Tag Archives: thierry

Premier League players continue to choose the MLS over mid-ranking European careers

Beckham sprinkled his stardust and more players are crossing the pond – so is the MLS booming or is the US just a place Premier League careers go to die

season – more than regularly pack in to watch Chelsea and not
far off the number who turn up at Anfield – you begin to
understand his excitement.

MLS crowds generally were up last
season. An average attendance of 18,807 made for the seventh-most
popular football league in the world in terms of bums on seats.

Biggest star in the Galaxy: Beckham moved to Los Angeles amid a blaze of publicity in 2007

Biggest star in the Galaxy: Beckham moved to Los Angeles amid a blaze of publicity in 2007

David Beckham

Hollywood ending: Beckham and his sons celebrate the MLS Cup win in his final game

Hollywood ending: Beckham and his sons celebrate the MLS Cup win in his final game

Paltry television viewing figures for MLS in the US remain a
cause for concern, however, as evidenced by a drop in the number who
watched the 2012 MLS Cup from the previous season’s final. Not even
David Beckham’s walk off into the sunset could save that one.

No talk of MLS progress is complete without referencing Beckham’s legacy of course. Having arrived at LA Galaxy from Real Madrid in 2007, the world’s most bankable footballer played a defining role in building the profile of the league.

Even when things weren’t going right on the pitch, Beckham was still selling the Galaxy brand and putting MLS in places it had never before been able to reach.

Beckham made everything to come possible. Seven new MLS franchises launched during his five years in LA, and the increased profile he generated for the league has helped lure the likes of Thierry Henry, Robbie Keane, Carlo Cudicini and Alessandro Nesta to bring their considerable reputations in his wake.

Keane to raise the profile: The Ireland striker (left) has followed Beckham to America

Keane to raise the profile: The Ireland striker (left) has followed Beckham to America

Republic of Ireland striker Keane has
won two MLS Cups in two seasons at LA Galaxy and was named in the
league's best XI for 2012.

Among the other ex-Premier League players to
be found in the US include former West Brom midfielder Giles Barnes, now
plying his trade at Houston Dynamo, and Wales striker Robert
Earnshaw, who arrived at Toronto FC this season.

Former Arsenal and Manchester United full back Mikael Silvestre is another recent arrival. The Frenchman signed for Portland Timbers this season, whose goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts will also be a familiar name to those who follow the lower reaches of the English game. And then there's Tim Cahill, the Australian who left Everton to join Henry at New York Red Bulls in 2012.

New York Red Bulls team-mates: Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill, respectively once of Arsenal and Everton

New York Red Bulls team-mates: Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill, respectively once of Arsenal and Everton

Tim Cahill

Tim Cahill

It’s not just the quality of players
arriving in the MLS that we should be looking as testament to progress.
There’s also the evidence supplied by MLS graduates able to adjust to
supposedly superior leagues when they leave.

Carlos Bocanegra, Clint
Dempsey and Michael Bradley are shining examples. Brek Shea is early in
his career at Stoke but already being talked about as a potential
Premier League game-changer. Meanwhile, American goalkeepers are
everywhere.

Could the
Premier League one day have enough faith in the MLS to use it as a
feeder league It may be a natural next step, especially when you
consider the desire of English clubs to market themselves aggressively
in the US market.

Premier League exports: Goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts and Mikael Silvestre

Premier League exports: Goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts and Mikael Silvestre

Everywhere you look there are signs the MLS is building slowly on its foundation — one laid on the back of the US hosting the 1994 World Cup.

We shouldn’t expect a league to compare with the best in Europe any time soon, but well-planned growth is pointing towards a product that will only get better in time.

Perhaps the biggest achievement of Beckham’s time in American will be seen if the MLS continues to grow without him.

Robert Earnshaw

Giles Barnes

In a land far, far away: Robert Earnshaw and Giles Barnes are both plying their trade in MLS

Arsene Wenger reveals Arsenal will never discover next Lionel Messi

Fans expect me to discover the next Messi… not just promising young players, reveals Wenger as he sets his sights on Holtby

Wenger reveals he snubbed Ba for Giroud last summer

Gunners boss says Michu was never on the club's radar

By
Neil Ashton

PUBLISHED:

22:30 GMT, 3 January 2013

|

UPDATED:

08:04 GMT, 4 January 2013

As time ticks on in the January transfer window, Arsene Wenger offered a fascinating insight into modern-day recruitment methods on Thursday.

Stressing that the job was tougher than when he arrived at Arsenal in September 1996, he admitted that the pressure is always on ‘to find the next Lionel Messi’.

Wenger’s exceptional record in the transfer market, especially in his early years as Arsenal’s manager, is up there with the very best. Patrick Vieira, Thierry Henry, Emmanuel Petit, Freddie Ljungberg, Robert Pires, Edu, Lauren and Kolo Toure were among his finest acquisitions.

One-off: Don't expect a Lionel Messi clone at Arsenal any time soon

One-off: Don't expect a Lionel Messi clone at Arsenal any time soon

Mastermind: Wenger's scouting network uncovered the likes of Patrick Vieira

Mastermind: Wenger's scouting network uncovered the likes of Patrick Vieira

When they were winning trophies he was the supreme talent-spotter, well ahead of the rest in England.

Wenger said: ‘People want to see the next Lionel Messi – they don’t want to see a promising guy. The name of the player gives people hope, but when they haven’t heard of them people are already sceptical.

‘It’s much more difficult for us now. The competition is higher. We are trying to diversify a bit more because we are limited in England. A new market that is very interesting is Japan – it’s very competitive.

