We continue our #SFGTop100 series with a countdown of those players ranked 71-80 in Asia. Once again the regular quartet of Tom Danicek, Martin Lowe, Hamoudi Fayad and Sina Saemian contribute to our profiles, including some standout performers in both the AFC Champions League and January’s Asian Cup.
71. Salman Al Faraj
Al-Hilal (KSA) / Saudi Arabia / Central Midfielder
What a 2015 it has been for Al-Faraj, who’s had an up and down year right from day one right up until the 31st of December. He ended the year brilliantly with a victory over fierce Riyadh rivals Al-Nassr; you’ll struggle to find a better moment for the lad whose task was to replace Saudi icon Saud Kariri for most parts of the year. Let’s look at how Salman Al-Faraj was limited to a defensive position for a pivotal period in Al-Hilal’s year.
Al-Faraj is well-known for his tendency to dribble, and how he uses his flair and link up skills with teammates heading into the final third of the pitch. However, with Saud Kariri injured or unable to compensate for his lack of pace and stamina to last all 90 minutes and with no new signing in midfield during the summer, Al-Faraj was forced to take up a new role. Even in terms of youth products, Khaled Kaabi rose via his box to box capabilities (which is, essentially, Salman Al-Faraj’s role) and thus was the ideal replacement for Al-Faraj and not Kariri.
Salman was often left as a single pivot in midfield, meaning had he turned his back he would have the relatively rusty Kwak Tae-Hwi and the enigmatic Mohammad Jahfali in defence to pass to. During that period, Al-Faraj was subject to lots of Twitter talk about his new role, and of course, I over at Ahdaaf wrote an article on it. A fan even screamed the following on Arabic TV Show Sada Al-Malaeb: “Salman is not a defensive midfielder! Salman is not! Donis needs to make sure of his changes!”
Despite the awry start to the 2015-16 season, Salman has been fantastic and it’s only a matter of time before we see him become one of the best players in the region when he reaches his prime, should he be assigned to a role more suitable to him and play around the ideal partners.
Highlight of the Year: Illustrating his importance in the derby victory over Al-Nassr in the King’s Cup
A vital figure in the run-in to Al-Hilal’s King’s Cup win against Al-Nassr, which obviously needs no words. His form towards the end of the 2014-15 season, whether it was in the league, cup or the Asian Champions League. Also add in the wonderful shift and partnership he has created with Taissir Al-Jassem with the Saudi national team. HF
72. Kim Jin-Hyeon
Cerezo Osaka (JPN) / South Korea / Goalkeeper
The goalkeeping position in the South Korean national team picture has long been a thorny issue for followers of the Taegurk Warriors, arguably since the retirement of Lee Woon-Jae half a decade ago. Since then the over-reliance on Jung Sung-Ryong has at times seemed an inevitability due to a lack of quality competition. An area Uli Stielike immediately after his appointment took to task instilling the gangly framed Kim Jin-Hyeon in net ahead of the Asian Cup.
It proved to be an inspired selection of an international who had at best only been a bit part squad member of previous Korean regimes but was keen to make up for lost ground in Australia. Notable displays including his performance during the crunch group tie with the hosts that sealed progression, won the hearts and minds of the Korean fan base, keeping a clean sheet throughout the tournament until the final match against the same opponents.
His progress since has been hampered cruelly by injury, a fractured collarbone sustained in July that has halted his pursuit of hanging onto the Korean number one jersey. While his national team duties have been cruelly curtailed for the year, the one-on-one expert returned for his club side Cerezo Osaka at nearly the best possible stage as they narrowly missed out on promotion back to J1 in the J2 playoffs.
Highlight of the Year: Frustrating the hosts in the Asian Cup group stage
While Kim provided solid defence throughout the Asian Cup, his clear high point was in Korea’s final group stage match with the hosts and eventual champions in Brisbane. His awareness to fly quickly off his line saved his Korean counterparts on a number of occasions. Commanding in the air in the first half, his shot stopping prowess was called upon in the second, first denying Nathan Burns as he waltzed through the Korean defence before clawing away miraculously a late Robbie Kruse effort. The kind of performance that Korea had been lacking for years. ML
73. Trent Sainsbury
Zwolle (NED) / Australia / Centre Back
As recently as in July 2013, Sainsbury was the only outfield player Holger Osieck didn’t trust enough to give him at least a sniff at the EAFF East Asian Cup. Given that, and the fact he didn’t travel to Brazil last summer due to an injury, it had been safe to consider him an ‘outsider’ before the Asian Cup kicked off. Yet, Australia ended up being taken by a storm called Trent.
