The most underrated player in European football (maybe)

The concept of ‘underrated’ is highly subjective. The term is thrown around frequently when evaluating a footballer’s ability and covers a mixed bag of players.

You might, for example, think Luis Suarez is underrated. You might think he deserves to be mentioned alongside Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. You might question why he has been a distant top five in the last two Ballon d’Or votes.

Likewise, you could think Charlie Austin is underrated for his ability to score bundles of goals wherever he has been. Being ‘underrated’ isn’t even reserved for just current players. You could say that Park Ji-Sung was underrated. Or Danny Murphy. Forwards Diego Milito, David Di Natale and even Samuel Eto’o could be classed as underrated. There’s plenty more in the Premier League today – Dusan Tadic, Jose Fonte and maybe still Kante. What about workhorses such as John Walters?!

There’s really nothing that this ragtag group have in common other than that their perceived value is not equal to what they offer on a football pitch. Over the last few years there’s been one Belgian constantly delivering for his Italian club side whilst attracting very little in terms of media attention, footballing accolade or transfer speculation. He is, at least, incredibly useful on the PlayStation.

Dries Mertens has just bagged back-to-back Serie A hat-tricks and, in doing so, very nearly ruined this post. The January transfer window is just round the corner and the Premier League may finally sit up and take note (he’s got plenty of international teammates to persuade him).

Nevertheless, Mertens is 29. Where have his pursuers been for the last five years?

Signing for PSV from Utrecht, Mertens scored 21 in 33 in his first season. Scoring for a top club in the Eredivisie is not much of a litmus test (Afonso Alves got 34 for Heerenveen…) but Mertens found the net with alarming regularity for a winger. He was on six league goals by the end of his first month.

Napoli would soon get clued up and, after scoring 37 in 62 for PSV, the Belgian moved to Serie A in 2013 to play under Rafael Benitez.

Napoli’s attacking options that season were mouth-watering. Gonzalo Higuaín had also arrived along with Jose Callejon. The trio would join the exciting Lorenzo Insigne with Duvan Zapata and Goran Pandev also looking for game time. It was obvious that Benitez would utilize Higuaín centrally with two of Callejon, Insigne and Mertens on either side. However, there were a couple of things working against the Belgian. Insigne was young and Neapolitan. He had (and still has) the potential to be a leading Italian international. Callejon was a similar age to Mertens but had joined from Real Madrid and it was likely compatriot Benitez knew more of his talents. By comparison, Mertens was seen as an untapped late bloomer – despite being just 26 years of age. Nevertheless, Benitez freely rotated his plethora of attacking options and Mertens ended with an impressive 11 league goals, scoring six in the last seven games.

At the end of the season FourFourTwo ran an article on Mertens, introducing him to readers and flagging up his exciting style of play. The Belgian may fall behind compatriot Eden Hazard in terms of mesmerizing runs but he can add to his game a deadly right foot (and a crafty left one). He packs a punch for a man of 5ft7 and can rifle the ball home from distance; both at free-kicks or in open play. He’s far from a traditional winger. He is a nuisance down the middle and perhaps only his lack of aerial threat stops him functioning as a predatory centre forward.

The end of the 2013/14 season was the best it got for Mertens for quite some time. Rafa would continue to hand him game time but plenty of his minutes came in Europa League football. He would eventually find his way off the bench and ended the season with a flourish but there was no magazine feature this time around and many forgot about him.

The following year his hard-working performances would again go unnoticed with a fine season for Insigne limiting his Serie A opportunities. New manager Maurizio Sarri saw much the same in Mertens; a skilful winger with the ability to come off the bench and grab a goal. By the end of the season he had appeared more times from the bench than as a starter. This theme has continued into the current season but his goalscoring exploits are getting harder to ignore.

