Today we continue with our countdown of the best Asian footballers of 2015, after we published the first batch (91-100) two days ago. In this segment we look at the only Indian player in the #SFGTop100 list, profiled by our guest contributor Bhargab Sarmah. Wael Jabir and Hamoudi Fayad, co-founders of Ahdaaf, have also assisted alongside our regular writers – Martin Lowe and Tom Danicek – toward players ranked 81-90.
81. Shinji Kagawa
Borussia Dortmund (GER) / Japan / Attacking Midfield
The case for Japan’s most exciting talent was bounded around SFG towers ahead of our production of the SFG Top 100 lists. Should we assess him on his bountiful ability, his underwhelming national team performances or his freewheeling attacking displays at one of Europe’s top clubs? Decidedly, we opted for the latter. In truth, a lot of Kagawa’s critics come from a place of expectation rather than comparisons with fellow Asian exports to Europe. Kagawa’s form for his club has been so explosive, any dip in form, be that during his miserable stay in England to recent national team slumps, has been put under the microscope.
The positives overly surpass the negatives. Since returning to Borussia Dortmund, his undeniable home from home, he’s set off from where he left off, first excelling in a side that struggled last term, but lately at the fulcrum of a title chasing side, threatening to topple European giants Bayern Munich. His fluidity in the transition, which has always gained admirers is back on track, working brilliantly with other worldly talents such as Marco Reus and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in BVB’s attack, Kagawa looks at ease compiling moves as he is finishing with ever increasing regularity.
With all his displays domestically, criticism remains rife for the national team. It was another underwhelming year for Kagawa, as he failed to inspire his side through January’s Asian Cup. To his defence Kagawa has struggled to make an impact in our opinion through tactical incompetence rather than his personal influence. Under Aguirre, Japan lacked the fluidity they should have given the talent at their disposal, while under Halilhodzic he’s done what has needed to be done so far rather than producing anything too eye-catching. But Japan top their group, Kagawa has 3 goals in 6, it’s far from a crisis for their creative hub who remains a joy to watch, irrespective of his perceived lack of form.
Highlight of the Year: Sinking Wolfsburg in the injury time on December 5
A decisive goal, off the bench to beat at the very least a Champions League rival is always going to go down well with your fans, however as an injury time winner following an equaliser a minute before by the opposition, it makes particular waves. Kagawa’s ruthlessness, to make such an inspired impact off the bench illustrated all his abilities finely. The goal that capped an electrifying introduction, was a typical one-touch passing move, started with Kagawa in the centre, before being finished off in the area latching onto Mkhitaryan’s header. More than just a goal, a statement of intent from both club and player going into the New Year. ML
82. Ali Assadalla
Al Sadd (QAT) / Qatar / Attacking Midfield
It could be difficult for a casual observer to assuredly put a finger on how special Ali Assadalla actually is. He has no goals and two assists currently in the ongoing season and his fragile-looking figure may trick you into thinking he’s somewhat lost in the hottest areas of the pitch where he’s usually asked to function as an attacking midfielder.
Yet, the reality should be described much, much differently: Assadalla is not lost, he actually enjoys tight spaces, constantly presses on the opponent’s penalty box, is incredibly hard to dispossess, and through that, he connects many vital dots for Al Sadd.
“His dribbling is, I think, what makes him tick. I mean it’s mostly his penetrating that actually creates or results in set piece situations, he is a player that is fouled quite a lot due to this,” notes Ahmed Hashim, Qatari football expert and Al Sadd supporter. Needless to add that, with Xavi on board every set piece suddenly becomes a considerable threat.
Given his terrific work rate, it indeed sometimes feels as though Asad is everywhere he needs to be. And he causes quiet harm there, too. He may not be any stats king, but if you take his inspiring performance against the high-flying Al Rayyan from a few weeks ago, where he was heavily involved in both goal moves that ultimately ended the opponent’s historic 11-game winning streak, you easily forget about the importance some put on numbers.
One game where Ali Assadalla shone brightly, in almost every respect, was the 15:0 bashing Qatar gave to Bhutan in September. Asad scored a hattrick back then, a first of his career, and while such a one-sided game obviously isn’t a good measure for anything, the fact that Khalfan Ibrahim – not long ago an untouchable continental star – wasn’t anywhere near to be seen is quite telling.
As Ahmed confirms to me, Asad seems more expressive without Khalfan – so much so that he may actually substitute him as the main creator of opportunities and the go-to man in times of crisis. Again, it’s admittedly a small sample, but Ali Assadalla hasn’t shared the starting line-up with Khalfan Ibrahim on five separate occasions in 2015, and under those circumstances, Al-Sadd never lost (winning four times) while registering a stunning 18 goals for as opposed to four goals against. Coincidence?
