FC99 FEATURES

FC99 PART TWO: BACK ON TRACK

Part two features a mix of players looking to get back to form and some names looking to extend their good work

NABY KEÏTA

24 / GUINEA / LIVERPOOL
BY MAXI ANGELO

Naby Keïta had a somewhat anti-climactic season at Liverpool contra what was expected after the high attention move he made. Liverpool fans built up suspense during the year he stayed at Leipzig after having signed for the Reds.

Keita

Keïta had a fantastic start to the season. He showcased brilliant technicality, his quality as a ball carrier from point A to point B, a beautiful vision for the game and nice pressing abilities which complements Liverpool and Klopp’s gegenpressing football very nicely. But after a while into the season, it stopped clicking for him. He suffered from injuries and when he actually got chances on the pitch, he didn’t take them.

Keïta needs to step up next season to show why he has a future at Liverpool, who at this point can pretty much attract any player in the world to fill his spot. Personally, I remain skeptical of the fact that Liverpool and Klopp would replace Keïta, especially given the heavy negotiating they had to do to acquire him in the first place. That being said, Keïta, yet again, towards the end of the season, showed how good he is and what he can bring to the team, which gives birth to optimism for next season.

If there is one thing Keïta can develop in his game, it’s probably consistency. He has shown time and time again that he has those stunning football abilities that he has made a name for himself for.

But so far, he hasn’t showed it on a consistent basis in England. A lot can perhaps do with needing time to customization to live on and off the pitch in England. But even if that’s the case, the expectations will still be there that he’s made progress in that aspect ahead of this season since he’s then spent a year at the club and in the country.

Naby Keita

MAXI IS A SWEDISH-ITALIAN JOURNALISM STUDENT AND FOOTBALL WRITER. A LOVER OF ALL FOOTBALL LEAGUES, HIS MAIN AREA OF EXPERTISE IS SERIE A. HE HAS FEATURED ON PUBLICATIONS SUCH AS BREAKING THE LINES, SEMPRE MILAN AND LFC TRANSFER ROOM.

MARTA

33 / BRAZIL / ORLANDO PRIDE
BY MARISSA BLACKMAN

Marta is undoubtedly one of the most successful football players that has ever put a boot on a field. The 33-year-old Brazillian has scored more goals in a World Cup than any other player, and she’s earned at least 24 individual awards both domestically and internationally.

Marta

Despite all of the success, there is something troubling about the current progression of Marta’s career. At one time, the signing of Marta was almost a guarantee that the club would win. From 2005-2012, Marta won a title every year, often being the key to success for every team she joined. But, the last time she won a domestic title was in 2015. She went from making lucrative deals every time she joined a club to signing with Orlando Pride FC as a free transfer.

At club level, success is no longer a certainty for Marta. She still has the talent to dazzle fans with the goals of yesteryear, but her statistics make some unsure of what the rest of her career will shape up to be. Although Marta spent much of the 2019 season in France fighting hard for Brazil’s unsuccessful World Cup campaign, she has made nine starting appearances so far. In that time, she scored four times which is the same number of goals she scored in the entirety of the 2018 season. Her season is off to a good start, but Marta will certainly need to deliver to remain with the Pride.

The team exercised an option in her original contract to keep her for a third year. There are a variety of reasons that the Pride may not sign another contract with Marta. Marc Skinner has been hired as head coach and is under pressure to deliver a title. she is advancing in age, and she is one of the more expensive players on the team. Last season, other players scored far more than her. Every World Cup brings a frenzy around a new set of stars and if she does not have a phenomenal season this year, Marta could be passed up by the Pride. Only time will tell.

MARISSA IS THE CREATOR OF SIDELINE SHINDIG. SHE HAS ALSO PREVIOUSLY FEATURED ON FOOTBALL CHRONICLE – YOU CAN FIND HER WORK HERE.

JOÃO FÉLIX

19 / PORTUGAL / ATLÉTICO MADRID
BY RUI MIGUEL MARTINS

Few players have experienced such a meteoric rise as the 19-year-old Portuguese attacker, João Félix. He made his first-team debut with Benfica last August, scored his first goal in the Lisbon derby a few weeks later, made his international debut in March and completed a spectacular €126 million move to Atlético Madrid this month.

Felix

João Félix is a rare bread, with the ability to play in midfield, as well as all three positions up front. Despite his appearance, Félix has a killer instinct in front of goal, scoring 15 goals in 26 Primeira Liga appearances last season, to go along with nine assists.