Groomed by Graham Arnold at Central Coast Mariners, Sainsbury was always coached into becoming a ball-playing centre back; a role he filled for Australia without the smallest hiccup. He’d carry the ball forward with the utmost confidence, opting for a long ball only when it made utter sense, and while remaining solid at the back (producing key recoveries at a ridiculous rate), Sainsbury made for a legitimate threat upfront too; either as a capable passer, or as a header with striker’s instinct.
Trent Sainsbury simply enjoyed a brilliant tournament. However, aside from that comparatively short January-February interval and one November qualifier since, Sainsbury has had no influence on the international scene whatsoever, which helped significantly to knock him deeper down our ladder.
The fact Sainsbury has barely featured for the Socceroos since that memorable Cup is caused both by his injury concerns as well as limited playing time at his club side Zwolle. Sainsbury’s position in the Dutch club has always been a bit shaky and it sadly continues to be into the new year. Having not started both recent domestic cup finals and finally slotting into the Zwolle starting line-up in the eight round of this season only to oversee a 1:5 debacle, the fresh 24-year-old has indeed contributed little to the recent rise of his club, averaging a distinctively poor WhoScored rating of 6,56 so far this season.
Highlight of the Year: Culminating form in the Asian Cup elimination rounds
Trent Sainsbury had, without any discussion, one awesome first Asian Cup and provided Australia with something Ange Postecoglou had presumably been on the lookout for from the very beginning of his tenure. What was best about Sainsbury’s overall contribution, though, was his ability to continuously grow – from ‘very good’ in the group stages to ‘excellent’ or ‘absolutely breathtaking’ in the elimination rounds.
From his fantastic efforts as both a covering and expansive centre half in the quarter-final against China, where he sorely missed his usual partner in Matthew Špiranović, through the semi-final winner, all the way to his man-of-the-match performance in the final, where he’s put together an assist and a vital block in the extra time followed by an important clearance… simply stellar. In the end, he was my player of the tournament. TD
74. Morteza Pouraliganji
Tianjin Teda (CHN) / China / Centre Back
Morteza Pouraliganji, a name that blossomed in 2015, but not many people predicted the rise of Pouraliganji. From playing as a defensive midfielder for Naft Tehran, to being recognised as one of the brightest centre halves on the continent, Morteza has definitely come a long way. When the squads were announced for the 2015 Asian Cup, not many Iranian fans knew his name and barely any could’ve guessed he would go on to start every game in the tournament (apart from yours truly of course!). Initially, he played his football as a defensive midfielder for Naft Tehran and was an un-sung hero in their rapid rise to be one of the best teams in the country. Carlos Queiroz, however, tried him as a centre back in the Asian Cup after an injury to Pejman Montazeri, a decision that was criticised at first but was answered just one game into the tournament.
His stellar performances in Australia prompted a move to Chinese Super League side, Tianjin Teda, a move that wasn’t so welcome in Iran with experts believing he could’ve made the move to Europe. His season with his new club was nothing significant, Tianjin finishing only 2 points above the relegation zone. A year away from home and rumours of homesickness, worsened by a few injuries along the way, was enough for Pouraliganji to look for a move back to the Western side of Asia with Al-Sadd of Qatari Stars League close to securing his services. But on the international side of things, he remains a key figure in an Iran team which is in transition with many young players coming into the side.
Highlight of the year: Towering header against Iraq at the Asian Cup
When there has been any discussions over which was the best Asian game in 2015, one quickly springs to mind, Iran vs Iraq in the Quarter finals of the Asian Cup. A game that ended 4-4 before Iraq went through on penalties. But in this game, Pouraliganji capped off his great tournament with a magnificent towering header and a passionate celebration with the fans which is still shown in Iran in different montages. SS
75. Huang Bowen
Guangzhou Evergrande (CHN) / China / Central Midfield
There are many locals from Guangzhou Evergrande whose stocks have risen considerably over the past few months. Gao Lin has set his career high in terms of league goals, Zheng Long has finally settled in Canton and became the first Chinese player to score at Club World Cup, while Zou Zheng developed into a fixture at left back in his first season at a much better, top flight club. And Huang Bowen? He may be the least striking, yet arguably the most important player of the improved lot.
