Them and Us: Bryan Hughes

It was March 1997 when Trevor Francis splashed out £1m to bring a promising Liverpudlian to the club from Wrexham. 293 appearances and seven rollercoaster years later, Bryan Hughes left St. Andrew’s to join today’s opponents Charlton.

Hughes was a key figure in an exciting era for Birmingham City. During his spell there was twice play-off heartache, a Worthington Cup final, an eventual play-off success and two seasons of Premier League football.

A firm fan-favourite, Hughes was a popular addition to the line-up at the 2002 play-off reunion dinner this summer – a night enjoyed by fans and former players alike.

“Yeah, it was good to catch up with all the lads from 10 years ago. It was a really good night and a good turnout by all the fans. It was really well run and a really nice occasion.”

That night was a celebration of the day Darren Carter’s winning penalty took Blues into the Premier League, but Hughes has revealed it could have been he who took the crucial spot-kick.

“I was down to take the fourth penalty against Norwich at the start of the game. I’d taken the fifth penalty in all the shoot-outs we’d been involved in but Steve Bruce wanted his normal penalty taker at the time to be on the fifth one. That was Tommy Mooney, but he went off during the game and I said I wanted the fifth, so Carter comes on for Tommy and took the fourth. It would have been nice to score the penalty that got us promoted but to be fair to Darren, he’s a Blues fan, a local lad, 17 years old – it was set for him. I was really happy for him.”

Hughes during his Birmingham days

Not all of the penalty shoot-outs Hughes endured ended so sweetly though. A cup final defeat to Liverpool followed play-off semi-final defeats to both Preston and Watford.

“That defeat against Liverpool was obviously hard to swallow being an Everton fan. Losing any final or any big game like that is hard to take. Some of the play-off games before we got promotion were hard to take too. Preston away and Watford at home especially.”

A failure to reach the Premier League meant Francis was dismissed and replaced by Steve Bruce, who promptly led Blues to the aforementioned play-off success. Whilst no-one at the club would ever question Francis’ ability as a player, Hughes felt that Bruce instilled a new confidence in the players when taking over, something Francis had failed to do.

“Steve was really relaxed as a coach, but he always demanded the team worked hard. You saw that as soon as he came in. The last part of the season when we got into the play-offs we were outstanding. We had a winning mentality in the group that we could go anywhere and win. It came across on the pitch and we proved that with a 12 game unbeaten run.

“With Trevor, he was good but he didn’t seem to have that final push to get us through the play-offs whereas Steve had that mentality having played at big clubs like Manchester United and constantly winning.”

Hughes played 24 games in Blues’ debut Premier League season, relishing the battle with the likes of Robbie Savage, Damien Johnson and Aliou Cisse for his place.

“It was nice to be a part of a Premier League squad. I started the first part of the season but then found myself on the bench for a lot of it, before coming back late on in the season.
It was great to play against the calibre of the players that were in the division at the time and great to play alongside some of the players we were bringing in at the time.”

However, it was to be those additions that cost Hughes his place in the team. Stephen Clemence and David Dunn became the starting centre-midfield pairing and when Hughes did start, he was often pushed out to one of the flanks.

Unable to agree terms on a new deal, Hughes left the club in the summer to sign for the Addicks, who were under the guidance of another former Blues player – Alan Curbishley.

“We had some good players there and Curbs was a shrewd manager. Overall, we finished comfortable two seasons in a tow, then Curbs left and it petered out a bit.

“Iain Dowie came in and to be fair to him he was a really good coach, we just didn’t give him the results he wanted, by the time he got sacked and Alan Pardew came in, another excellent coach, we were really up against it. We nearly turned it round but we just missed out the last couple of games and were relegated.”

Hughes says the highlight of his time at The Valley was scoring the winning penalty against Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea in a League Cup penalty shoot-out, a result that inflicted the first ‘defeat’ upon the Portuguese in English football.

“It was great; we were the underdogs going into that game at Stamford Bridge. They were the holders. We played really well, extra-time was a bit tiring, but we stayed in there and to score the winning penalty against Mourinho was fantastic – even though he says he was still unbeaten as it was technically a draw!”