Higuaín has left and replacement Arkadiusz Milik (who started so well) has been hit by injury. Napoli are lucky to have Mertens right now and his ten league goals have helped boost them back towards the top of the league. At 29 years old he’s unlikely to get a big move and as long as he’s on and off the subs bench he’s unlikely to get the recognition he deserves.

Mertens provides support to the argument that if you do lots of things well, you’ll be asked to cover a lot of different roles. I hereby crown Mertens the most underrated player in European football. Or one of them. There’s quite a few.

Mike Franchetti

Six times Francesco Totti was an absolute top boy

Totti is the ultimate one-club man and the epitome of a club legend. He’s never left A.S. Roma – not for the twinkle of the Premier League nor the challenge of another Italian side. Never one to make up the numbers, he has continued to prove his worth to the club writing stories usually reserved for Roy of the Rovers. He has scored in 23 straight Serie A seasons and turns 40 this month. Here’s six times he was an absolute top boy.

1. When he dinked a penalty in a Euro 2000 shootout

Chipped penalties aren’t necessarily cool. If they go wrong you look like a complete fool and they’re more common now than in days gone by. Back in the year 2000, however, we had just pioneer Antonin Paneka to reference (not counting Gary Linekar’s failed friendly attempt) and the idea of a dinked penalty was enough to make a manager strut nervously around their technical area.  With Italy leading 2-0 in a Euro semi-final shootout against the Netherlands, Totti arrived at the spot with his usual swagger. Sporting a haircut only cool in Italian borders, he produced a memorable moment when nonchalantly arching the ball into the centre of the goalmouth and past a falling Edwin van der Sar. At the time it was amazing and, if we’re honest, it’s still cool now.

2. When we all laughed at him – for a good cause

Young Totti had the hair, the hairband, the adoration of the capital, a Scudetto and the cover of Italy’s edition of Fifa 2002.  He played with flair and had plenty of friends both in and out of the game. It was easy to peg an unhealthy ego to his character but in the summer of 2003 he proved he was also a master of humorous self-deprecation – especially towards his intelligence. Working as a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF, Totti released a joke book of sorts following discussions with some national teammates. Every joke poked fun at Totti – “a journalist told Totti “Carpe Diem” to which he replied: “I’m sorry, I don’t speak English” – and the book sold at a rate far beyond expectation. Profits were split between homeless children in the Democratic Republic of Congo and a charity for the elderly in Rome. Top boy.

3. When he was ‘Scusate il Ritardo’

You’re sometimes left to wonder how long Totti has spent planning a celebration. Although, on the other hand, maybe he just makes sure he scores as soon as he has an idea. He was certainly on a schedule when ‘giving birth’ to a football in honour of his pregnant wife in 2005. She’s also been the subject of two lovey-dovey undershirt messages over the years. The other great relationship in Totti’s life is his one with the Roma fans. The 2012 season would ultimately see Totti score just eight league goals and end his extraordinary double-digit run. At the start of the winter break Totti had yet to score – something which could well have ruined his Christmas. On January 8th he launched a penalty into the top corner against Chievo before revealing a message which said ‘Scusate il Ritardo’ translating to ‘Sorry for the delay’. He looked genuinely apologetic but hasn’t stopped scoring since. The jury is still out as to whether Totti’s most recent celebration– taking a selfie with the fans – was cool or not. He’d just equalised in the Derby della Capitale, so it probably was.


4. When he chipped Julio Cesar

Returning to 2005 and long haired Totti, we find one of my favourite goals of all time. Roma would eventually finish second to Inter Milan, but won a great encounter 3-2 at the San Siro to get their season on track after a slow start. Roma stunned Inter by racing to a 3-0 first half lead with Totti scoring twice. His first was later voted Serie A goal of the season, delicately lofting the ball over Julio Cesar from outside the box following a mazy run across the pitch. Picking up the ball inside his own half, the Roma captain navigated past two lunging tackles into an area of space. With ease rather than electric pace, he first went wide before drifting into a central position. He proceeded to chip the ball from 20 yards perfectly lobbing a despairing Cesar.