‘The country where we were really competitive in the past was France, but they produce less top players than they did, say, 15 years ago.

‘The emerging countries look to be Germany and Spain – they have taken over from France and they have many good, young players.’

One of them, Lewis Holtby, plays in Germany for Schalke 04 and Wenger admitted on Thursday that he is interested in signing him.

On the radar: German international midfielder Lewis Holtby

On the radar: German international midfielder Lewis Holtby

Holtby, 22, has made it clear that he will not be signing a new contract at the Veltins-Arena and will be leaving at the end of the season on a free transfer. Wenger added: ‘We have looked at him, yes,’ but that is as far as he would be drawn on the Germany midfielder.

He also admitted that Chelsea’s latest recruit, Demba Ba, was a target last summer, but he opted instead for Montpellier forward Olivier Giroud.

Wenger said: ‘It was Giroud or Demba Ba in the summer — they are very similar players. I was a bit cautious about the noises on Ba’s knee injury, but someone told me the problem he has is manageable and can be prevented.’

Wenger has other targets in January, but Arsenal are being out-manoeuvred by Manchester United in the chase for Crystal Palace winger Wilfried Zaha.

In terms of trophy-winning potential, Arsenal cannot compete with United and they are aware that Zaha is right at the top of Sir Alex Ferguson’s wishlist.

Second favourites: Arsenal are behind United in the running for Zaha

Second favourites: Arsenal are behind United in the running for Zaha

With Theo Walcott expected to sign a new contract with Arsenal in the coming weeks, it may be that Wenger’s interest in the Championship’s best young player fades.

Instead he will turn to the Continent again, reminding his scouts that the demand at Arsenal is to sign only the best talent.

Wenger conceded on Thursday that although he was aware of Michu before he signed for Swansea in the summer, he didn’t realise quite what a threat he would prove in the Premier League.

Over the Ba; Wenger declined the chance to sign the Newcastle striker last summer and instead chose Olivier Giroud

Over the Ba; Wenger declined the chance to sign the Newcastle striker last summer and instead chose Olivier Giroud

On Sunday the Gunners will come across him again when they travel to the Liberty Stadium for their FA Cup third-round tie against Swansea.

Wenger added: ‘Honestly, Michu was not on our radar. You needed to have really deep knowledge of the market in Spain to do that. Michael Laudrup did because he has the connections.

‘We keep our scouts alert, but when you are a big club like Arsenal your scouts are a little bit more cautious about players.

‘Naturally they are less likely to look at players with smaller clubs. But what Michu is doing is not accidental. He is a really good player.’

Arsene Wenger reveals scouting methods; Lewis Holtby Arsenal target

Wenger reveals the secrets behind his window shopping… and he's after Holtby

By
Neil Ashton

PUBLISHED:

22:30 GMT, 3 January 2013

|

UPDATED:

00:41 GMT, 4 January 2013

As time ticks on in the January transfer window, Arsene Wenger offered a fascinating insight into modern-day recruitment methods on Thursday.

Stressing that the job was tougher than when he arrived at Arsenal in September 1996, he admitted that the pressure is always on ‘to find the next Lionel Messi’.

Wenger’s exceptional record in the transfer market, especially in his early years as Arsenal’s manager, is up there with the very best. Patrick Vieira, Thierry Henry, Emmanuel Petit, Freddie Ljungberg, Robert Pires, Edu, Lauren and Kolo Toure were among his finest acquisitions.

Mastermind: Wenger's scouting network uncovered the likes of Patrick Vieira

Mastermind: Wenger's scouting network uncovered the likes of Patrick Vieira

When they were winning trophies he was the supreme talent-spotter, well ahead of the rest in England.

Wenger said: ‘People want to see the next Lionel Messi – they don’t want to see a promising guy. The name of the player gives people hope, but when they haven’t heard of them people are already sceptical.

‘It’s much more difficult for us now. The competition is higher. We are trying to diversify a bit more because we are limited in England. A new market that is very interesting is Japan – it’s very competitive.

‘The country where we were really competitive in the past was France, but they produce less top players than they did, say, 15 years ago.

‘The emerging countries look to be Germany and Spain – they have taken over from France and they have many good, young players.’

One of them, Lewis Holtby, plays in Germany for Schalke 04 and Wenger admitted on Thursday that he is interested in signing him.

On the radar: German international midfielder Lewis Holtby

On the radar: German international midfielder Lewis Holtby

Holtby, 22, has made it clear that he will not be signing a new contract at the Veltins-Arena and will be leaving at the end of the season on a free transfer. Wenger added: ‘We have looked at him, yes,’ but that is as far as he would be drawn on the Germany midfielder.

He also admitted that Chelsea’s latest recruit, Demba Ba, was a target last summer, but he opted instead for Montpellier forward Olivier Giroud.

Wenger said: ‘It was Giroud or Demba Ba in the summer — they are very similar players. I was a bit cautious about the noises on Ba’s knee injury, but someone told me the problem he has is manageable and can be prevented.’

Wenger has other targets in January, but Arsenal are being out-manoeuvred by Manchester United in the chase for Crystal Palace winger Wilfried Zaha.

In terms of trophy-winning potential, Arsenal cannot compete with United and they are aware that Zaha is right at the top of Sir Alex Ferguson’s wishlist.

Second favourites: Arsenal are behind United in the running for Zaha

Second favourites: Arsenal are behind United in the running for Zaha

With Theo Walcott expected to sign a new contract with Arsenal in the coming weeks, it may be that Wenger’s interest in the Championship’s best young player fades.

