Friday, May 12, 2006

FA Cup Final Preview 1; 10 Shrewdest Signings This Season

FA Cup Finals

Liverpool vs West Ham United
Saturday 13th May, 9.55pm
Millenium Cardiff


Doubtful Players:
Liverpool: Xabi Alonso, Daniel Agger;
West Ham Utd: Matty Etherington, Dean Ashton;

Training Pictures:

My god, look at Crouchinho's legs! Looks like bamboo!

Soccernet's 10 Best Signings This Season (Note: No Chelsea Players! Surprise!)

10. Mikel Arteta (Everton, £2 million)
Normally the admiring comments about the 'Spanish Armada' on Merseyside are restricted to Liverpool, but Everton's Basque playmaker has displayed a technique and vision comparable with that of his childhood friend Xabi Alonso, along with an aptitude for the Premiership. The winner of both the fans' and players' player of the year awards at Goodison Park, he is much the best of David Moyes' buys from the proceeds of Wayne Rooney's sale to Manchester United.

9. Danny Gabbidon (West Ham, £3 million)
The Welshman can consider himself thoroughly upstaged by Anton Ferdinand, but has still made a seamless transition from the Championship to the Premiership. It helps that he has pace required to deal with superior strikers - indeed, like Ferdinand, can appear to glide across the turf. His timing in the tackle is also apparent in record of only three bookings in his first season in the top flight. Despite a strong challenge from Yossi Benayoun, Gabbidon ranks as the best of Alan Pardew's summer signings.

8. Scott Parker (Newcastle, £6.5 million)
Tyneside has spent years preoccupied with the question of the succession and, while Scott Parker would make an inadequate replacement for Alan Shearer as a goalscorer, Newcastle have a new leader.

When Graeme Souness won the auction for Parker's services, he secured an indefatigable player in the centre of midfield, despite a variety of partners and the thankless task of protecting a defence with Jean-Alain Boumsong and Titus Bramble at its heart.

Indeed, if the holding midfielder's role is as an insurance policy, the barely roadworthy vehicle behind him required plenty of cover. Parker provided it with persistence and aplomb. And in Newcastle, his display while bloodied and battered against Arsenal will long be remembered.

7. Pedro Mendes (Portsmouth, part of £7 million triple deal)
A signing whose impact is still being felt across the Midlands.

While Spurs accumulated midfielders at the rate that David O'Leary makes enemies, Mendes rapidly became the odd man out. Harry Redknapp - many of whose January additions merit a mention - has long placed an emphasis on quality midfielders and, following Alexandre Gaydamak's investment, was quick to move for Mendes, along with Sean Davis and Noe Pamarot.

The Portuguese quickly became the most influential of the trio, turning the relegation battle on its head with stoppage time winner against Man City. Indeed, all three of his Pompey goals have been memorable. Long-range shooting rapidly is becoming his trademark; there are worse ones to have.

6. Momo Sissoko (Liverpool, £5.6 million) - Hail Vieira! Oh....
In a Premiership abounding with new Vieiras, Liverpool's Malian midfielder is the most convincing. Momo Sissoko's passing remains a little wasteful, but he has the physical presence to dominate Premiership midfields.

Manchester United were overpowered, Chelsea could have been and Liverpool's season might have been very different had Rafael Benitez not acted swiftly to prevent him joining Everton instead. The kick he received to the eye from Beto threatened not just Liverpool's season, but their progress under Benitez as well.

5. Pascal Chimbonda (Wigan, £500,000)
It is a shame that memories of an outstanding first year in England have been tarnished in such a tactless manner. Pascal Chimbonda handed in a transfer request on the Highbury pitch after the last game of the season and, if you believe the rumour-mongers, then the Premiership elite are queuing up to sign a player who, 12 months ago, was unknown.

Granted, the 1970s Afro attracted attention off the field; on it, no-one feared Pascal Chimbonda. They do now: his natural spring and raw pace put him at the forefront of a new breed of adventurous right backs - like Emmanuel Eboue, in full-flight, he is more of a threat than most wingers. It may be of scant consolation to Wigan right now, but they should return a healthy profit on Chimbonda.

4. Arjan de Zeeuw (Wigan, undisclosed)
Some players peak later than others, but few reach the zenith of their careers at such an advanced age. Dutchman de Zeeuw has just turned 36 but has figured along with John Terry and Jamie Carragher in every quest to find the Premiership's outstanding central defender this season.

A veteran of the lower divisions, he has brought an authority to the Wigan defence on his return to the JJB Stadium. And for every insinuation Wigan's success has been bought, it is worth remembering that de Zeeuw, deemed surplus to requirement at Portsmouth arrived for a token fee. Indeed, of all the decisions in an almost disastrous summer of dealing at Fratton Park, few were as ill-advised as letting him leave; Harry Redknapp has never stopped lamenting his departure.

3. Darren Bent (Charlton, £2.5 million)
Few have bridged the gap between divisions with as much assurance. Darren Bent has scored 18 goals in first Premiership season and 22 in all competitions. It is also tempting to speculate what might have happened. Bent topped Mick McCarthy's summer shopping list; instead, he opened his Charlton account against them, scored five times in his first four games and the speedy striker was fast-tracked into England squad.

It is interesting to note that he was at his most prolific when on his own in attack - despite his background at Ipswich as the foil to a bigger striker. Alan Curbishley leaves many fine legacies at The Valley. Darren Bent ranks high among them.

2. Aaron Lennon (Tottenham, £1 million)
The financial meltdown at Elland Road has benefited several clubs, but there is plenty of evidence to suggest Spurs were the most astute buyers at the firesale.

As if acquiring England's first-choice goalkeeper (Paul Robinson) for a mere £1.75 million were not enough, arguably the most exciting young English winger around came cheaper still. Recruited as a reserve to Wayne Routledge, Lennon's development has been as swift and unexpected as many of his jinking solo runs.

His low centre of gravity enabled him to evade defenders with ease and, at White Hart Lane, there has been the sight of Edgar Davids - one of Europe's finest midfielders of the last decade - on the bench, while Lennon was preferred on the pitch. The World Cup headlines went Theo Walcott's way and it is a sign of Lennon's success that few argued with the 19-year-old's inclusion in Sven-Goran Eriksson's squad.

1. Craig Bellamy (Blackburn, £5 million)
Few remain ambivalent where Craig Bellamy is concerned; the footballing cliche 'love him or hate him' is rarely more applicable.

At Ewood Park, however, it is hard to find anyone expressing anything other than adoration for the Welsh striker. His signing was a coup for Mark Hughes - arguably Newcastle's finest player but a cut-price departure from St James' Park, completing a delayed part-exchange with his adversary Graeme Souness.

Yet, in the glow created by an accomplished team's qualification for Europe, hark back to the start of the season. Blackburn were overly negative, impotent in attack and struggling to shed their unwanted image as the Premiership's dirtiest team.

Then Bellamy returned to fitness - 13 goals in 22 starts is an outstanding ratio; still more impressive is the quality of the goals, especially a wonderful brace against Portsmouth, and the calibre of defenders unable to contain him.

Only he, Thierry Henry and Ronaldinho have scored twice in a game against Mourinho's Chelsea; only one of them is denied the recognition he merits.

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