Highlight of the Year: Flawless display against Lekhwiya in the Champions League
On May 26, something unexpected happened: a Qatari club deliberately chose not to fill up their whole Champions League quota for foreigners. While Lekhwiya, their opponents, would eventually progress to the next elimination round mostly thanks to their magical trio of Weiss-Msakni-Nam (a triumvirate that only rarely gets to share the pitch in the league), Lhoussaine Ammouta had decided to ditch one of his two Brazilian forwards, the former Bundesliga-beater Grafite, to replace him with Ali Assadalla.
And the slight gamble almost worked out. Asad was influential throughout and wasn’t too far from knocking Lekhwiya out on their home soil. First, he had brought Al-Sadd level on aggregate in the 63rd minute, then he almost put them through via late effort which only a fantastic point blank save from Lecomte could’ve prevented from going in.
To no one’s surprise, that moment left many fans wondering ‘what if…?’ – with Ahmed being no exception: “Xavi would have played in the QF against Hilal. Al-Sadd would have changed their transfer policy too, probably not letting go of Al-Mahdi and/or Yousef Ahmed. Imagine Al-Sadd managing to knock Hilal out. They actually did it in the group stages.” TD
83. Habib Fardan
Al-Ahli (UAE) / UAE / Attacking Midfield
Habib Fardan is a player who has been heavily criticised since his move from Al-Nasr to Al-Ahli. Back then, he was being fought over by Al-Ahli and Al-Jazira for a hefty price tag around $9m. Certainly, this price tag raised UAE fans’ concerns mainly due to the fact that he wasn’t even a foreigner and only thrived during one season at Al-Nasr.
His move to the other side of Dubai, recent AFC Champions League finalists Al-Ahli, was a torrid one at the start. He failed to pass well consistently, or to prove his final touch in the attacking third was worthy of a starting spot, and only impressed with his energy which is becoming less lauded in the world of football today.
Towards the end of the 2014-15 season, though, he started to show up and prove effective for Al-Ahli, so much so he would sometimes be in the starting XI ahead of the influential Everton Ribeiro. His performances in the AFC Champions League group stages were eye-catching but only during the last game against Tractor Sazi, the match that saw Al-Ahli overturn a 2-1 deficit to qualify for the next stage in the dying minutes, did his final touch prove valuable.
After producing similar performances during the UAE President’s Cup, Habib Fardan made sure he earned a starting spot with UAE and Al-Ahli come 2015-16. Doing so, he became a mainstay in both sides and is the go-to guy in tight situations within games. His partnership with Majed Hassan is a fantastic one, and it’s only a matter of time before he’s the next man on the list for “ready to move abroad, but will not due to his wages (currently at 11,000 GBP a week) that will most likely increase when interest starts to come in”.
Highlight of the Year: Inspiring the turnaround against Tractor Sazi in the Champions League
Instigating that comeback against Tractor Sazi by weaving through their defenders and playing the ball in to Everton Ribeiro who had it all done for him. Ribeiro scored the equaliser, only for Tractor to re-take the lead. Fardan’s performance in that game was of high quality, and helped Ahmed Khalil to scoring a brace in 5 minutes to allow Al-Ahli into the next round of the Champions League. HF
84. Lee Jong-Ho
Jeonnam Dragons (KOR) / South Korea / Forward
No one has ever truly doubted Lee Jong-Ho’s potential. Ever since his successful 2009 U-17 World Cup campaign, where he created a reasonably effective tandem with Son Heung-Min, the Jeonnam prospect has been developing steadily (albeit not quite as explosive as his strike partner) – eventually turning up as a regular K-League star for this very campaign, at still only 23 years of age.
Now with his fourth season as a regular starter wrapped up, you can clearly see how brilliantly Lee Jong-Ho understands the game. For a wide forward, he’s laudably unselfish and has a great sense of teamwork, something that was particularly on show during the opening game of the East Asian Cup, when he meshed nicely with fellow up-and-coming stars Lee Jae-Sung and Kim Seung-Dae.
“While he may not have the flashy skills or dribbling ability many Korean forwards are known for, he makes up for it with phenomenal agility and strength to power through the most crowded of spaces,” remarks Ryan Walters, Jeonnam supporter and the man behind the fine project that is K-League United, and adds: “In the 2015 Jeonnam Dragons campaign, Jong-Ho has been most deadly off the ball making incisive runs and consistently finding himself in the right place at the right time.”