Instead he will turn to the Continent again, reminding his scouts that the demand at Arsenal is to sign only the best talent.

Wenger conceded on Thursday that although he was aware of Michu before he signed for Swansea in the summer, he didn’t realise quite what a threat he would prove in the Premier League.

On Sunday the Gunners will come across him again when they travel to the Liberty Stadium for their FA Cup third-round tie against Swansea.

Wenger added: ‘Honestly, Michu was not on our radar. You needed to have really deep knowledge of the market in Spain to do that. Michael Laudrup did because he has the connections.

‘We keep our scouts alert, but when you are a big club like Arsenal your scouts are a little bit more cautious about players.

‘Naturally they are less likely to look at players with smaller clubs. But what Michu is doing is not accidental. He is a really good player.’

Theo Walcott should copy Thierry Henry – Martin Keown

Walcott should learn from the master… when Henry was in the zone there was no stopping him

|

UPDATED:

09:18 GMT, 31 December 2012

When Thierry Henry was in the zone, he was driven, there was a real fierce determination about him.

You could see it in his eyes. And I think that is coming into Theo Walcott's make-up now.

At the moment, the reason for this is that he wants to prove he deserves to stay at the club. But when that is taken care of, he needs to carry on producing.

In the zone: Thierry Henry gave his team-mates hope with his drive and determination

In the zone: Thierry Henry gave his team-mates hope with his drive and determination

Walcott needs to want it for wanting's sake. He needs to stay in this same thought process because it is bringing the best out of him at the moment.

When Walcott went home on Saturday night, he must have felt like a proud man – on top of the world with a tremendous feeling of satisfaction.

He needs to want to produce that same feeling next time he steps out on the pitch.

You do not stop until you feel that joy of winning, and that comes from scoring the goals that win matches.

Henry gave us tremendous hope. Without those players, you do not finish off the hard work because you don't score goals.

This transition from winger to centre forward has been seven years in the making and the club have probably been waiting for this to happen.

And right now, it's like Walcott is saying: 'Take a look at me at centre forward. This is where I really want to play.'

Main man: Walcott was in exceptional form against Newcastle

Main man: Walcott was in exceptional form against Newcastle

Expertly done: Theo Walcott showed his ability to play in the middle for Arsenal

Expertly done: Theo Walcott showed his ability to play in the middle for Arsenal

There is much more purpose and precision, and there seems to be a shift in his mentality, underlined by the way he took his third goal.

Walcott gets knocked to the ground but bounces back up again looking for a goal. There's that hunger to score – the same hunger Henry had.

Furthermore, his first goal had all the precision of Henry. And for me, that is the difference; he is more clinical in front of goal.

There was not the consistency to his finishing three or four years ago, but that consistency is there now. And I think that has come with a change of mindset.

Yes, he has maybe proved a point. But what he has to focus on is scoring goals and winning games for Arsenal. It's not about just performing well and looking good.

I think maybe, in the past, there has been that element to his game. But if you focus on what matters, winning football matches, it is easier as a professional footballer to go out there and do well.

Back in town: Henry is currently back training with his former club

Back in town: Henry is currently back training with his former club

The Walcott should copy Thierry Henry – Martin Keown

Walcott should learn from the master… when Henry was in the zone there was no stopping him

|

UPDATED:

23:35 GMT, 30 December 2012

When Thierry Henry was in the zone, he was driven, there was a real fierce determination about him.

You could see it in his eyes. And I think that is coming into Theo Walcott's make-up now.

At the moment, the reason for this is that he wants to prove he deserves to stay at the club. But when that is taken care of, he needs to carry on producing.

In the zone: Thierry Henry gave his team-mates hope with his drive and determination

In the zone: Thierry Henry gave his team-mates hope with his drive and determination

Walcott needs to want it for wanting's sake. He needs to stay in this same thought process because it is bringing the best out of him at the moment.

When Walcott went home on Saturday night, he must have felt like a proud man – on top of the world with a tremendous feeling of satisfaction.

He needs to want to produce that same feeling next time he steps out on the pitch.

You do not stop until you feel that joy of winning, and that comes from scoring the goals that win matches.

Henry gave us tremendous hope. Without those players, you do not finish off the hard work because you don't score goals.

This transition from winger to centre forward has been seven years in the making and the club have probably been waiting for this to happen.

And right now, it's like Walcott is saying: 'Take a look at me at centre forward. This is where I really want to play.'

Main man: Walcott was in exceptional form against Newcastle

Main man: Walcott was in exceptional form against Newcastle

Expertly done: Theo Walcott showed his ability to play in the middle for Arsenal

Expertly done: Theo Walcott showed his ability to play in the middle for Arsenal

There is much more purpose and precision, and there seems to be a shift in his mentality, underlined by the way he took his third goal.

Walcott gets knocked to the ground but bounces back up again looking for a goal. There's that hunger to score – the same hunger Henry had.

Furthermore, his first goal had all the precision of Henry. And for me, that is the difference; he is more clinical in front of goal.

There was not the consistency to his finishing three or four years ago, but that consistency is there now. And I think that has come with a change of mindset.

Yes, he has maybe proved a point. But what he has to focus on is scoring goals and winning games for Arsenal. It's not about just performing well and looking good.

I think maybe, in the past, there has been that element to his game. But if you focus on what matters, winning football matches, it is easier as a professional footballer to go out there and do well.

