Thursday, April 23, 2009

Gang of Four: Great Individual Seasons

A new semi-regular feature gets its debut today on UF, with some memories of four great seasons by four great players.

1. Ronaldo - Barcelona, 1996/97
Though we have plenty of evidence as to how great the now-fat and hobbled Brazilian was, one season in particular stands out above the rest. Having racked up 55 goals in 57 appearances for PSV over two seasons, his quality was undeniable, but a summer transfer to La Liga, several notches above the Eredivisie in difficulty and quality, would provide indisputable proof.

In just one season for the Catalans, Ronaldo scored 47 in 49 games across all competitions, including the winner from the penalty spot in the Cup Winners' Cup Final against Paris Saint-Germain.

The fit at Barca was perfect; with a bullish midfield of Guardiola, de la Pena, Luis Enrique and Gheorghe Popescu that excelled at relieving the opposition of possession, Ronaldo was supported up front by Luis Figo, another elegant yet predatory forward whose passing provided much of the Brazilian's bounty.

Though the team fell short of La Liga glory by a mere 2 points to Real Madrid (a team blessed with 24-goal Davor Suker and 21-goal Raul), the Catalans completed a memorable treble, lifting the CWC, the Copa Del Rey, and the Spanish Super Cup thanks to Ronaldo's brilliance.

Watching highlights of his antics that season (Part 1 above, Part 2 here), you see what could have been if he didn't suffer several injury setbacks (between 1999 and 2002, he played just 17 games). Bobby Robson, the Barca manager that year (and England boss before that), had the same view: "if he managed to stay free of serious injury, he had every chance of becoming the best footballer ever. And I stand by that."

There are goals to satisfy every sensibility; mazy, Maradona-esque dribbles through a throng of defenders tackling the air, thunderous long-range efforts from all angles, straight sprints to goal finished with a playful tap-in... he was, and still might be, the ultimate human highlight reel.

Of course, Ronaldo is one of the greats simply because he managed to be the world's best in two different eras; once at full health with his lightning speed intact, and again in 2002 without it. Still, for my money, it doesn't get much better than that 1996/97 season. Take 20 minutes to watch his whole oeuvre that season, and I'm sure you'll agree.

If you're still not convinced, watch the goal beginning at 2:11, the one that against Compostela that was replayed everywhere from CNN to Sky Sports. Is there a single opposition player he doesn't beat with the ball at his feet? Robson's stunned expression at the end of it, hands on head and eyes wide, confirms Ronaldo's majesty.

2. Cristiano Ronaldo - Manchester United, 2007/08
I know, I know, I know; he's the worst thing in football. I know he's insufferable, I know he's loathed for his swagger and his swollen trophy cabinet. I also know how much I personally hate him for everything he's done to keep United on top.

And yet, from a neutral perspective, it's nigh-on impossible to look at the Portuguese winger's season in '07 and not be amazed. 42 goals in 49 games from the wing, where pace and crossing are paramount, the versatile attacker shrugged off the criticism and the hate to lead United to the EPL/CL double, scoring in just about every way imaginable.

The team assembled around him played their part also, but to discredit his irritating knack of scoring crucial goals would be a mistake. There's the free-kick against Pompey, above. Or the backheel against Aston Villa? Or the crucial late goal against Derby? Or even the first of his brace against Everton?

It didn't matter what approach defenders took to gameplan against him. Isolating him on the wing never worked because of his ball skill with both feet. Fouling him, or any other United attacker, was a mistake because of his mastery from the set-piece. For every action against him, he had an answer.

Having shown his promise in previous years, 2007/08 was when everything finally clicked and rightly so, he cleaned up just about every award there was for an individual to win; all the PFA awards, selection to the UEFA Team of the Year, the FIFPro World XI, Merit Awards, the EPL Player of the Season, the EPL Golden Boot, FIFPro World Player of the Year, the Ballon D'Or, UEFA Club Footballer of the Year, and many more.

Not bad for a guy who didn't score his first league goal of the season until September 29th.

It is a prolific haul that illustrates just what a dilemma awaits Ferguson in the off-season; to sell his arrogance for a pretty price while losing the on-pitch performance, or swallow his pride in order to retain his services. Not an easy choice, by any means.

3. Michael Ballack - Bayer Leverkusen, 2001/02
This one comes with a monumental caveat: Bayer finished runner-up in all 3 competitions that they dominated that season, suggesting that the scope of Ballack's influence wasn't nearly as profound as it actually was. However, that couldn't be further from the truth (though Ballack did contribute to their Bundesliga failure on the last day, scoring an OG in a 2-0 loss where a draw would have given them the trophy). Without Ballack's contributions, they wouldn't have come close to winning anything.