5. When he scored a screamer against Sampdoria

There are plenty of gems hidden in European club football which don’t get the recognition they deserve. If Marco Van Basten’s angled volley is the pinnacle of first time hits, then Totti’s vs. Sampdoria can’t be far behind. Whilst the Dutchman’s had a certain marvel and near perfect connection, Totti’s had a typical coolness. The ball was floated over to the far side of the box where Totti had been lurking beyond the full back. He began to move towards its destination and met the pass with a swing of his left boot. The shot was hit hard, but with exquisite control, and arrowed towards the bottom corner beyond keeper Gianluca Berti. At first this goal may seem underwhelming – but consider how hard it would be to replicate. Totti went on to score 26 that campaign earning himself the Golden Boot. Sadly, Roma would finish second and Totti would collect the fourth of his eight Serie A runners-up medals.

6. When he proved he’s still got it.

Old Totti is probably even cooler than young Totti. As far back as 2011, people have been questioning ‘Il Re De Roma’, quick to point out any sign of diminishing effectiveness. He responded in 2011 by showing off a t-shirt (yes, another one) displaying the words ‘The King of Rome is not dead’ and a number of fine years would follow under managers Zdenek Zemen and Rudi Garcia. His greatest struggle undoubtedly came last season when a returning Luciano Spalletti relegated an injury-hit Totti to the subs bench. Spalletti, who was the first to install Totti as a centre forward in 2005, was more a pantomime villain than hater but a rumoured spat had soured the situation. Totti was left playing minutes rather than games but decided to write a new chapter in his career as the world’s greatest super-sub. It started in April, when he entered the fray against Torino in the 86th minute with Roma 2-1 down. 22 seconds later he had diverted a flick into the back of the net. A revitalized Roma were spurred on and the inevitable followed; they won an 89th minute penalty and Totti tucked it away.

Mike Franchetti

Another classic from Totti’s joke book:

“Ilary (Totti’s wife): Honey, will you take me to dinner tonight?

Totti: I can’t, love, I’m doing this really difficult puzzle. It’s full of small pieces, and there’s a rooster on the box. Why don’t you come and help me?

Ilary: Francesco, leave those cornflakes alone and take me out to dinner”


Six reasons Juventus might not win Serie A this year

Serie A featured highly in this transfer window with Manchester United capturing Paul Pogba and Gonzalo Higuaín upsetting the entire population of Naples in a move north. Juventus start as overwhelming favourites for the new season. Their squad has tonnes of experience and a winning mentality to rival any side in Europe. Nevertheless, all good things come to an end and could the sale of Pogba disrupt the happy camp? Anything other than a sixth straight title will require a serious dip in form, or the likes of Napoli and Roma to overachieve and amass nearly 90 points. Here’s six reasons it might just happen.

1. Their desire for European success

Juventus have won five straight Serie A titles and have been the main Italian flag-bearers in elite European competition. They’ve not done badly either, making the Champions League final in 2015 and having a pair of wonderful games against Bayern Munich last time out. It’s easy to assume the likes of Gigi Buffon, Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci will never get bored of winning Scudettos but the squad seemed to suffer from a bout of the ‘lack-of-ambitions’ at the start of last season and were supposedly put back on track by the words of Buffon prior to the Derby della Mole. Napoli had waltzed to the top of the league and a sleeping Juve were rudely awoken. It’s not out of the realms of possibility that Juve will wobble again as they target a return to the latter stages of the Champions League.