Back in town: Henry is currently back training with his former club

Back in town: Henry is currently back training with his former club

Arsenal 7 Newcastle 3 – match report: Theo Walcott hat-trick

Arsenal 7 Newcastle 3: Walcott hat-trick settles astonishing game as Gunners star shows his worth up front again

|

UPDATED:

19:46 GMT, 29 December 2012

Theo Walcott gave Arsene Wenger yet another reminder of his goal-scoring talents as he bagged a stunning hat-trick to sink Newcastle in a 10-goal thriller at the Emirates Stadium.

Wenger had talked up Walcott as the next Thierry Henry yesterday, and the England forward – still to pen a new deal with the club – did little to disprove that idea today, scoring three excellent goals and setting up two more to give Arsenal the win that ensures they will end 2012 in fifth place, two points behind Chelsea and three adrift of Tottenham with a match in hand.

Arsenal's record scorer Henry was in the stands watching his beloved former club and he was on his feet after 20 minutes thanks to Walcott's opener – a fine curled finish following an Henry-esque break from the halfway line.

Middle man: Theo Walcott scored a brilliant hat-trick as Arsenal thumped seven past a hapless Newcastle

Middle man: Theo Walcott scored a brilliant hat-trick as Arsenal thumped seven past a hapless Newcastle

MATCH FACTS

ARSENAL: Szczesny, Sagna, Koscielny, Vermaelen, Gibbs, Arteta, Wilshere, Cazorla (Coquelin 86), Oxlade Chamberlain (Giroud 74), Podolski (Ramsey 82), Walcott. Subs not used: Mannone, Rosicky, Ramsey, Djourou, Coquelin, Gervinho.

Goals: Walcott 20, 73, 90+1 Oxlade-Chamberlain 50, Podolski 64, Giroud 84, 87.

NEWCASTLE: Krul, Simpson (Ferguson 83), Coloccini, Perch, Santon, Obertan, Bigirimana (Shola Ameobi 82), Tiote, Marveaux (Tavernier 89), Ba, Cisse. Subs not used: Harper, Sammy Ameobi, Abeid, Streete.

Goals: Ba 44, 69 Marveaux 59.

Booked: Santon

Referee: Chris Foy (Merseyside)

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Newcastle pulled level through Demba Ba, but Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain scored, only for Ba to grab his second to make it 2-2.

Arsenal looked set for a
disappointing draw after Sylvain Marveaux equalised Lukasz Podolski's
header, but Walcott turned on the class to put the Gunners 4-3 up.

The former Southampton man set up
Olivier Giroud twice and added his much-deserved third strike in injury
time with a deft chip over Tim Krul.

Walcott has scored four goals and won
one decisive penalty in the three games he has started up front and he
now has 14 for the season.

There were no early indications that
this would turn out to be a thriller in the opening quarter as both
teams started sluggishly.

Other than a couple of bits of skill from Santi Cazorla, Arsenal started poorly.

Walcott, eager to show he can cut it
as a striker, used his pace to break behind the Newcastle defence, but
Krul rushed off his line to clear.

Newcastle, branded a 'wee club in the
north-east' by Sir Alex Ferguson yesterday, had the best chance of the
opening quarter of an hour through Ba who somehow headed over Marveaux's
corner from eight yards.

The quiet atmosphere inside the
Emirates Stadium lifted after 19 minutes when Podolski slotted Walcott
in behind the Magpies defence and the England man raced through before
caressing the ball past Krul in to the far corner.

Remind you of someone Theo Walcott's first goal was vintage Thierry Henry, shaped into the far corner

Remind you of someone Theo Walcott's first goal was vintage Thierry Henry, shaped into the far corner

Remind you of someone Theo Walcott's first goal was vintage Thierry Henry, shaped into the far corner

Remind you of someone Theo Walcott's first goal was vintage Thierry Henry, shaped into the far corner

The goal was reminiscent of many strikes from Henry and thus brought the Frenchman to his feet in the stands.

Walcott was in the thick of the
action again just before half-time, wriggling free from his marker, but
Krul came off his line to stop the 23-year-old's shot.

Cheick Tiote, who scored the
equaliser in February's 4-4 thriller, almost brought the visitors level
six minutes before the break with a swirling 25-yard drive that Wojciech
Szczesny awkwardly punched away.

Walcott immediately flew up the other
end, but he laid a square pass behind the un-marked Cazorla, rather
than in front of him and Gael Bigirimana cut the danger out.

Arsenal were made to pay for the error just over two minutes from the break.

Bacary Sagna fouled Gabriel Obertan
25 yards out and Ba's resulting set-piece flew off Jack Wilshere's head
in to the Arsenal goal past the stranded Szczesny.

Level: Demba Ba's deflected free-kick meant the sides went in on terms at the break

Level: Demba Ba's deflected free-kick meant the sides went in on terms at the break

Level: Demba Ba's deflected free-kick meant the sides went in on terms at the break

Arsenal came out much stronger after
the break. Kieran Gibbs drew a save from Krul at his near post shortly
before Oxlade-Chamberlain beat the Dutchman to make it 2-1.

Podolski intercepted a weak throw-in,
heading the ball to Cazorla, who found Oxlade-Chamberlain and he made
no mistake with a fine low drive from 20 yards.

Walcott somehow muscled Tiote off the ball and charged at goal, but he dragged his shot horribly wide.

England expects: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain restored the lead with a fierce finish on 50 minutes

England expects: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain restored the lead with a fierce finish on 50 minutes

England expects: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain restored the lead with a fierce finish on 50 minutes

Once again Arsenal were made to pay
as Newcastle equalised. Obertan turned Sagna inside out before his cross
was deflected off Koscielny and in to the path of the un-marked
Marveaux who tapped in to an empty net from barely two yards.