As is the way in football, it came as no surprise to Blues fans when Hughes scored and set-up another when they travelled to The Valley in 2006. However, Hughes maintains that he was not out to prove a point to Bruce.

“Steve knew what I was capable of, but Birmingham had a really good squad that year and it was nice to play against them and pit my wits against those who were replacing me as such. It’s always nice to score the goal but it was against my old team who I have lots of nice memories of so there were mixed emotions.”

Hughes left the Addicks in 2007 and a succession of injuries hampered his chances of spending a prolonged spell at any one club. A spell at Hull was punctuated by a loan at Derby County, but Hughes left Humberside in 2010 and moved to Burton Albion before dropping out of the Football League pyramid as he signed a short-term deal at Grimsby.

Struggling to stay fully fit and with the 2011 season approaching Hughes took the unusual step of heading to Iceland where he played for IBV Vestmann.

“A good mate of mine from Charlton, Hermann Hreidarsson, is from an island just off of Iceland. As the season approached I was struggling with injuries and couldn’t get fit, it was stopping me getting a contract. I spoke to Hermann and he said he would organise something out for me with a club he knew. So then, I took it upon myself to get fit for the start of the English season. I wasn’t 100% fit, but it was a good experience.”

The spell helped him (along with some crucial advice from a Hull physiotherapist) and Hughes went ‘home’ and signed for Accrington Stanley. Relishing the return to his roots, Hughes was named Player of the Month in December and at the time of writing; he has been offered an extension to his contract for this season.

Set to do his coaching badges next summer, Hughes is keen to stay in the game and one day step into management. Anyone who watched him play will testify that he was an intelligent player with great vision on the pitch, so it would be no surprise to see him take up a coaching role at the very least.

And yes, he has forgiven Steve Bruce for not letting him take that penalty against Leeds United when he was on a hat-trick.

Who is Ralf Rangnick?

Following Birmingham’s compensation demands for Chris Hughton, West Bromwich Albion are still in the hunt for a new manager to replace Roy Hodgson who left his post at the Hawthorns to take charge of England.

The Baggies cannot be accused of rushing into an appointment. They were apparently aware that Hodgson would take up his new role as early as March and three months later they are still yet to confirm his successor.

Hughton was the bookies’ favourite for a long time but when Birmingham requested a fee in the region of £2.5m, the economical Jeremy Peace baulked and cast his net elsewhere. That net has reportedly landed in leftfield territory somewhere in Germany at the feet of former Schalke boss Ralf Rangnick.

The man who took the Gelsenkirchen outfit to a Champions League semi-final back in 2011 is a free agent after resigning from his role at the Veltins Arena back in September 2011, citing exhaustion as the reason behind his decision.

‘The Football Professor’ got his big break at Vfb Stuttgart in 1999, but lasted just two seasons before being sacked. By the time the next campaign had started he had taken up the offer of at job at Hannover 96 who he subsequently got promoted to the Bundesliga. A consolidating first season at the top level was followed by relegation trouble and he was again fired from his post. A first spell at Schalke yielded a runners-up position in both league and the DFB Cup but the following season saw them struggle in both the Champions League and Bundesliga and once again, he was dismissed.

He then dropped down two divisions to take the helm at small town village club Hoffenheim. Funded by local businessman Dietmar Hopp, Rangnick masterminded successive promotions to make the club the team they are today. His signings at TSG1899 included the likes of Demba Ba, Chinedu Obasi, Sajid Salihovic & Luis Gustavo to name but a few. All bar the Bosnian have left the club for bigger clubs and that is testimony to Rangnick’s eye for a player.

Rangnick – set for a return to England?

In fact, the sale of Gustavo to Bayern was against his will and was the catalyst behind his resignation from Hoffenheim. Two months later he returned to Schalke who were quickly facing Internazionale in a Champions League quarter-final. Rangnick quickly restored the sides’ belief and they ran out 7-3 aggregate winners, before losing 6-1 to Manchester United over two legs in the semi-final. It was a manic few months for Rangnick and he had been in charge for only nine months when he left Schalke for a second time.

An attacking manager, Rangnick is a fan of players with great technical ability and often allows the talented individuals of his sides to roam free and create chances.