There have been many players that have been label ‘the next Cristiano Ronaldo,’ with none making such an impact in such a short time. For those acquainted with Portuguese football, it was not a major surprise that Atlético paid huge money and made him one of the top five biggest transfers of all-time.

It is a lot of pressure on someone so young, but Diego Simeone, who is said to have pushed for his signing, will surely give him every opportunity to prove himself. The signing might just end up becoming a bargain.

RUI IS A FREELANCE FOOTBALL WRITER BASED IN TORONTO, CANADA. HE LIKES TO WRITE ABOUT THE PRIMEIRA LIGA AND THE PORTUGUESE NATIONAL TEAM. HIS WRITING CREDITS INCLUDE PORTUGOAL, THE SPECTATOR’S VIEW, OUTSIDE OF THE BOOT AND BACK PAGE FOOTBALL.

GIOVANI LO CELSO

23 / ARGENTINA / REAL BETIS
BY SIVAN JOHN

Giovani Lo Celso may have endured a roller-coaster summer with Argentina at the Copa América, but the same could not be said about his time with Real Betis last season. His 14 goals and five assists in all competitions cemented his place as among the best deep-lying playmakers in Spain.

Lo Celso

Lo Celso was often regarded as a prodigious talent in Argentina, which was well documented during his time with Rosario Central. This earned him a big-money move to play for Paris Saint-Germain, but his time at the French capital didn’t transcend as many would have hoped for. Perhaps he needed the right environment to truly excel in his game.

At Betis, he has been given the freedom the drive the ball from the middle due to his in-depth dribbling skills and thunderbolt passing. Even in the daintiest situation, he has an exquisite ability in controlling the ball. When playing for someone who is as enterprising as Quique Setién, a player like Lo Celso is regarded as the crème de la crème.

But as mentioned earlier, his style isn’t all just dribbling and passing. He has also built a repertoire with an eye of a tiger for scoring goals from virtually anywhere. This can be either from being at the right place in taking a lethal shot from close range. Or even a long-range subsonic strike from outside the penalty box.

It’s no surprise that Betis didn’t waste time to immediately turn his loan deal into a permanent one. Now the question is whether he would be returning to the Estadio Benito Villamarín this season. When such talent is unearthed, potential suitors are expected to knocking Betis anytime soon.

Watching from London, Mauricio Pochettino has become an ardent admirer of his. The prospect of being under the counsel of his countrymen and playing for a dynamic club like Tottenham Hotspur will be something hard for Lo Celso to resist. If that’s not tempting enough, the opportunity to play in the Champions League is another major factor. It is left to be seen where he will be playing, but one thing is certain: there is keen interest.

Giovani Lo Celso 18-19 pt 2

SIVAN IS A WRITER WHOSE WORK HAS FEATURED IN PUBLICATIONS SUCH AS MUNDO ALBICELESTE, THESE FOOTBALL TIMES, IN BED WITH MARADONA AND MORE. HE IS AN AVID FAN OF HUDDERSFIELD TOWN AND THE ARGENTINE NATIONAL TEAM.

MANUEL NEUER

33 / GERMANY / BAYERN MUNICH
BY MOUHAMAD RACHINI

It was only five years ago that Manuel Neuer was being honoured as one of the best footballers in the world. His third-place finish in the 2014 Ballon d’Or voting made him the first goalkeeper since Gianluigi Buffon 2006 to finish amongst the award’s top three nominees. His place in football lore had seemingly been cemented thanks to a World Cup win earlier that year, as well as his gargantuan influence on the sweeper ‘keeper role.

Neuer

Now, questions are being asked of Neuer and his chances of returning to his former quality. His metatarsal fractures in 2017 kept him out of action for nearly 330 days, and he missed the rest of the 2016-17 season and almost all of the 2017-18 season as a result. His return hasn’t been spectacular either; he was criticized for his role in South Korea’s second goal in their 2-0 World Cup win over Germany, and his 60% save percentage was the second-lowest among Bundesliga starting goalkeepers last season.

As the 33-year-old German enters the final third of his playing years, this is a crucial time for Neuer. Injuries are a very serious concern, especially metatarsal fractures, and major ones are capable of ending successful careers (just ask Marco van Basten and Ronaldo). Neuer has already missed 19 more games since his last metatarsal fracture due to various other injury concerns, and if he can’t keep himself healthy, an early retirement may be in the books.