By those words, Ryan indirectly explains why Lee created such a deadly duo with Mislav Oršić, an even younger loanee from Croatia. With the 22-year-old being more of a dribbler, they together make for as complete, pacy and unpredictable attacking duo as they come. Consequently, each of them were directly involved in at least 13 goal moves Jeonnam have produced this season, with Lee himself reaching a total of 15.
In the end, while Jeonnam spent most of the season underperforming, their mainstay got his well-deserved move to a better place. Having rejected offers from Germany and Netherlands (his words), Lee Jong-Ho has ultimately signed for Jeonbuk, surely aiming for a spot in the national team and greater exposure provided by the Asian Champions League.
Highlight of the Year: First brace of the season vs Seoul in October
On the face of it, Lee’s contribution in that game seems rather insignificant; despite his two strikes, after all, Jeonnam somehow ended up on the losing side (2:3). However, a deeper look reveals some considerable value behind the forward’s first brace of the season, and only his third career one.
First of all, it was a fitting climax to a stretch of three league games, during which Lee Jong-Ho happened to be involved in all of his team’s open play goals (3+1). Secondly, and only more remarkably, Lee also became the first South Korean to score 10 goals for Jeonnam in back-to-back seasons since their current manager Roh Sang-rae reached the same landmark in 1998/99. And to further confirm his special status, Lee Jong-Ho added a second brace to his collection at the start of November in order to make sure Jeonnam won their first league game since late July. TD
85. Saif Al-Hashan
Al-Shabab (KSA) / Kuwait / Attacking Midfield
If there were a phrase to define Saif Al-Hashan, it would be “damaged cruciate ligament”. That’s right, he’s been unlucky enough to suffer TWO cruciate ligament injuries in the space of a year. On October 20, 2014 he suffered the first of the pair with Qadsia that saw him not only hurt himself but also Kuwaiti football as a whole. Exactly one year and two days later, his new club Al-Shabab were the latest to suffer as a result of his torn cruciate ligament.
Had it not been for these long-term injuries, Saif Al-Hashan would certainly be knocking on the door of the top 50 of this list if not higher. His presence on the pitch has been a breath of fresh air for the Kuwaiti National Team, who are suffering from a variety of internal and political problems at the helm of the Kuwait FA including the unresolved tension over the state of national league.
That leads me to the next topic, Al-Hashan’s move to Al-Shabab, which sparked controversy across the Middle Eastern football spectrum. Essentially an amateur player – like everyone else is in Kuwait except for the well paid foreigners – he had the free right to move to whichever team he wanted. However, Kuwaiti football problems came to the surface including not knowing whether they had the right to halt such a move or not. Despite the Qadsia board’s objections, they could do nothing about Al Hashan’s transfer to Al-Shabab and he subsequently turned up in the Saudi Professional League – the most in-demand league in the Middle East.
Albeit with a variety of issues affecting Al-Hashan mentally and physically, his performance level has remained top notch, and he is therefore our unofficial Kuwaiti Player of the Year ahead of Aziz Mashaan and legendary Bader Al-Mutawa. Could we see a top-level Arabian footballer emerge from Kuwait once again? His 2014 was impressive, and we only hope that he gets rid of the injuries on his rise back to the top…
Highlight of the Year: Consistent strong performances in World Cup qualifiers
There hasn’t really been one single moment that stuck out for Al-Hashan as it did for the others, but it would as a collective his performances for the Kuwaiti national team have been impressive. His injuries have tormented his career rise and therefore, his highlight of the year would have to be the months he spent playing. HF
86. Yang Xu
Shandong Luneng (CHN) / China / Striker
It has long been the case not just in Asian football, but globally that the highly prized are more often than not easy on the eye, often with those with ruthless efficiency over sex appeal being knocked down the pecking order in their place. The lumbering frame of Yang Xu this year has put forward another case that substance should be integrated amongst style. Both for the club and country, Yang started the year as an in-out third or even fourth choice option off the bench, however he ends it as one of the first names on both team sheets.
Yang has usually been on the fringe of top level Chinese football, only last year he was farmed out to Chengchun Yatai on loan. On his return, his impact as a bit part player was assumed, given the preference for South American imports in leading goal scorer Aloisio and recent big money international recruit Diego Tardelli. While the former gathered speed and productivity (helped by Yang’s involvement it must be said), Tardelli was from the start in for a rough ride.