Baggies fans that have reservations about a foreign manager taking charge need not worry. In the late 1970’s Rangnick studied in England, playing for local Sussex side FC Southwick and making 11 appearances. In an interview The Guardian conducted with former team-mate Gary Brown, his professionalism comes to the fore.

“In Germany they did proper warm-ups prior to kick-off but there was none of that in the UK,” Brown told The Guardian. “Five minutes before kick-off the bell went and you lined up behind the captain and went out. I remember before his first game here he turned up a couple of hours before anyone else.”

Rangnick was unfortunate to suffer two broken ribs and a punctured lung in a game, but credits the experience as “one of the best years of my life”.

He soon left these shores following the completion of his English and Physical Education degree, but it looks as though Jeremy Peace is moving to bring him back once more.

Euro 2012 betting

The more I look at the upcoming Euro 2012 tournament, the more I like the chances of Croatia and Russia to upset the apple cart somewhat.

Whilst I’m not expecting either side to go all the way and win the tournament, I feel Russia could easily repeat their feat of four years ago when they reached the semi-final stage. Their team is made up the same bunch who excelled in 2008 and with more experience under their belt, not to mention a favourable group draw, they could quite easily find themselves in a quarter-final clash with one of Germany, Holland, Denmark or Portugal. I fully expect them to win the group and therefore meet Portuagl or Denmark in the quarter-final stage, a game that would not strike fear into Advocaat’s men. (Yes, I expect Germany to win the group and Holland no to qualify)

Finally, Croatia are being written off in Group C as they were drawn with both Spain and Italy in their group and a resilient Ireland team. if you had read the Racing Post’s pull-out on the tournament, you’d have seen a lot of their writers tipping Ireland to qualify from the group. Frankly, I cannot see that occuring (despite my Irish heritage) and feel that Croatia are more than equipped to take on the two ‘giants’ in the group.

Here is my reasoning as to why I fancy both nations to do well – and Holland to fail.

My best bet of the whole tournament is an 8-1 shot in the Top Nation Goalscorer market. A lot of money has come recently for Nikica Jelavic as top tournament goalscorer following his fruitful finish to the end of the season. 10 goals in 10 games for Everton saw his price halve from 100/1 to a best price 50/1 to top the tournament’s scoring charts – but there is no guarantee that the former Rangers striker will even finish top scorer for his country.

Wolfsburg forward Mario Mandzukic (100-1 top goalscorer Hills, SkyBet, Betfred, BetVictor, Blue Square) has been the best striker Croatia has exported this season. Mandzukic, in to his second season in Germany, saw him score eight goals in his debut season but he has excelled that by scoring 12 goals in a team which finished 8th in a highly competitive Bundesliga season.

Mandzukic notched three goals in Croatia’s qualifying campaign (Niko Kranjcar top scored with four) and this suggests that he will be the main hope for goals for the Balkan side. A bet on him to win the outright goalscorer market may be ambitious as Croatia face Spain, Italy and a stubborn Ireland team in their group – making the 8-1 with Coral, Betfred and Blue Square for him to finish as the top Croat scorer huge value. Jelavic is far too short at a best-priced 5-1 to lead their attack considering he has ten caps and three goals less than Mandzukic.

At over six foot tall, he is very good in the air and this quality could be vital with the service from the wings of Darijo Srna and overlapping full-back Daniel Pranjic. However, being tall isn’t his only asset and his movement and finishing ability saw him linked with a move to Tottenham last January. On this occasion, Spurs baulked at the £10m asking price – but that valuation could be even higher come the end of this tournament.

Consequently, if Madzukic is to have the successful tournament predicted, that would link in to making Croatia a good bet to qualify from a tricky group. An odds-against (7-4) shot to qualify with Bet Victor, the Balkans must feel they are more equipped than Ireland (4-1) to qualify from Group C. They have also been drawn against Spain and Italy, but with Spain missing influential captain Carles Puyol and David Villa and Italy lacking real quality across their whole team, the Croats look a good bet to get through the group stages. To enhance the prices, if they were to qualify, they would most likely finish second to reigning World and European champions Spain in the group – an 11/4 shot with William Hill.