Becoming the youngest goalscorer in Chinese Super League history at the age of 16, Huang Bowen had ironically grown to be accustomed with anonymous performances at the base of midfield rather than anything particularly eye catching. He did step up in 2013, developing into a real mainstay at the heart of the star-studded Evergrande side, but he did so only to experience a dip in the form the following year, even resulting in him losing the place within the China national team setup (to finally regain it this November, after some intense criticism of Alain Perrin coming from both fans and the media).
In 2015, for a change, Huang Bowen has been great. And his presence was felt intensively and all across the pitch. “I think he’s been excellent this season,” nods Jamie McIlroy, prolific writer at WildEastFootball.net. “Zheng Zhi got nominated for the Asian Player of the year award, but Huang’s all round game has been a lot better. He’s got energy and keeps the ball moving. He doesn’t really put a foot wrong on the ball, although he may not be as good at going past people, which is why I don’t think the wing is his best position.”
The fact Huang Bowen has been asked to start at right wing recently, Jamie reckons, is a result of one big factor: Paulinho’s arrival and the corresponding departure of Fabio Cannavaro. These changes led to the switch to a 4-2-3-1 formation, mostly utilized by Luiz Felipe Scolari, with Huang occupying a somewhat free role of a right midfielder frequently drifting across the whole pitch.
That move didn’t go without casualties, of course, only highlighting Huang’s tremendous importance. Gao Lin, Yu Hanchao and Zheng Long were now suddenly left to fight for one or two spots only and particularly the first two have seen their playing time gradually restricted. Huang Bowen is simply too influential to be left out however, something that proved to be especially true in the Champions League, where his two deliveries backed up the ugly away victory in the quarter-final and paved the way to an even more brilliant contribution.
Highlight of the Year: The incredible string of Champions League stunners
For a long time now, there seems to have been a widely acknowledged perception that Guangzhou Evergrande’s attacking plan is being carried out by South Americans and next to nobody else. The 2013 Champions League triumph was precisely that case. But this season was noticeably different. Elkeson isn’t the cold-blooded assassin he once used to be, Robinho wasn’t even registered for the competition, and an otherwise unstoppable Ricardo Goulart failed to score in any of the Autumn elimination rounds. Someone had to step up to the fore, then, and that someone was Huang Bowen.
The versatile midfielder scored three times on the way to the final, and every single time it was bloody worth it. First, his vital away strike from 25 metres proved to be the decider in the Round of 16. Then, his beauty of a volley helped significantly to mitigate the pressure coming from the determined Kashiwa Reysol in the returned quarter-final. And finally, even Gamba Osaka ended up being a victim of his fantastic shot control. Again, without that cracker which started a turnaround in front of the home crow, the Chinese surely wouldn’t have progressed to the final. TD
76. Amer Abdulrahman
Baniyas (UAE) / UAE / Central Midfield
Amer Abdulrahman has always been in the shadow of his namesake Omar, Ahmed Khalil and most recently Ali Mabkhout. It’s not his fault that he plays in defensive midfield – a role already underrated in Europe, never mind the Middle East – as most of his work is done in the deeper areas of the field. His ground-breaking passes, long free kicks and the security he offers for a tiny defensive midfielder is truly a work of art in this region.
However, Amer hasn’t had a memorable year in the sense of having his personal highlight, which could also go down to the position he plays in. That doesn’t discount the role he’s been playing for club and country across the years. In addition to his unheralded actions, Amer plays for Baniyas; a club that was in the second division as recently as in 2009. His loyalty to the club lasted until December 2015 where he has claimed that he wants to leave – Al-Ain, Al-Jazira and Al-Ahli all in the race to earn his signature.
After making 35 appearances in 2015 for club and country, Amer created 8 goals and scored one in the President’s Cup clash with Al-Wasl; a match that turned in Baniyas’ favour due to Amer himself. Will he break the Emirati norm of being shy of playing abroad? I, and many others, certainly hope so.
Highlight of the Year: Leading his team to the Asian Cup semi-final
Omar Abdulrahman earned all the plaudits for creativity but Amer did show that he is one of the better players in the region, without a shadow of a doubt. His free-kick led the U.A.E to defeating Bahrain in what seemed like a hard match to escape, due to Bahrain’s grit against the Whites, and he also assisted Mabkhout’s key strike against Japan with a wonderfully lofted ball. HF
77. Hamza Al Dardour
Al-Faisaly (KSA) / Jordan / Striker
Jordan went into 2015 crying out for any sort of goal scorer, but will finish the year in shock that they’ve actually developed such a regular contributor in Hamza Al-Dardour. For a striker who had only scored three senior international goals in his career, some three years previous, to go on to collect 11 goals over a calendar year shows an immense upturn in form, which arguably has much to do with the faith paid in him by the now infamous, former national team coach Ray Wilkins.