Arsenal were back ahead within five
minutes, however. Wilshere charged at the Newcastle defence and chipped a
wonderful ball to the back post. Coloccini could only head his
clearance against the bar and the ball fell to Podolski who nodded home
the easiest finish of his career to make it 3-2.

The 60,000 fans inside the Emirates Stadium barely had time to draw breath before Newcastle equalised again.

Capitalising: Sylvain Marveaux slotted home his first goal in the Premier League to make it 2-2

Capitalising: Sylvain Marveaux slotted home his first goal in the Premier League to make it 2-2

Brave: Lukas Podolski swung the game back in the favour of the hosts with a smart header from close range

Brave: Lukas Podolski swung the game back in the favour of the hosts with a smart header from close range

Three's a crowd: Ba made the most of slack marking once more to get his side on terms for the third time

Three's a crowd: Ba made the most of slack marking once more to get his side on terms for the third time

Marveaux bought time with his
trickery before swinging a ball to the back post where Ba bustled Gibbs
out of the way to turn the ball past Szczesny.

The home crowd blasted their team's
sloppy defending, but Walcott dug them out of trouble five minutes later
with Arsenal's fourth.

Gibbs slotted the ball across the box
for Podolski, he missed ball, but Walcott was stood just behind him and
he fired in to the roof of Krul's goal.

Composed: Walcott's second was another clever finish under pressure from the men in black and white

Composed: Walcott's second was another clever finish under pressure from the men in black and white

Composed: Walcott's second was another clever finish under pressure from the men in black and white

Giroud then killed off the game with five minutes left, latching on to Walcott's cross to head between Krul's legs.

The Frenchman then rubbed salt in to
Newcastle's wounds by slotting past Krul to make it 6-3 after Walcott
charged at the Toon defence.

Walcott then got the hat-trick he
deserved in injury time, picking himself off the turf after being
flattened by Tiote before chipping the ball over Krul with a brilliant
finish.

Arsenal could have had an eighth in injury time, but Giroud's header hit the bar.

Walcott, wearing a beaming smile, walked off with the match-ball amid chants of 'sign him up' from the home crowd.

Welcome to the party: Olivier Giroud took just a few minutes to get in on the act

Welcome to the party: Olivier Giroud took just a few minutes to get in on the act

Welcome to the party: Olivier Giroud took just a few minutes to get in on the act
.

Juan Mata is like return of Gianfranco Zola to Chelsea

Mata isn't Juan of a kind… Chelsea star is closest to second coming of King Zola

|

UPDATED:

11:27 GMT, 29 December 2012

Chelsea are not a team many people wish well, bar their own supporters. The club's players are even less popular.

John Terry and Ashley Cole regularly come in for dogs' abuse from the terraces, and the likes of Didier Drogba and Dennis Wise also drew ire with ease from opposition fans.

So when people found a diamond in what was widely perceived to be the rough, it was a shock. But lo and behold, Gianfranco Zola arrived from Parma in 1996 and delighted fans of all clubs week in, week out.

Mata of fact: The Spaniard has been in scintillating form this season

Mata of fact: The Spaniard has been in scintillating form this season

When he left SW6 in 2003 at the same time Roman Abramovich arrived, football fans in England were sad. Zola's expression on the pitch, his joy and skill and smile all drew much admiration, with little venom in response.

If a football player becomes extremely popular there is often a backlash from people who become fed up of hearing about them. See Jimmy Bullard and Mario Balotelli for details. Even Premier League legends like Ryan Giggs and Thierry Henry have their detractors.

Zola didn't, and seemed like he was one of a kind. But then in the summer of 2011, while Chelsea was under the stewardship of Andre Villas-Boas, a young man by the name of Juan Mata arrived.

Much of the talk around Stamford Bridge was concerned with how, where and if Mata would fit in. If he would be strong enough or quick enough for English football. If this 23-and-a-half-year-old was worth the same number in millions of pounds which Chelsea paid for him.

Were the goals he scored for Valencia all he offered Videos on the internet suggested he had an eye for a pass and could whip a ball in. But then if you flicked through the right collection of YouTube clips you could wind up convinced that Jesper Gronkjaer was one of the finest crossers of the ball the top flight has ever seen.

Return of the King Zola spent seven years at Stamford Bridge

Return of the King Zola spent seven years at Stamford Bridge

Return of the King Zola spent seven years at Stamford Bridge

However, Mata made an instant impact
at the Bridge by scoring in his first match after coming on as a
substitute and his career has taken an upward trajectory ever since.

He soon became the key – and often
even the only – creative outlet to Villas-Boas' side. Mata forged
chance after chance for Didier Drogba and Fernando Torres, while colleagues Florent Malouda and Salomon Kalou floundered.

Mata consistently took the plaudits even as the team lost momentum and form, leading to Villas-Boas’ dismissal. Roberto Di Matteo took the reins but the Spaniard did not bat an eyelid, continuing as impressively as before.

He helped Chelsea earn the FA Cup and Champions League trophies in a successful albeit unorthodox year at the club. Across the board he was picking up nods and mentions, and, like Zola before him, rarely attracted a mean-spirited comment.

Five for free on Mata

1. It's not just on the pitch he's smart. Mata is studying for two degrees, one in marketing and one in sports science.

2. He is a home town hero. In Oviedo, Spain, they have opened 'Juan Mata Park' and his youth team decided to rename their stadium after him.