In Group A – it is hard to see past Russia coasting through to the quarter-finals. The 2008 semi-finalists have been drawn in a group with overrated hosts Poland, a floundering Czech Republic and a woeful Greece and this should be comfortable enough to see them top the group at widely-available odds of 6-4. The Russians are unbeaten in their last 12 games and only Italy conceded less goals than them in the qualifying stages, including six clean sheets in their last seven outings.

As with Croatia, the form of their main striker could be key to their qualification. Andrei Arshavin, Roman Pavlyuchenko and Pavel Pogrebnyak are contesting the attacking starting berth for the Soviets, but with 23 goals for Zenit this season, Aleksandr Kerzhakov looks set to get the nod for Dick Advocaat’s side. Russia’s weak group should see them score plenty of goals and with Kerzhakov scoring a classic poacher’s goal against Uruguay, he can be fancied to continue his scoring form and top the charts at constantly-shortening 50-1 with Betfred.

When you look at the attacking talent that litters the Dutch side it is easy to want to back them to win the tournament. But the further back you move from the frontline, the easier it gets to oppose them. A midfield containing a 35-year-old Mark van Bommel and Nigel De Jong, who has featured intermittently for Man City, are ‘protecting’ a depleted backline. The only natural left-back in the squad is 18-year-old Jetro Williams following the injury to Erik Pieters, meaning centre-midfielder Stijn Schaars looks set to get the nod over former Aston Villa defender Wilfred Bouma. Meanwhile, Everton defender John Heitinga is not the calibre of defender required to win a major European championship.
Therefore, as the Oranje are drawn in the ‘group of death’ alongside Portugal, Germany and Denmark, it is worth thinking about them not surpassing the group stage. Their fragile backline could be exploited by any of Cristiano Ronaldo, Mesut Ozil or Cristian Eriksen from any of their opponents and this could be a factor that their attacking prowess may not be able to combat.
Therefore, a bet on Portugal and Germany to be the top two in the group looks tempting at 3/1 with Sportingbet

Recommendations

Mario Mandzukic top Croatian goalscorer – 8/1

Croatia to finish second in Group C – 11/4.

Russia to win the group – 6/4

Aleksandr Kerzhakov top goalscorer 50/1

Germany/Portugal Group B dual forecast 3/1

Wouldn’t you be knackered if you was Pep?

On the day Josep Guardiola decided enough was enough and he would leave Barcelona – the question on many people’s lips was the same simple query whatever the language. “Why? ¿Por qué?”

During his press conference, he stated that he was stepping down from his role at the Camp Nou to take a sabbatical from football – admitting in the process he was ‘drained’ and that his four-year stint at the helm of his boyhood team was enough for him.

That reasoning has been questioned by many. How can a manager who moulded possibly ‘the greatest club side ever seen’ be too tired to continue? Especially when he is just 41 years old – a youngster in the managerial world.
After all, Sir Alex Ferguson this season notched up his 25th year in charge of Manchester United. He has not tired from constantly winning and despite regular threats of retirement; Ferguson cannot seem to shake the football bug as easily as Guardiola seemingly has. Another example in the Premier League is Arsenal’s Arsene Wenger who joined the Gunners in 1996 and has never seriously looked in danger of relinquishing his powers.

But what is overlooked in this debate is Guardiola’s constant involvement in the game at the highest level. He joined Barcelona at the age of 13 and has been involved at the upper echelons of football for all but four of those years.
However, if you take a look at Ferguson’s playing career, it is nowhere close to matching up to Guardiola’s. A two-year stint with Glasgow Rangers is the highlight of Sir Alex’s playing days and the same applies to Wenger who never made it higher than the RC Strasbourg first-team where he made a paltry 11 appearances. Guardiola’s biggest rival in Spain, Jose Mourinho, never made it past 100 appearances in professional football. All three of these men have gone on to have glittering success as managers and coaches of some of Europe’s biggest teams and have done so for many years. However, not a single one has had to deal with the mental and physical pressures of playing for one of the world’s biggest teams on a daily basis since they were teenagers.

