Saturday, September 16, 2006

The case of Fernando Gago

They call him the new Redondo, citing his ability to dictate play from a defensive midfield position which has made him the mainstay of a Boca Juniors side that has won everything in the last couple of years. Increasingly, calls have been made for him to be included in the NT, despite Argentina's wealth of options in the holding midfield position.

Fernando Gago was a member of the World Youth Championship-winning Argentina U-20 side of 2005 which also featured other rising stars: goalkeeper Oscar Ustari, who was included in the Germany World Cup squad; defender Gabriel Paletta, called the 'new Ayala' by some and signed by Liverpool in the last transfer window; (then) midfielder and captain Pablo Zabaleta, who is increasingly sometimes the lone bright spark in an inconsistent Espanyol team playing at right-back; forward Neri Cardozo, who increasingly looks like the next best thing out of the aftementioned Boca team; Sergio Aguero, the brightest young star out of South America and already showing signs of what he can do for new team Atletico Madrid - and of course the one who outshone everyone else, playmaker Lionel Messi.

Out of all the above young talents, arguably only Messi and Aguero have had success and recognition comparable to what Gago has enjoyed after the WYC. New NT coach Basile was the engineer of that success, and will no doubt be eager to repeat it with the NT - but I will leave discussion of Gago's chances in the NT to the end of this post.

What most concerns me is that says he's going to Real Madrid sometime in 2007. Firstly, I'm skeptical about how believable it is. Anyone who speaks Spanish out there willing to dispell or confirm? He has stated in the past that he's likely to play for Real, but who wouldn't want to play for one of the biggest teams in the world?

However, quite apart from any bias I may or may not have against Madrid, I'm not sure going there to (most likely) sit on the bench for half the season is going to do Gago's career any good. The article says that Emerson is the one who will make way for Gago. While I can see one side of that argument - yes, Emerson is getting on a bit in age, and reportedly Capello hasn't been too happy with his performances so far; but why would anyone - yes, even Real - buy a good player at great expense and with great fanfare only to discard him one season later? Especially since he has long been one of Capello's old favourites? It smacks of the kind of wild gambling that has plagued Real in the last two years and which the new administration will no doubt be keen to avoid.

Admittedly, Real have farmed out Pablo Garcia and sold Thomas Graveson, their defensive midfielders from last season, and with Capello favouring a formation that includes two holding players, maybe there would be a place in the side for him. Their unimpressive recent record with nurturing young players and the generally lousy luck Argentinean players have had in recent times moving to the big two of Spain (Samuel, Solari, Riquelme, Sorin, Saviola...and more) does makes me skeptical that the move would be a success.

Allow me to pause here and reflect on something that might seen a little off-topic. In Internationale's first game of the Serie A season, defensive midfielder Esteban Cambiasso (remember him? remember that goal in the World Cup?) scored two goals and set up one to ensure Inter victory. He was hailed as the new Redondo after the match by hyperbole-prone sports media, having been given a new lease of life by Juan Sebastian Veron leaving and the arrival of Patrick Viera. To be fair, Cambiasso performed very well for Inter for large stretches of last season as well. I mention him because he, along with Santiago Solari and Walter Samuel in that Argentine-rich team were all Real Madrid rejects. Cambiasso was signed by Madrid in his teens but left on a free transfer a few years back, having failed to impress.

Here's hoping that Gago's development isn't hampered by a move of dubious wisdom like so many other young Argentinean hopes in recent years. For examples one only had to look to the pot-4 Champions League teams, where Fernando Cavenangi is currently freezing both physically and metaphorically in Spartak Moscow and Lucas Biglia forgotten by the Argentinean NT selectors in Anderlecht. One could also add to this list from further back - Andres D'Alessandro to Wolfsburg and of course the Real and Barca moves mentioned above.

It is important that Gago be seen to shine prominently because he faces stiff competition for a place in the NT. Argentina have a wealth of quality options everywhere except, perhaps, the defence right now with Gabriel Heinze just returning from injury and Gonzalo Rodriguez out for the season. Competition for what seems likely to be the sole holding midfield spot in the starting eleven is especially fierce. Recent West Ham signing Javier Mascherano has been first choice since World Cup qualifying despite his young age, and deservedly so. There's also Martin Demichelis of Bayern Munich, who famously declared that he had lost the will to live after being left out of the World Cup squad. He's a good player, though, who can score the odd goal. Fabricio Coloccini, who played at right-back in the World Cup, can also play in this position, which he sometimes occupies for his club Deportivo La Coruna. Villarreal new boy Leandro Somoza has turned in impressive showings recently for both club and country. And then there's Lucas Biglia, who I mentioned above. He shone in WYC 2005 and for Independiente alongside Ustari and Aguero, but probably has only an outside chance now due to playing his club football in Belgium.

I'm sure there are other worthy candidates - the above is only what I can think of off the top of my head. Enough to get the point across, in any case. A fun selection headache for Basile comparable to the one he faces for the playmaker role which I outlined briefly in my post on Riquelme's retirement, and which I will go into more detail on later.

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