3. Mata runs his own social media accounts, including his Twitter feed, his Instagram account and his blog.

4. He rose to the fore at Valencia after current Manchester City star David Silva left.

5. Real Madrid allowed Mata to leave on a free transfer at the age of 19.

And the comparisons to Zola started
to gather pace. Even visually Mata, at 5ft 7, is only one inch taller
than the Italian and both players had heads which appear fractionally
too big for their diminutive frames.

Mata also plays with a smile – and
some of the artistry he is responsible for could only have been conjured
by someone with a deep love for the game.

As well as enjoying taking to the field, Mata watches a lot of football at home too – especially La Liga. He writes about it on his blog, ‘One Hour Behind’ – in Spanish and then again in near perfect English.

And if you read the comment section below each entry, you will discover the blog is a rare section of the internet which has avoided the usual mudslinging. It is hard to imagine another footballer who would receive such solely positive feedback.

But then Mata does little to enrage opponents or fans. Unlike many players of a creative disposition and slight build, he does not dive and often attempts to stay on his feet despite being pulled back.

During the year-and-a-half which has passed since Mata signed for Chelsea, he has virtually been playing non-stop, so there’s been plenty of opportunity to expose him as ‘one of those diving foreign types’.

But between August 2011, via the Champions League run, Euro 2012, the Olympics and the new Premier League season, until today, Mata has only brought delight to football fans.

From the preciseness of his passing, to its scope and incisiveness, to some of the strikes he has to his name, here is a rare thing. A footballer as superb as he is likeable.

And this season he can lay claim to being the finest in the top flight. When he returned from the Olympics he was visibly tired and was sent on a two week break. After he returned, he has been unstoppable.

All action: Mata followed Champions League glory with victory at the Euros

All action: Mata followed Champions League glory with victory at the Euros

All action: Mata followed Champions League glory with victory at the Euros

'It was just common sense to give him
a break and the way he’s performing suggests it was very welcome by his
body and his mind,’ said Di Matteo.

'Juan Mata is a very intelligent man and I talked to him about this idea; he bought into it and saw the benefits of it.'

His poise and balance are as good as they have always been, but what has really improved is his eye for goal (see below to find out why).

Mata already has 13 goals and 14 assists this term in 28 games, compared to 12 and 20 in 54 respectively last year, in all competitions for Chelsea. Essentially that means he has made a key contribution to a goal in every single one of his matches this season, bar one.

Mata stats… 2011-12

Games played: 54

Minutes played: 4075

Goals: 12

Minutes per goal: 339.6

Total shots: 82

Shots on target: 44

Shot conversion: 15%

Assists: 20

Yellow cards: 3

Red cards : 0

Mata stats 2012-13

Games played: 28

Minutes played: 2201

Goals: 13

Minutes per goal: 169.3

Total shots: 43

Shots on target: 24

Shot conversion: 30%

Assists: 14

Yellow cards: 1

Red cards:0

And he has adapted seamlessly to life under Rafael Benitez. His superb goal against Norwich on Boxing Day was yet another flash of magic which won Chelsea a match.

He has even praised Chelsea's interim coach without drawing fire from sceptical Blues fans who remain at loggerheads with the club over his appointment.

Ask fans at Carrow Road who the best player on the pitch was at the weekend, and they will tell you the answer was Juan Mata. Visit any of the stadiums Chelsea have played at this season, ask the same question, and you're likely to receive the same response.

Chelsea were blessed with one outstanding – and widely appreciated – talent in Zola. Mata is well on his way to emulating the little magician. Quite a few Chelsea fans will tell you he’s done it already.

How has Mata's productivity increased so significantly this year

Mata described Drogba’s departure from Chelsea as an electric shock and said the club have had to work hard to adapt to life without the talismanic striker. Mata’s game has certainly adapted.

In 2011-12 he was often deployed in attacking position on the left, to supply the ball aerially for the Ivorian. This meant Mata was not always in a useful position to add to his own goal tally. But when Di Matteo took over from Villas-Boas he began to play Mata more centrally, where he improved.

At the start of this season Mata was picked by Di Matteo on the right, with Oscar in the middle and Eden Hazard on the left. This gave him the chance to cut inside and shoot from a central position with his favoured left-foot, as well as supplying through-balls to Fernando Torres.

Man of the moment: Mata scored a stunner in the victory over Norwich

Man of the moment: Mata scored a stunner in the victory over Norwich

Since Benitez has arrived he has selected Victor Moses on the right wing and pushed Mata into the middle again, where he is arguably at his most effective and creative. His goals against West Ham and Norwich came as Mata sprang from this area of the pitch.

Frank Lampard’s incredible goal-hauls for the Blues have often led people to believe his eventual departure will be a massive blow for Chelsea. While he will be missed, Mata’s contribution will ensure it is only for sentimental reasons.

Arsenal keen to sign Nani from Manchester United

EXCLUSIVE: We let you have RVP, now sell Nani to us on the cheap: Arsenal set to swoop for United winger

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UPDATED:

22:57 GMT, 28 December 2012

Arsenal are using Manchester United’s swoop for Robin van Persie as leverage in their chase for misfit Nani.

The Gunners have opened talks with United over a January move for the Portugal winger.

The Old Trafford club want in the region of 20million for Nani, who has fallen out of favour with manager Sir Alex Ferguson.

Top target: Nani is wanted by Arsenal

Top target: Nani is wanted by Arsenal

But Arsenal want a cheaper fee and are highlighting Van Persie’s summer move north in their attempts to secure a lower price.

The Holland striker’s 24m move to Old Trafford was largely smooth and pain-free. And the north London club are using the fact they did not turn Van Persie’s switch into a drawn-out saga as a bargaining tool in their discussions for Nani.