Guardiola played consecutively for Barcelona’s ‘A’ team for 11 years, missing only the majority of the 1997-1998 season due to a calf injury. He regularly played Champions League football and featured in cup competitions, meaning he will have often played three games in a week. He won 16 trophies and made 263 appearances for Barcelona as well as representing his country in the 1994 World Cup and Euro 2000 and captaining his country’s Olympics side to glory in the 1992 games in his home town. (A disagreement with then-manager Javier Clemente prevented him from featuring at Euro ’96 and the aforementioned calf injury kept him away from France ’98).
In Italy, he also managed to play Champions League and Coppa Italia football. In fact, Guardiola only ever slowed down when he moved to Qatar in 2003 and eventually he quit football after playing six months with Mexican side Dorados in 2006.

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Guardiola has often looked physically drained

Just a year later and ‘Pep’ was back at Barcelona as the coach of the club’s ‘B’ team. It was his first role as a coach, yet he lead the team to promotion and later that season was named as the successor to the departing Frank Rijkaard. It had certainly been an eventful, and no doubt tiring, first year in management for the rookie.
But the pressure that comes with the power of Barcelona manager has seemingly taken its toll on one of the club’s biggest icons. Guardiola has made no secret of the fact he was willing to walk away from the Camp Nou. He only ever signed rolling one-year contracts at the club, giving himself the flexibility to not renew whenever he felt the time was right. There have been incorrect murmurings for the past two summers that he may not sign up for another year, but this campaign has been the defining one for Guardiola.

“Time has taken its toll – I rise each day and don’t feel the same. I am going with the understanding that I have done my duty,” he said during his press conference.
“You can only recover by resting and getting away from everything. It would have been a bad idea to continue. Perhaps it [this season] would not have gone wrong but I have the perception that it would. It is my time to go. That happiness to actually be able to take control of the A team was unbelievable and I need to recover that, I need to recover that feeling.”

It is not as surprising as it may first seem that Pep needs a rest period. Having to endure three press conferences a week, spend every day at the training ground from 8am until 10pm fine-tuning the Catalan’s beautiful football philosophy and having to put up with Mourinho trying to shoot you down every day will eventually become arduous enough for any man. But it becomes much harder when you have already spent two decades of your life living football and not recuperating.

However, this will not be the end of Guardiola. The talk is that he will take a year off from the game before viewing his options. There is even the possibility that he could return to Barcelona. The Catalan’s immediately installed Guardiola’s assistant Tito Villanova as the new manager and whilst this seems to be a move that shows stability and continuity, it also leaves the gap open for Guardiola to return after he has discovered his love for the game once more.

He may even be influencing the club from afar next season, saying in his own words: “If Tito needs me, I’ll be there.”

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Vilanova has Guardiola just a phone call away

Gladbach’s Champions League dream back on

A late winner from Igor De Camargo this weekend meant that the wheels were firmly back on Borussia Monchengladbach’s Champions League bus.

After picking up just two points in their previous three games and looking set to draw 1-1 away at Leverkusen, themselves in the hunt for Champions League place, it looked like the Gladbach bubble was set to burst. However, Marco Reus released the Belgian international De Camargo in the 88th minute and he rounded the ‘keeper to give Lucien Favre’s team all three points and keep Gladbach in third position – 11 points clear of Leverkusen.
Favre realised how important the goal was as he raced down the touchline to join his players in celebration in front of the corner flag. It is moments like this that can define a season. Snatching wins from what looks inevitable draws is a major characteristic of Champions League teams.

What makes Gladbach’s probable achievement even more astounding is that they finished last season in the sole relegation play-off place. That meant, to preserve their Bundesliga status, they would need to overcome Vfl Bochum in a two-legged play-off. They duly won the first leg at Borussia-Park 1-0 thanks to a last-minute goal from, you guessed it, De Camargo. Their survival was sealed when Marco Reus scored an equaliser in the second leg to hand them a 2-1 aggregate win.