Yang’s six goal explosion on the ACL in the early stages was a welcome lightning bolt to the region’s football which usually relies on imported central strikers for their goal output. While Yang’s work can hardly be seen as pretty, his effectiveness in front of goal can’t be questioned. It may be due to his lack of a killer first touch, but his humility to the team has been at the forefront of Shandong’s front line, also leading to an almost assured place in Alain Perrin’s post-Asian Cup China squad. A lesson for all, that talent may not be the obstacle that it always seems, neither is rigidness. This typical number nine is flourishing despite meeting the usual rolled out clichés.
Highlight of the Year: His four-goal haul against Bhutan
Yang’s growing importance for China can’t be understated, to a point that their only defeat so far in qualification, to Qatar was the one match that Yang hadn’t featured in. His highlight, in terms of what Yang’s all about, came in their home sign off for 2015 against Bhutan. Four goals of instinctive finishing, persistence and the odd piece of luck was typical for a striker who’s hitting a strong run of form. His partnership with Yu Dabao in attack seems to be finally cementing a partnership worthy of representing the national team. ML
87. Khamis Esmaeel
Al-Jazira (UAE) / UAE / Central Midfield
Omar Abdulrahman, with his Carlos Valderrama hair and David Silva skills may be the flagship face of the buzzing UAE national team that is sweeping Asian football at the moment, one tournament at a time. But as the little magician and his talented teammates, Ahmed Khalil & Ali Mabkhout, deliver one attacking masterpiece after another, one unassuming soldier sits deep at the base of midfield. Breaking opponents’ attacks, shielding the back four and providing his more attacking colleagues with the confidence to turn on the magic upfront, 26-year-old Khamis Esmaeel doesn’t just stick to his Makelele role, he often bursts forward unleashing one of his trademark screamers from distance, while also posing a threat from set plays.
The Al-Jazira midfielder has had an eventful 2015 with Al-Jazira and the national team. He put in a typically industrious performance even as the Abu Dhabi based side crashed out of the AFC Champions League play-offs at the hands of Uzbekistan’s Bunyodkor. The tough-tackling midfielder starred in the domestic league, leading his team to a runner up spot, one up from the previous season.
The summer transfer window saw an extended saga linking him with a move to Dubai based Al-Nasr but he eventually opted to stay in the capital for at least one more season. A tear in his right knee ligaments marred the last quarter of the year for Esmaeel, but he is now back to his best in the starting lineup.
In 2016, Esmaeel will look first to Al-Jazira’s Champions League play-off encounter against Qatari giants Al-Sadd in February. The Emirati side will be the clear underdogs and it will be very much up to our man himself to stop the legendary Spaniard Xavi from pulling the strings in midfield if his team are to eliminate the Qataris. In the national team, Khamis faces increased competition for his place from the emerging Al Ahli duo Majed Hassan & Habib Al Fardan, forcing the RAK born midfielder to be on top of his game if he’s to keep his starting place.
Highlight of the Year: Buttressing the collective success at the Asian Cup
Khamis Esmaeel caught the eye in Australia with his no nonsense defensive attitude and his tidy short passing play to aid his team build up from deep. The midfielder played every single minute of UAE’s exciting Asian Cup campaign in January that culminated with a bronze medal following defeat to the eventual winners, Australia. A missed penalty in the shootout against Japan proved insignificant, as Amoory’s panenka carried the team through to the semis. WJ
88. Eldor Shomurodov
Bunyodkor (UZB) / Uzbekistan / Forward
There’s a good case to be made about Sardor Rashidov trying to emulate Cristiano Ronaldo; his dribbling style, keen shots from distance and free-kick routine suggest it pretty strongly. Similarly, there may be a good case to be made in the near future about 20-year-old Uzbek wide forward Eldor Shomurodov taking a page or two out of a fellow Real Madrid star’s book.
Long legs, tremendous acceleration, hard shot, straight-forward dribbling as well as thinking, and a pinch of dumbness to balance the aforementioned traits – my Uzbek consultant helps me to draw an uncanny parallel between Gareth Bale and Eldor Shomurodov, valuable product of the underrated Mash’al academy and probably the most influential attacking member of the 2015 U-20 World Cup squad.
Eldor Shomurodov had a good first full professional season. Not great, but pretty good. The thing is that, at this point, he’s as inconsistent as a teenager possibly can be: a man of the match on one day, a useless passenger on the other. As it appears, then, his excellent five-game spell between June and August – accounting for five of his seven league goals – was more of an exception stemming from the momentum-generating U-20 World Cup rather than an indicator of anything bigger.