Sportsmail revealed Arsene Wenger’s interest in the 26-year-old winger earlier this month. Chelsea are also emerging as contenders to sign Nani.

Meanwhile, Everton’s Nikica Jelavic is the latest striker Arsenal have looked at in their search for a new centre forward next month.

On the fringes: Nani has struggled to hold down a place in the United starting XI this season due to injury and poor form

On the fringes: Nani has struggled to hold down a place in the United starting XI this season due to injury and poor form

A senior scout ran the rule over the Croatia star in Everton’s 2-1 win over West Ham on December 22.

Arsenal also have a strong interest in Southampton’s 17-year-old left back Luke Shaw.

Wenger will continue to play Theo Walcott at centre forward as he attempts to repeat the conversion trick he performed with Thierry Henry.

Walcott has responded superbly upon getting his chance to play up front during the last two Arsenal games — key wins at Reading and Wigan which steadied the team after their shock Capital One Cup loss at Bradford.

On the radar: Arsenal are also considering a move for Everton's Nikica Jelavic

On the radar: Arsenal are also considering a move for Everton's Nikica Jelavic

‘I like the signs I have seen,’ said Wenger. ‘It is an interesting challenge. I think he can take it on. I always said that one day he would play through the middle and it grew in his brain.

‘He is now 23. I decided to play Thierry Henry at 23 through the middle because you have to learn a lot before.

‘The fact that you play in other positions as well helps your technique. On the wing you need a shorter technique against the line, once you play in the middle you can go on both sides. From the age of 19 to 23, Theo has learnt a lot. Now we will sometimes play him on the flanks, sometimes through the middle.

‘Let’s not put him under too much pressure. He has played two games and you have to be open-minded in our job and give people a chance. If they take it, it’s good. If they don’t, he will still be a fantastic winger.

Back again: Arsene Wenger (right) is considering a loan move for Henry, who trained at Arsenal on Friday

Back again: Arsene Wenger (right) is considering a loan move for Henry, who trained at Arsenal on Friday

‘I am confident he will do well. It’s a bit early to compare him to Thierry Henry but Thierry gives him advice. It’s always important. Theo’s a very intelligent boy. He understands very quickly when you tell him something. That’s why I think he can do very well in this position.’

Arsenal’s contract talks with Walcott have reopened but there is no agreement imminent. His deal expires in the summer, but he has rejected the offer on the table and from Tuesday will be eligible under the Bosman rules to agree a deal to join an overseas club on a free transfer at the end of the season.

‘I want him to stay and I have always been consistent on that,’ said Wenger.

Down the middle: Wenger is considering playing Walcott in a central role more often

Down the middle: Wenger is considering playing Walcott in a central role more often

In addition to Nani, Wenger is in pursuit of Barcelona’s David Villa, but he has not ruled out another short-term loan deal to bring Henry back to the club for a third time.

The 35-year-old New York Red Bulls striker, who scored twice in seven games on loan at the Emirates last year, trained with Arsenal yesterday as part of his programme to stay in shape during the MLS close season.

‘I’ve not lost interest in him,’ said Wenger. ‘He’s coming to practise with us. He’s in better physical shape than he was last time he was here. Our relationship is very close. I have not completely ruled it out but I have not spoken about it with him at all.

‘He has had a second spell at the club that was very successful. You have to be cautious that it’s not one time too many.’

2012 football review: people of the months – Michael Walker

From the return of the King to the magic of Messi… the people of the months of 2012

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UPDATED:

23:08 GMT, 23 December 2012

As a dramatic and memorable 2012 draws to a close, Michael Walker looks back on a year on the footballing road, naming his people of the month from January through to December…

January: Thierry Henry

They will not forget 9/1/12 in north London. It was the night King Henry came back to Arsenal, hopped off the bench and scored the only goal in an FA Cup third-round tie against Leeds. They were crying out for a special occasion at the stadium. Henry walked past his statue outside the ground and delivered.

Return of the King: Henry celebrates netting the winner against Leeds

Return of the King: Henry celebrates netting the winner against Leeds

February: Eddie Howe

In his Burnley office, one of England's brightest young managers discussed the fact that the Premier League had just three English managers while, in the Championship, there were 17. 'Strange', was Howe's assessment. Adkins and Allardyce have since upped the numbers. Howe's back at Bournemouth.

March: Pete Williams

On a bitter Tuesday night in Burslem, Pete Williams was outside Port Vale's grand old ground with a bucket. It is people like Williams – supporters – who keep clubs going. Vale's future was in doubt in March. They had entered administration and been docked 10 points. Thanks to fans such as Williams, Vale are going again, second in League Two.

April: Brian McDermott

It was easier being Reading's manager in April. The club had just returned to the Premier League by winning 14 of 16 league games from the end of January. The previous May's play-off final defeat could be forgotten and McDermott spoke of his 'lovely club'. Along the way, he turned down Wolves. Some people may choose to forget that.

Man of the hour: McDermott is hoisted aloft by his players after securing the Championship title

Man of the hour: McDermott is hoisted aloft by his players after securing the Championship title

May: Harry Gregg

48 hours after Manchester United had the title snatched out of their hands by Sergio Aguero, Sir Alex Ferguson took his players to Belfast to honour Harry Gregg. Sometimes the build-up to testimonials is more meaningful than the game and, in the programme, Ferguson recalled hearing of the 1958 Munich crash and wrote: 'Harry, for this 16-yearold from Govan, you were and remain my hero.'