2. Improvements lower down the league

One of the biggest factors in the Serie A title race will be the performance of the teams outside last year’s top three. When Napoli were chasing Juventus at the end of last season they found no favours from Inter, AC, Lazio and Fiorentina. In fact, against that quartet of Italian giants Juventus dropped just two points (a draw with Inter in October). Both Milan clubs made hard work of their seasons whilst Lazio were inconsistent and Fiorentina won just twice in the last three months. All four will be expecting better from 2017. Milan are in dire needed of a return to European football and will be hoping the talent packed into their squad can start performing on a regular basis. Lazio would love new man Ciro Immobile to get close to 20 goals having lost star player Antonio Candreva this summer. The Italian international will now ply his trade under new Inter manager Frank De Boer. Whilst none of these sides will likely surface as title challengers, stronger and longer patches of form will make for a tougher division and less chances for Juventus to disappear over the horizon.

3. Hell hath no fury like an ‘Ultra’ scorned

The first of two big summer stories involving Juventus saw last season’s record-breaking goalscorer Gonzalo Higuaín arrive for a staggering fee. The sometimes underrated Argentinian bagged 71 league goals in three seasons at Napoli and (surprise, surprise) scored on his league debut for Juventus. However, when the three-time La Liga winner was prized by league favourites Juventus he caused an uproar of Neapolitan proportions. The stories immediately began to fly out of Naples – a pizzeria offered free food the first time Higuaín gets injured and toilet paper was printed bearing his face. A coach arrived spelling out ‘core ‘ngrato’ (search it) and an exchange was set up for unwanted Higuaín shirts. The lethal finisher has the talent to respond to his haters but perhaps their unrelenting feeling of betrayal – combined with his lofty price tag – is enough to make him buckle.

4. Replacing Paul Pogba and Alvaro Morata

Regardless of whether or not Paul Pogba was worth the money dropped by Manchester United, he will be sorely missed in the Juventus midfield. There is nobody else in the squad – perhaps the world – that can make the same offering as Pogba; fast yet tall, skilful yet strong, equally as likely to rifle the ball home from 30 yards as he is to win possession and dispatch a pass across the pitch. This isn’t to say Juventus can’t replace the sometimes misfiring Frenchman, but their midfield will surely have a different feel. Juve sent another message to the south when pinching Miralem Pjanic from Roma, and the Bosnian looks the likely replacement in their starting XI. Real Madrid further proved Juventus’ transfer dominance is bounded by Italian borders when activating a clause to re-sign Alvaro Morata. The Spaniard settled better than ever away from his home club, striking strong friendships with a number of Italians in the squad. He was Juve’s most willing runner and had an eye for important goals. On the brightside, Juventus made over €100 million sending players back ‘home’.

5. Ridiculously high standards

After a rocky start to last season Juventus lost just one of their last 28 games. Frighteningly, they racked up 26 victories from October to May with a 15 match winning streak across the winter ended by a 0-0 draw against Bologna. Realistically, this form will not be replicated throughout the 2016-17 campaign. Games at the Juventus Stadium will continue to shower the home side with success, but no side has left with so much as a point since last September (respect to Frosinone) and I expect this to change before Christmas. Napoli, Roma and Sassuolo will be visiting Turin in the next few months and won’t want to leave empty handed.

6. Blooding new stars

The Juventus academy has seen plenty of graduates go on to have international careers – Alessandro Del Piero, Claudio Marchiso, Sebastian Giovinco – but ‘The Old Lady’ have often relied on signing established players from other clubs and nurturing them into the next champions of Turin. A prime example is Andrea Barzagli who, despite winning the World Cup in 2006, has seen his best year’s post-Wolfsburg and post-30. He is now 35, the same age as Patrice Evra and a handful of years older than Giorgio Chiellini. This season’s transfers have suggested more of the same with Dani Alves arriving at the age of 33 and €90 million being thrown behind the 28-year old Higuaín. There are a number of hot prospects in the squad but those brought into the first team will need time to adjust to the 3-5-2 formation established by Antonio Conte. Daniele Rugani is Juve’s centre-back heir apparent whilst Marco Pjaca arrives from Zagreb to offer some dynamism to the frontline. ‘Juventus’ translates to ‘youth’ in Latin and the club will hope the passing of the torch goes as smoothly as possible.

Mike Franchetti