In February 2011, despite having a talented squad, Gladbach were defensively unstable and bottom of the league. Having thrown away a 2-0 lead over Stuttgart they then lost 3-1 to St. Pauli and manager Michael Frontzeck was duly sacked on the 13th. Just a day later, on Valentine’s Day, the Swiss Favre was appointed and that is where the revival and love affair began.
Having rescued Gladbach by the skin of their teeth, Favre was looking to build around the talented set of players already at his disposal. His first job was to shore the defence up and that is where Gladbach have based their successes this season. They have conceded just 16 goals in 26 games this campaign – a record matched only by leaders and reigning champions Borussia Dortmund. A lot of praise for that goes directly to Favre, Brazilian defender Dante and the latest in the production line of young and talented German goalkeepers – Marc Andre Ter-Stegen.

The goalkeeper has been nurtured by Gladbach since the age of four and came to prominence last season. When Favre took over, he gave Ter-Stegen his chance to help his hometown club survive. It proved to be an inspired piece of management as the youngster conceded just four goals in the eight games in Borussia’s relegation battle. His best game in that run was in a 1-0 win over eventual champions Dortmund where he made a string of world-class saves to earn his side three mammoth points. Like his idol Oliver Kahn, he is not afraid to shout at his defenders and is very brave in coming off of his line to thwart chances. Reports of interest from Barcelona have lead to him being given a renewed contract until 2015, but if he continues to progress at this rate, it is unlikely he will stay at the club.

Marc Andre Ter-Stegen

The solidity of the team means they do not score a plethora of goals, their 39 is the joint-lowest in the top 6, but they play a style of football that is pleasant to watch. They move the ball quickly, play one-touch passes and move, always looking to receive the ball again.

“The automatism’s we practice during training are paying off in our matches. I’m sure the fans in the stadium and people watching on TV enjoy our football and that is our goal. Modern football is becoming one-touch football and we can always get better. The passing can be more accurate, you can improve your weaker foot,” says striker Mike Hanke.

One player guaranteed to be playing Champions League football regardless of Gladbach’s finishing position is the jewel in their crown; Marco Reus. The German international has agreed to join his hometown club Dortmund in the summer for a fee of €17.5 million, signing a five-year deal in the process. It has been no surprise to see Reus courted by the biggest names both in Germany and across the continent having scored 14 goals and notched six assists in 24 games this campaign. Nine Man of the Match appearances have pointed to the fact that he is the main instigator of Gladbach’s attacking play and his dribbling speed makes him almost impossible to stop. With the likes of Shinji Kagawa and Mario Gotze, two players in the mould of Reus, already plying their trade at Dortmund, it is easy to see why he has chosen to join the reigning champions.

The Rolls-Reus of Gladbach

It is easy to think that Gladbach are a one-man team when you investigate Reus’ stats and watch how they play, but that would be an insult to one of their other playmakers; Juan Arango. The Venezuelan attacking midfielder has been equally as impressive as Reus this season and has created more goals (nine) for his teammates than anybody else, whilst also notching five times. His lethal left-foot is dangerous from free-kicks and from range – you let him shoot at your peril.

Wednesday sees a big test of Gladbach’s Champions League credentials as they face a rampant Bayern Munich side in the semi-final of the DFB-Pokal Cup. Bayern have notched 20 goals in their last three games and are showing no signs of relenting as they look to close the five-point gap on Dortmund. However, Gladbach are no strangers to overturning Munich having defeated them on the opening day of the season at the Allianz Arena when De Camargo, again, scored a late winner. Bayern dominated the corresponding fixture in Gladbach but were hit on the counter-attack and lost the game 3-1.

This is the biggest game of the season, and for some the careers, for Gladbach’s squad and Brazilian defender Dante, who has been linked with a move to Munich in the past, is determined to keep the Foals’ fairytale season going.

“For a lot of players it’s the game of their lives. I desperately want to get to the final in Berlin. That would be a dream and we’ll give our all to make it come true… Last season we were nearly relegated. Now we’re third in the table and a game away from the cup final. It’s unbelievable, for the fans above all,” said the defender.

Despite the turnaround, Favre remains the most cautious man in Gladbach, reminding the fans that they need ‘to stop dreaming’ before the win over Leverkusen. His reaction to the weekend winner shows that he is a dreamer at heart and should his team beat Bayern and qualify for the Champions League, it will be a story from the deepest realms of any Foals fans fantasy.