June: Vicente Del Bosque

Remember when Spain were boring In northern Poland, Del Bosque was flabbergasted at the lack of understanding of his team's style, and the non-stop chatter. He was visibly bemused: Spain were about to become the first country in history to win three major tournaments in a row. Del Bosque reminisced to a time when there was less noise inside and outside the game, to a time when 'dressing rooms were utterly still, like inside a cathedral'.

Champions of Europe: Del Bosque's side parade through the streets of Madrid

Champions of Europe: Del Bosque's side parade through the streets of Madrid

July: Stewart Regan

Thunderous July rain in Glasgow accompanied an apocalyptic vision. Regan, the SFA chief executive, reacted to Rangers' shock exclusion from the SPL by inviting reporters upstairs at Hampden Park to warn of 'Armageddon' and 'the game withering on the vine' if Rangers were forced to re-start below Scottish Division One. A month later, Rangers drew 2- 2 at Peterhead in Division Three.

August: Rob Green

He didn't look happy and you could understand why. After six years at West Ham, Green joined QPR. His debut was a 5-0 home defeat by Swansea. Yet, 10 days later, against Walsall in the League Cup, it got worse. QPR won 3-0, but up in the stands was Julio Cesar. QPR were making a statement. Green, given no explanation, was left to read between its lines. Shoddy.

Shunned: Green was harshly treated by QPR

Shunned: Green was harshly treated by QPR

September: Margaret Aspinall

The report from the Hillsborough Independent Panel was a release of sorts for the Family Support Group. Football responded, notably Everton on the night they hosted Newcastle. They played the Hollies' He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother. Margaret recalled that her son James, 18, killed at Hillsborough, had bought the record for her.

October: Georgios Samaras

Unlikely, unfashionable but unflagging, Samaras had a year to remember. He was relentless for Greece at Euro 2012 and, for Celtic, he has been decisive in Europe. It was his deflected header in October that gave them a lead in Barcelona. They lost to a late goal, but we all know what happened when Barca came to Celtic Park two weeks later.

Unlikely hero: Samaras (right) heads home in Barcelona

Unlikely hero: Samaras (right) heads home in Barcelona

November: Chib Chilaka

For a while, it seemed like the most memorable feature of Torquay v Harrogate in the FA Cup first round proper would be the view from Plainmoor. Then, beaming Chilaka popped up for Harrogate to produce a trademark upset. Afterwards, he spoke like an ambassador for the part-time game. It was a classic FA Cup day.

December: Lionel Messi

We are fortunate to be witnessing greatness. Some can moan about the calendar year goal-tally, but not over Messi's talent. He has joined the list of the true greats at 25. Without him, Barcelona would be a very good team; with him, they are as good a side as has been seen. A prediction for 2013, or more like a guess: Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea (again) and Arsenal will have new managers in place by August. For United, that would mean the end of the Ferguson era. It is difficult to behold, but if another title or European Cup comes, it would be an appropriately successful way for Ferguson to go. But it is an if.

The world's greatest: Messi celebrates yet another goal for Barcelona

The world's greatest: Messi celebrates yet another goal for Barcelona

David Villa on Arsenal radar as Arsene Wenger ponders swoop for Barcelona star

EXCLUSIVE: Arsenal chase Barcelona star Villa as Wenger aims to bolster attacking options

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UPDATED:

22:04 GMT, 21 December 2012

Arsenal are exploring an audacious swoop for Barcelona striker David Villa.

And Wojciech Szczesny's future as the Gunners' first-choice goalkeeper is growing increasingly uncertain with Sunderland custodian Simon Mignolet the latest to emerge as a January target.

But it is the possible capture of Villa that will excite Arsenal fans going into the festive period.

Wanted: Arsenal could make an audacious swoop for Barcelona striker Villa

Wanted: Arsenal could make an audacious swoop for Barcelona striker Villa

Arsene Wenger and his backroom team have discussed a January swoop for Villa, a forward the Gunners boss has admired for several years.

The Gunners would rather take the 31-year-old on loan until the end of the season, with a view to a permanent deal depending on how he takes to the Premier League.

But if the price is right, Arsenal would stretch to a long term deal in January.

Keeping the bench warm: Villa has become frustrated with a lack of first-team opportunities at Barcelona

Keeping the bench warm: Villa has become frustrated with a lack of first-team opportunities at Barcelona

Sources in Spain indicate Barca could let Villa leave should he indicate a preference to depart given his lack of first-team football.

Wenger has made bolstering his strikeforce a top priority next month.

Klass-Jan Huntelaar, Adrian Lopez and Edin Dzeko all feature on Wenger's list, while Thierry Henry is expected to return for a third spell at the club.

That's handy: Henry is set for a return to Arsenal in January

That's handy: Henry is set for a return to Arsenal in January

Wenger's search for a new goalkeeper to challenge Szczesny has seen him turn to the impressive Mignolet.

The Arsenal manager is unhappy with the level of competition Szczesny has at the moment and wants an experienced keeper to push the young Pole and even replace him.

Pepe Reina, Asmir Begovic and Michel Vorm are other goalkeeping possibilities.

Approach: Arsenal are poised to make a bid for Sunderland stopper Mignolet

Approach: Arsenal are poised to make a bid for Sunderland stopper Mignolet

Szczesny is unlikely to be happy about the prospect of sitting on the bench should the new arrival push him out of the starting XI.

Meanwhile, Crystal Palace starlet Wilfried Zaha is set to decide on a move to either Manchester United or Arsenal next month.

The England international has privately set his heart on leaving Selhurst Park in January for a move to an elite top flight club.

And it is understood Zaha is weighing up solid offers from Old Trafford and the Emirates Stadium.