Ballack, another player on this list who has suffered with the injury bug, put together his finest season once he was finally allowed to play the role he was born to play. Having shown flashes of his mercurial ways at Kaiserslautern, Ballack was let loose in attacking midfield, where he'd score 25 goals.

Freed of his defensive responsibilities thanks to the ankle-biting tandem of Bernd Schneider and Carsten Ramelow, Ballack thrived in supporting Oliver Neuville's ponderous efforts in front of him.

Ballack doubled the scoring output of anyone else in the squad, single-handedly dragging his team through the Champions League where they ran out of steam against Real Madrid (after all, who could compete against Figo, Zidane, Raul and Morientes, with Makelele nuking any attack that came near the 18-yard-box?). Oh, and Zidane's wonder goal that killed off the tie.

The quarter-final, 2nd leg at home to Liverpool was the pick of his performances that year; with a 2-1 lead midway through the 2nd half, the Reds missed several glorious chances to put the game out of reach before being overwhelmed by Ballack's constant menace moving forward. Leverkusen ran out 4-2 winners. Liverpool had no answer for his physicality and persistence, but they weren't alone that season.

4. Alan Shearer - Blackburn Rovers, 1994/95
While the biggest talking point that season remains Eric Cantona's kung-fu kick into the crowd during an FA Cup game at Crystal Palace, it's hard to overlook the season's 2nd biggest story: the millions of Blackburn lad and steel magnate Jack Walker helping the local team usurp league holders Manchester United on the final day of the season.

The feat, herculean in context, could have only been possible with Alan Shearer tapping in goals from all angles against any and all competition. (If you want to be cynical, it could only have been possible first with Walker's millions.)

In 1991, Rovers were in the 2nd Division, forever admiring the top flight like a kid stood in the cold looking at toys in a store window, nose pressed against the glass in awe of what was contained within. With Walker's finances, the club spent at a Chelsea-esque rate a full decade before anyone in the soccer world even knew who Roman Abramovich was, buying goalie Tim Flowers for a then-record 2 million pounds, and then smashing their own feat with a 3.3 million pound purchase of Shearer.

In a 4-4-2 with Chris Sutton as his wingman, he was unstoppable, scoring 34 of the duo's 49 goals in the league and despite losing twice in contentious circumstances to United that year, they prevailed.

Easily one of the greats within the 6-yard-box, the comparisons with Gary Lineker, another close-range predator, were completely justified. He appeared to possess a singular skill set on the pitch; lurking around the box for 90 minutes, he put the fear of God into some of England's best defenders of the era, an impossible force to stop.

Make no mistake that Blackburn were the first real "money-built" team of the 90s; yet Shearer, with his personality and character firmly rooted in the working class, made it rather easy to forget.


EbullientFatalist said...

This is a great feature. More, please.

WhiteSpeedReceiver said...

Excellent work. More, please.

jape said...

Third. As in I third the "more please" comments.

Mike Georger said...

Bolo Zenden 2006/2007 Liverpool

EbullientFatalist said...

I'd forgot the force of Shearer's finishing. The power of his shots - his headers! - is amazing. Even off a deadball.

The Fan's Attic said...

I'm here for the gangbang.

jjf3 said...

as a late-arriving Rovers fan, the footage I've seen of him that season is simply incredible...if he and the ball were both close to goal, it was already in...

shit, just posting this might talk me into buying a Shearer-worn shirt from that season...

Lingering Bursitis said...

jjf3: he was God of the Penalty Area. He'd score from anywhere if you gave him the ball.

Glad everyone's liking the feature... I have several more lined up for the coming weeks already!

jjf3 said...

1) great feature, and what he did still amazes me. And, no, I don't care if Jack Walker was Roman Abramovich before Roman ever existed...I, as a late-adopting fan, love watching the PL and FA "Archives" that get shown in the summer, and seeing these players I know by name actually play in their own time and environment is impressive

2) just for you LB (and only for me): I don't really care, but I was gone from work the week my "prize" should have appeared. Have the shipping dept been holding out on me, not realizing I'm back, or did it never ship? just curious...

ü75 said...

Ronaldo really hasn't been the same sine his alleged seizure at WC98.

Lingering Bursitis said...

u75: that's a bit unfair. He had a renaissance at Real Madrid... 4 strong seasons from 2002-2006, playing as a Shearer-esque predator in the box. The pace had gone, but the goalscoring instinct was still there.

ü75 said...

you're a bit unfair