* Stats on Arango and Reus from the excellent website www.whoscored.com*

Eduardo Vargas – South America’s ‘next big thing’

As Eduardo Vargas slalomed his way past three LDU Quito challenges and slotted home last night, the whole of Europe sat up to take notice.

The Chilean striker dubbed the ‘new Alexis Sanchez’ scored his 11th goal of this season’s Copa Sudamericana last night as Universidad de Chile swept past Ecuadorian giants LDU Quito.

The feat is a new record for the competition and is richly deserved for the forward, who has been linked with a European giants such as Chelsea and Inter Milan already.

His performance last night summed up exactly why Inter manager Claudio Ranieri has publicly stated his admiration for Chile’s hottest new prospect. He opened the scoring for La U after just two minutes last night, touching the ball on three separate occasions in the build-up before a deflected cross fell into his path and he rifled home a left-footed volley, whilst leaning back, to add to the solitary goal he had scored in the first leg of this final.

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He was involved in everything good that Universidad did last night and played a part in the second goal too. After playing a neat one-two on the edge of the LDU box, Vargas fired a shot at the near post from a tight angle that was too strong for the ‘keeper to hold and the rebound fell to Gustavo Lorenzetti who slotted home. However, his best contribution was yet to come.

In the 86th minute, Vargas received the ball just inside the opposition half. Not once did he look up for a team-mate, his only intention was to score. He got his head down and accelerated past his midfield tracker, skipped past the onrushing defender and then rounded the remaining defender to leave him one-on-one where he lofted the ball into the far top corner to add the icing to the La U victory.

That goal sealed his place in Sudamericana history and sealed his award, given to him by Chilean legend Marcelo Salas, as the player of the tournament; there could be no doubt.

A lot of praise for Vargas’ emergence must go down to his coach, Jorge Sampaoli. The Argentine manager couldn’t get a break in his homeland and after a spell with Emelec in Ecuador, he was handed the job as La U manager this season. He brought with him a Marcelo Bielsa inspired 3-4-3 system where the forwards interchange on a regular basis (as they also do at Barcelona), and this has allowed Vargas to come inf rom the flank and have shots at goal.A winger with pace and skill, it is easy to see why people would compare him to his compatriot at Barcelona, but Vargas is different to Alexis in that he scores more goals and gets involved a lot more centrally than Sanchez would.

Liverpool have also been rumoured to have checked out Vargas, whilst Napoli’s South American scouting system has found them the gems of Ezequiel Lavezzi, Edinson Cavani (via Palermo) and Walter Gargano and has also listed Vargas as a target. The financial muscle of Russian giants Zenit St. Petersberg has also seen them linked.

Chelsea’s link comes from the fact their chief South American scout is Chilean Jorge Alvial and with Didier Drogba stalling over a new contract and Nicolas Anelka moving to China in January, Andre Villas-Boas will be looking for a new striker when the transfer window opens once more.

A move to Italy or Spain, where Villareal have been linked, looks the most likely destination as work permit issues could scupper any move to England. Despite his emergence, Vargas has only appeared in four of Chile’s last 12 competitive games (33%)*. Meaning he would miss out as FA Premier League rules state “a non-EU player applying for the permit must have played for his country in at least 75 percent of its competitive ‘A’ team matches for which he was available for selection during the previous two years.” Special dispensation could be granted if an English side could convince the judging panel that his precocious talent would be a worthy addition to English football, but it is a tough task.

A fee of between £10m-12m has been spoken of by Vargas’ agent, a figure which would be beneficial to both parties. La U cannot compete financially with the giants of South America, especially the Brazilian clubs like Santos who can pay Neymar European figure wages, and the money raised from this sale would set them up for a few years to come, whilst also representing a bargain for the lucky team to acquire the next big thing in South American football.

*Thanks to @Rupert_Fryer for the stat

Are Everton too good to go down?

It has now become a cliché of football fans everywhere to dismiss their chances of relegation on the basis they’re ‘too good’ to go down.

West Ham United are probably the biggest example that quality players doesn’t always amount to Premier League safety.