But it counts nonetheless. And it’s indeed no coincidence that the fabulous six-game winning streak and by far the most productive period of Bunyodkor’s schizophrenic season followed precisely that one tournament.
Highlight of the Year: First goal for the senior national team on October 8
Samvel Babayan is a bold coach. Having replaced Mirjalol Kasimov in charge of the Uzbekistan national team after their disastrous June start into the qualifiers, he would instantly put some unprecedented faith in two of this year’s U-20 World Cup star performers: central midfielder Javokhir Sokhibov and our very own Eldor Shomurodov, both called up for the September qualifiers, and then again and again in the forthcoming match days.
The former would eventually make the bigger impact among the seniors, but the latter has managed to carve out one particular memory for himself that is well worth cherishing. In the 95th minute of the one-sided battle with Bahrain, Shomurodov received a pass from Jasur Khasanov and easily slotted the ball in from inside the penalty area to make it 4:0. It was a well-controlled finish, if not too aesthetic due to the slight lay back. But let me repeat once again – it counts. And so the youngster’s wild celebration should surprise no one. TD
89. Eugeneson Lyngdoh
Bengaluru FC (IND) / India / Attacking Midfield
Signed immediately after Bengaluru FC’s 2013-14 I-League triumph, and alongside the subsequent departure of Johnny Menyongar, Eugeneson arrived in Bengaluru from Rangdajied United with quite a lot of pressure on his shoulders. The Shillong-born midfielder, however, proved to be a revelation throughout the season.
Easily one of the best players in the I-League, the former Rangdajied United captain almost single-handedly carried his side’s attack on quite a few occasions. With Bengaluru trailing Mohun Bagan for most of the season, Eugeneson’s performances helped the club bridge the gap at the top, and almost deny Bagan the league title.
Although he was more prominent as a winger with Shillong Lajong, Eugeneson has been playing more centrally since he signed for Rangdajied United, the club his family owns, in 2013. This past season, his versatility came to the fore when he played in a box-to-box role, in the hole, and even on the right flank, for Bengaluru and the Indian national team.
Not the best of players in the air, Eugeneson more than makes up for it with his brilliant passing range and an infinite reserve of energy.
Highlight of the Year: Scoring against the eventual AFC Cup winners
In a season where he scored on nine occasions and assisted 16 times, it’s difficult to pick one single highlight. However, his goal against Johor Darul Ta’zim (JDT) in the AFC Champions League qualifier, which Bengaluru eventually lost, still stands out.
Eugeneson hit the net directly from a corner kick, to the horror of the JDT players in added time of the single-legged preliminary round, which also made him the first I-League player to score in each of the four most important competitions for an Indian club (I-League, Federation Cup, Durand Cup and the AFC Champions League) in one single season. BS
90. Tom Rogić
Celtic (SCO) / Australia / Attacking Midfield
Rarely does an Asian youngster garner worldwide hype overnight, but the path of Tom Rogić hardly runs with convention. A winner of Nike Academy’s “The Chance”, there has always been much more expected of Australia’s rangy attack midfield talent. While he hasn’t lived up to the billing in previous seasons (admittedly down to injury), his progress with Scottish giants Celtic this term has well and truly flung the spotlight back on what at the end of the day is a brimming talent.
If this list focused purely on the current season, Rogić could’ve found himself much higher in the rankings. But for injury that kept him out of the first part of the year, he could’ve tasted Asian Cup glory with his country and a title winning season with his club. Instead however he was playing catch up, which he’s done expertly, securing a starting birth with a club that is known for breeding talent (just ask another Asian favourite of ours Ki Seung-Young) and as a strong squad member for the continental champions.
His frame, unusually seen in a player who prefers to be entering the penalty area late as a support midfielder, can be imposing, but his touch isn’t lacking. He has the presence to link up well with his attacking colleagues, while an underlying cockiness to focus on the target. He’s starting to appear as a rarity in Postecoglou’s national team side, a player who is focussed on finishing off chances rather than endlessly passing around the area, seen pertinently in his ruthless display against Bangladesh in September. More to come from a player that is far more substantial than the marketing hype.
Highlight of the Year: An all-round display against Dundee United
Across the season, Rogić has popped up more often than not in an attacking sense, at times looking like a predatory forward. However, his all-round game against Dundee United in August, which brought rave reviews in Scotland showed what a cultured and flexible footballer he actually is. Dropping deep, as a defensive holder, through to an attacking linchpin within minutes, it was an all action game that might have seen him miss out on a goal or two, but proved his worth to the visiting Glasgow contingent. ML