubs. Those funded by billionaires, such as Manchester City, can continue throwing money into a gaping hole hoping that the problem will eventually disappear.
It is rumoured that FC Basel’s midfielder Granit Xhaka, a Swiss international, is on the market at a mere £6m. A steal? Perhaps. For such a talented player it would be worth the risk of paying that fee. Clubs in the upper echelons of the Premier League would do well to bring the 19 year-old to these shores and let him prosper.
However, for every Xhaka at £6m, there will always be a Henderson at £16m. That’s just the way the transfer market has been, is and always will be.
All is not well at Preston North End. As the iconic Sir Tom Finney approaches his 90th birthday, his beloved club finds itself engulfed by fresh controversy following accusations that four unnamed players leaked the line-up and tactics to the opposition the day before a 2-0 away defeat to Sheffield Wednesday.
In his post-match press conference, the manager, Graham Westley said:
“We are where we are because the club’s got a lot of losing ways installed in the playing squad and there’s no better example than when their bench said to me during the second half. I’ve got to believe their dugout when it says it to me and I think from dugout to dugout I would very rarely believe that someone would lie to me on that sort of information.
“Four players of ours yesterday, at five o’clock, revealed our team to them as a football club. Does it surprise me? When you’ve got a number of agendas within a club – and I’ve said since I’ve been here that that’s the case within the playing squad here – this sort of thing happens and it’s not the first time that something’s happened that’s surprised me.
“It’s a difficult place at the moment, our club and our dressing room. But it’s only by working through issues and sorting issues out that you get yourself into a winning position.”
Although a line has now been drawn under this incident – the chairman Peter Ridsdale has said that it was “unfortunate” but “there will be no further public comment on the issue” – it seems to be a rebellion by a group of players who are not best pleased with the new regime Westley has implemented since he arrived at the club from Stevenage. He came to Deepdale, replacing Phil Brown, with back-to-back promotions on his CV, having led his former club from non-league obscurity to the edge of the League One play-offs.
One of Westley’s best talents at Stevenage was unearthing gems and keeping faith in them. Mark Roberts, signed from Northwich Victoria, is still the club captain and took temporary charge after Westley’s depature. Michael Bostwick, who was previously embroiled in relegation battles at Ebbsfleet, has shone in midfield and has been linked with transfers to Championship clubs such as Crystal Palace.
Somehow, he managed to pull out more from these players, and others, than perhaps was expected. These players, though, were not used to the luxury of life in the Football League and would have been more willing to adapt to his methods, which included a working day from 9am until 5pm. Unorthodox his methods may have been, but. even if the players didn’t like it, it worked. Those who disagreed were promptly shown the door. It was Westley’s way or no way.
As impressive as Westley’s achievements at Stevenage were, there are no signs, as of yet, that he has the capabilities to manage a club of Preston’s stature. Indeed, since taking charge, Westley’s Preston record reads played 15, won 2, drawn 7 and lost 6. His win percentage is 13.33% which averages at less than a point a game. In other words, it is relegation form.
He didn’t get off to the best of starts, either. The 44 year-old sent every player in his squad a nonsensical text message at 2.15am on a Saturday morning, telling four players that they had been dropped in a revelation of the starting eleven for the home game with Leyton Orient later that day. The text message was leaked onto internet message boards. Preston lost 2-0.
Currently, Preston sit a mere six points clear of the relegation zone and, with their six games remaining including games against four of the top eight (MK Dons, Stevenage, Charlton and Huddersfield), it is not inconceivable that North End could find themselves suffering successive relegations. They have not yet arrested a slide that started with relegation from the Championship last season and, as Westley says, have not ridden themselves of the “losing ways”.
Ridsdale claims that Westley will be given time to turn things around at Deepdale, stating that he had one of the longest-serving managers in the Championship whilst at Cardiff with Dave Jones and he understands that longevity is key to success. This summer should see a mass clear-out of playing staff at Preston; a squad of 35 will never be kept happy and one would think that those who don’t agree or comply with Westley’s methods will leave.
There will be a chance over the summer months for Westley to make the squad his own and remove those who oppose him and attempt to undermine his authority. Whether or not this will work is a matter of ‘wait and see’ but a club like Preston must have ambitions to return to the Championship.
Should Westley fail to meet the requirements with his own squad there is the possibility, regardless of what Ridsdale says, that he will be shown the door in this era of trigger-happy chairmen and knee-jerk reactions from fans who demand instant success. Looking at how he has done so far, it may be worth a flutter on him to win the League One sack race for 2012/13.
That’s if he’s still in a job by then.
Before him, there were seven: Andrei Kanchelskis, Dmitri Kharine, Alexey Smertin, Roman Pavlyuchenko, Yuri Zhirkov, Andrei Arshavin and Diniyar Bilyaletdinov. Now, as the only Russian in the Premier League, Pavel Pogrebnyak is seeking to break the mould following his arrival on transfer deadline day.
The former VfB Stuttgart striker has begun life down by the Thames with five goals in his first three games – including a ‘perfect’ hat-trick at home to Wolverhampton Wanderers last weekend: a bullet header, a sweeping first-time finish and a stumbling stab. It continued the impressive record of scoring with every shot on target he has had; so far it is five from five.
Fulham’s manager, Martin Jol, believes that the 28 year-old is a “real number nine” who has the ability to make it in the Premier League and become the club’s long-term successor for Bobby Zamora, who was sold to Queens Park Rangers in January. He said: “Pavel always wants to work. Twice this week he stayed longer on the pitch after training. He wants to work on his game. He’s a hard-working player and everything he has achieved is by hard work.”
Whilst Pogrebnyak has been a valuable import so far, other Premier League clubs decided to send their Russian players back home. Everton disposed of Diniyar Bilyaletdinov, calling time on his mercurial English adventure whilst Roman Pavlyuchenko’s sporadic goalscoring form was never going to be enough for him to remain at Tottenham for the long-term.
In the most high-profile move, Andrei Arshavin rejoined his old side, Zenit St Petersburg, on loan for the remainder of the season from Arsenal. His biggest impact on the Premier League is, undoubtedly, the four goals he scored at Anfield in the famous 4-4 draw of April 2009, although he returns to Russia with his reputation tarnished by accusations of apathy.
Pogrebnyak, who also played for Zenit earlier in his career where he won the UEFA Cup alongside Arshavin in 2008, seemed to have lost his way in Germany – if he did not score when he played, he would not appear at all in the next match. Now, though, having been promised minutes on the field by Jol, ‘The Pog’ seems to have settled into Premier League football well, showing all of the qualities needed to succeed.
As well as being a mouthful for commentators, he has been a handful for defenders. Standing at 6ft 3in, Pogrebnyak is a formidable combination of speed and strength; it is difficult to cope with him and the goal which settled the West London derby was indicative of his quality.
Played through by a sumptuous Moussa Dembélé back-heel, the Russian hitman found himself one-on-one with Paddy Kenny. In this situation, a striker would often opt to finish first time, slotting the ball past the goalkeeper. Not Pogrebnyak. He dummied to shoot, Kenny dived and could only watch from the floor as Fulham’s new hero waltzed past him as if he were not there before rolling the ball into an empty net. It made a mockery of suggestions that Pogrebnyak had lost his way having scored only one goal in fourteen appearances for Stuttgart this season.
His contract runs out at the end of the season and, if he maintains this current form, Pogrebnyak will have a queue of admirers falling over each other to try and sign him. Fulham will hope that he becomes a resident of Craven Cottage to continue his own revival and buck the trend of under-performing Russians.