They were relegated in 2003 despite boasting Paulo Di Canio, Les Ferdinand, David James, Joe Cole and Jermain Defoe amongst their ranks. A 2-2 draw at St. Andrew’s against Birmingham City was enough to see them relegated to the disbelief of most neutral fans.

Fast forward almost a decade and you could be forgiven that Everton could possibly follow suit. Not only have they lost their talismanic playmaker Mikel Arteta, they also crucially failed to swell the already miniscule striking department at Goodison Park.

Arteta has come in for some criticism over the past season from Everton fans, goals against Liverpool and Man Utd not enough to keep some from suggesting that he was below-par for the season.

However, losing him for £10m is not how Moyes would have envisaged his day panning out. Arteta is 30 in April, which makes his move to the youthful Gunners all the more surprising, but once their interest was apparent, he was compelled to put in a transfer request to force the move through. Some fans feel that his best years may well be behind him, but if Arsene Wenger is still interested, there must be something about Arteta that makes him a worthy replacement for Cesc Fabregas.

Mikel Arteta

Everton are actually quite blessed in centre-midfield, in terms of numbers, but now Arteta has gone, it is hard to see who will control the games for them. Dinijar Bilyaletdinov, Tim Cahill, Leon Osman, Marouane Fellaini, and young Ross Barkley can all play in an creative midfield role, but will they be able to play there to Arteta’s standards. Cahill is deemed more of a finisher than a creator of chances, Fellaini is more likely to be deployed as a holding man, Bilyaletdinov has yet to settle properly and Barkley, despite his obvious talent, is too young to take on that kind of role. That leaves Leon Osman as Everton’s biggest creative threat. However, Arteta wasn’t an advanced playmaker and tended to do a lot of his work from a deep-lying role, something Osman isn’t accustomed to.

As if creating chances wasn’t going to be difficult enough, who is going to finish them when they do come along?
Everton started the day with four senior strikers and ended it with one less. James Vaughan was sold to Norwich early in the summer, whilst Jermaine Beckford left to join Sven Goran-Eriksson’s Leicester City revolution.

There is no doubt all Evertonians will be delighted to see the back of Yakubu, a striker they’ve deemed ‘lazy’, a trait barred on Merseyside. However, they may be disappointed to learn he has only been replaced by one other striker. That striker is called (let me make sure I get this right) Denis Stracqualursi, an Argentinian forward signed on loan from Tigres in his homeland. Stracqualursi is a typical ‘English No. 9’ type of player. A tall, strong, battering-ram of a striker, he scored a hat-trick vs Boca Juniors earlier this year – including two stunning headers.


However positive reports of Stracqualursi may seem, Everton fans need to beware that he needs time to settle and may not hit the ground running. Last summer, Wigan signed a striker similar in stature by the name of Mauro Boselli. One League Cup goal later, he was on his way to Genoa and has since gone back to Argentina.
That leaves the physiotherapists nightmares’ Louis Saha and Victor Anichebe as Everton’s strikeforce. Not something you want to be reliant on by any means.

So if Stracqualursi hasn’t settled and Saha is injured, where do Everton’s goals come from?

Even with those that have left, Everton were terrible against Blackburn at the weekend, winning only after Rovers had missed two penalties and Arteta had converted theirs.

Surely it is now only a matter of time before the rest of the crown jewels are sold off? Another season at the same level of last season for Leighton Baines and clubs will be queuing up to sign him. Phil Jagielka was already targeted by Wenger this summer and even an impressive season for Barkley could see the big boys come calling.

But the man Everton fans should fear losing the most from this fallout is their manager. David Moyes continues to work wonders on the shoestring budgets given to him by the board. (I blogged about their finances a month ago here) How much longer will he tolerate the club’s best players being sold off and not replaced before his head is turned? Aston Villa were linked with him before appointing Alex McLeish and Moyes will be top of a lot of club’s wishlists, should they part with their managers.

Moyes has managed to get Everton into the Champions League during his tenure, but this season could be one of his biggest challenges yet. A lack of natural creativity and a gambler’s strike force could see goals dry up and the Merseyside club plummet.

The question remains. Are Everton too good to go down?