This is why the 2019-20 season will be so important for Neuer. After a few years of injury concerns and average, if not poor, performances, the upcoming season could be the definitive season in determining how many years Neuer has left at the top level. Recent performances have gone his way; his top-class saves in the 2019 DFB-Pokal Final saw him clinch his fifth DFB-Pokal title, and he’s looked comfortable in Bayern’s preseason matches. But a few games cannot compare to an entire season, and if Neuer fails to cash in on what will be the second-last season of his current contract, Bayern Munich could consider parting ways with their captain.

MOUHAMAD IS A SOCCER JOURNALIST WHO TENDS TO COVER GOALKEEPERS. HE IS THE FOUNDER OF THE BETWEEN THE STICKS BLOG AND THE KOORA TV YOUTUBE CHANNEL. HE IS CURRENTLY BASED IN TORONTO, CANADA. 

CONNOR JENNINGS

27 / ENGLAND / TRANMERE ROVERS
BY TOM SCHOLES

At 27-years-old, playing in the National League in England, it looks like your chance to make an impact on the game has gone. You may not make it to the Premier League or the Champions League or the World Cup, but you can still make your own impact in a way that is special to an exclusive group of fans.

Jennnigs

Some people only get this chance once, but for Connor Jennings, he’s managed to create two iconic moments in two successive years for Tranmere Rovers. First, he literally created the goal that James Norwood scored that sent Tranmere from the National League back to the Football League in 2018 and in 2019, Jennings was at the back post to nod home the 119th-minute winner against Newport County to give Rovers back-to-back promotions.

But while Jennings may not be the headline grabber – that responsibility fell to Norwood – the story of Connor Jennings is incredible. In 2018, against Boreham Wood in the first play-off final, Jennings came off the bench in the first half just days after waking up from a coma that caused him to miss the semi-final against Ebbsfleet, while this year he had to get over the tragic news of his grandfather passing – someone he was very close with – to play 120 minutes of a tense League Two play-off final.

Jennings may not be a superstar that grabs headlines and is at the tip of the tongue of fans, but his story of determination, hard work, immense struggle and glorious moments to lift a club that was on its knees when he joined in 2014 deserves all the recognition in the world. Jennings never gave up, never stopped trying his hardest and now he’s reaping the rewards.

As the Tranmere fans sing (sung to the tune of ‘September’ by Earth, Wind, and Fire) “we’ve got Connor Jennings, We saved him from Wrexham, he never gives the ball away” and the fact he has a song that is sung at every Tranmere game shows how much he’s loved and how much he is appreciated by his fans.

TOM IS AN EXPERIENCED WRITER OF US SOCCER AS WELL AS MAINLAND EUROPEAN FOOTBALL, BEING ABLE TO PICK OUT INTERESTING STORIES AND TELL THEM IN VIVID DETAIL. HE HAS PREVIOUSLY FEATURED ON PUBLICATIONS SUCH AS GET FRENCH FOOTBALL NEWS AND THESE FOOTBALL TIMES, WHILE HIS BOOK, ‘STATESIDE SOCCER’, IS OUT NOW IN THE UK.

DANI OLMO

21 / SPAIN / DINAMO ZAGREB
BY MAXIME VENDRELL

The question on many people’s minds has been where Dani Olmo will end up playing his football in the upcoming season. The 21-year-old has been a revelation for the national U21 team and there have been plenty of boardrooms paying keen attention to his performances lately.

Olmo

The young Olmo, a product of Barcelona’s famed La Masia, has been playing his football in unconventional Croatia with Dinamo Zagreb, but it has been made clear that his talents are more suited amongst the big fish across Europe.

After a few excellent seasons and great performances at the recently-concluded U21 European Championships, where Olmo even scored in the final, the Spaniard has been spoilt for choice. Both Milan sides, Manchester United, Bayern Munich, and Borussia Dortmund have reportedly been keen on bringing him into their side, but it is Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham Hotspur that have seemed the likeliest to add him to their ranks.

The man-of-the-match in the final of the Euros, Olmo will have plenty of choices. Knowing about his proficiency in front of goal, his creativity and speed in the final third and his willingness to improve, clubs know they can bring in a real gem into their side. Add in his young age, there is massive potential in him, and he will most certainly be an excellent addition.

Wherever he ends up, there is a certainty that he can improve on his talents and bring some more recognition to his name. The U21 Euros told Europe who he was, now, his next move will only enhance his gleaming reputation.

MAXIME MOSTLY COVERS FRENCH FOOTBALL. HE IS THE HEAD OF CONTENT FOR ULTIMO DIEZ

KURT ZOUMA

24 / FRANCE / CHELSEA
BY HRISHIKESH ANAND

Kurt Zouma will be having a very important season ahead of him. The Frenchman spent the 2018-19 season on loan at Everton where he took an important step towards reigniting his career. He was emerging as a monstrous presence for Chelsea in the 2014-15 season as the Blues won the Premier League under José Mourinho.

Zouma

Unfortunately, a torn anterior cruciate ligament meant that Zouma spent a year on the sidelines before loans to Stoke and Everton. Had he not been injured, Zouma would have undoubtedly been a stalwart for Chelsea in times of their defensive issues. Zouma is reportedly set to stay at Chelsea and if he were to do so, has the chance to cement his place as one of the top young defenders in the world.

Chelsea’s transfer ban means that keeping Zouma would be a smart move. The Frenchman is strong, quick and intelligent as well as being a decent ball-playing defender.  The 24-year-old will ease Chelsea’s lack of defensive depth and could see himself go straight into the starting eleven given David Luiz’s age and Antonio Rüdiger’s injury issues.

At a time of uncertainty around Frank Lampard, a strong defensive base is essential for Chelsea to begin his reign positively and Zouma can provide the same. Zouma is gradually returning to the level he was at before his injury but would do well to improve his passing and ball-playing ability. He will need to commit himself to adapting to Lampard’s tactical approach as well. His no-nonsense style is perhaps his best asset as he can bully the opposition’s attackers into submission.

Zouma has also seen himself return to the French national team owing to his good form at Everton and if he were to cement his place at Chelsea, he will be on track to becoming the world-class defender many expect him to become.

HRISHI IS A WRITER AND ANALYST AT TOTAL FOOTBALL ANALYSIS AND YOU ARE MY ARSENAL.

TÉJI SAVANIER

27 / FRANCE / MONTPELLIER
BY ADAM WHITE

It’s difficult to underestimate the impact Teji Savanier has had on Nimes’ glorious Ligue 1 return. A promoted side who finished a distant second to Reims in the previous Ligue 2 season without a consistent top-flight goalscorer or an assured back-line finished comfortably inside Ligue 1’s top-half in the last term.

Savanier

While manager Bernard Blaquart’s gung-ho attitude, complemented by the flair and pace of wingers Denis Bounaga and Sada Thioub, enthralled French football, it was Savanier who was cast as the orchestrator extraordinaire. At 27, it was the stocky midfielder’s first full top-flight season, but he finished as the league leader in assists, clear of even the top Parisien performers, and, for many, the only choice for Player of the Season.

A devilish dead ball ability, supreme technical quality, a visionary range of passing and a thunderous shot meant Savanier stood out in nearly every Nimes outing. The 5-0 defeat away at Lille on his solitary off-day all year underlines his ubiquitous influence on Les Crocs.

Such a campaign may seem to leave him with little to prove, but a move to Montpellier says otherwise. Having begun his career at La Mosson, Savanier has spent the intervening period touring the Longaudoc region reluctant to move away from his immediate family – with whom he and his wife still share a house in a dusty Montpellier suburb.

As a result, despite a ferocious rivalry re-emerging between his current and future employers and interest from bigger clubs such as Galatasaray, a return to Montpellier was Savanier’s only choice. A previous transfer to Arles, only slightly further afield, was facilitated by his mother agreeing to join him.

No longer is Savanier the clear leader and standout performer in the smallest of Ligue 1 ponds. The 2012 champions will expect to charge for Europe, lesser away sides will frustrate and suffocate, Florent Mollet and Ellyes Skhiri will provide fierce competition and Michael Der Zakaraian’s pragmatism will provide fewer opportunities and less space to pick passes and dictate as before. After just one, admittedly astonishing, top of flight season, given his career path so far, Savanier’s challenges will reset and many more will arise upon his arrival at La Mosson.

It’s difficult to underestimate the impact Savanier could have on Montpellier – his recent injury doesn’t help that statement. But for now, that ‘could’ is key.

ADAM WHITE IS FOOTBALL RADAR’S SENIOR LIGUE 1 ANALYST, CHIEF FEATURES WRITER FOR GET FRENCH FOOTBALL NEWS, A WEEKLY GUARDIAN ONLINE COLUMNIST AND HOST OF THE GET EUROPEAN FOOTBALL SHOW ON LOVE SPORT RADIO.