While Wilkins left a failure, leading Jordan to one solitary win in 12 over his 6 month tenure, he also left a striker in Al-Dardour, a man in confidence. His four goal burst at January’s Asian Cup headlined his year, but he continued on with his scintillating form into World Cup qualification, scoring three so far (a further four in friendly action), including one against Asian Cup champions Australia, as for a time Jordan proved their doubters wrong to head their qualifying section.
“I think you saw today what his assets are. He’s got blistering pace, and when in front of goal, he’ll stick it in the back of the net. He’s very composed. His pace will scare people because he is that quick. I’m sure he could do whatever he desires to do, to be perfectly honest.” – Wilkins after Al-Dardour’s four goal display against Palestine.
He’s far from an unknown package, but his unpredictability has often held him back from developing his career further. Domestically he illustrates the other side of the coin as he continued to perform in fits and starts with Al-Khaleej in the Saudi Pro League, exiting with three goals in three to confirm their safety last season. Since his move to Al-Faisaly he’s struggled to replicate anywhere near such potency. Despite his failings domestically, he’ll no doubt be leading the line for Jordan in 2016, all set for an integral battle with Australia that the country’s fans could only have dreamt about 12 months previous.
Highlight of the Year; His four goal rout over Palestine at the Asian Cup
From the first minute, in his first sighting at the tournament Al-Dardour exploded on a continental audience. His pace, his instinctive finishing, his general demeanour in possession, it was hard to believe he hadn’t been essential before for Jordan. His coach after the match likened him to legendary England forward Geoff Hurst in naively dramatic fashion, however this four goal haul failed to even see Jordan pass through to the knockout stages. ML
78. Toufic Ali
Tarji Wadi Al-Nes (PAL) / Palestine / Goalkeeper
After Ramzi Saleh’s time as the protector of Palestine’s goal gradually came to an end, Toufic Ali Abu Hammad was up next in the pecking order. Already trialed in goal for the Fida’i 14 times pre-2015, where he first got the news of his Asian Cup call-up, Palestine needn’t worry about the future of their goalkeeping situation. Whereas countries such as the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait suffered for a period after the departures of Mohsin Musabeh, Mohammad Al-Deayea and Nawaf Al-Khaldi, respectively, Palestine had a gem on their hands with many years ahead of him.
Nicknamed “The Giant”, Toufic Ali played for former club Taraji Wad Al-Nes over 200 times over the course of his career. Already a regular at the age of 18, one of Ali’s best achievements on his path to success was during 2013-14 when he conceded only six goals in 12 games to open Taraji’s title run-in. He’s repeated such a feat with the Palestinian national team in 2015, where he’s allowed just five goals in eight caps for the Fida’i.
However, a major reason for his inability to break into the top 50 is the second half of the year that he endured with his new side Shabab Dura. After making one of the biggest moves in the Palestinian transfer window of 2015, “The Giant” suffered a downfall alongside his team that have conceded the most in the league. This is opposed to his usually good numbers that he racks up while playing for the national team and his local club, Taraji. However, according to Palestinian football enthusiast BabaGol, Toufic is suffering from those in front of him rather than his own dip in performance.
Despite that, many fans have come to notice how much of a role Ali will play in Palestine’s late run-in for World Cup Qualifiers’ last round, as his commanding figure stands tall to protest the Palestinian defenders.
Highlight of the Year: Replacing Ramzi Saleh for their final Asian Cup tie
Being picked for his first Palestine match of the year to face Iraq in what was essentially Mission Impossible for the Palestinians. Toufic Ali had to avoid conceding four in a game as Ramzi Saleh did against Japan and Jordan, however Iraq were generally poor at finishing during the tournament. Nevertheless, the 1.97m tall ‘keeper stood face to face with Iraqi icon Younis Mahmoud and saved his penalty – a moment that started his year off with a bang. HF
79. Yapp Hung-Fai
Eastern (HKG) / Hong Kong / Goalkeeper
One of the stories of this year’s Asian World Cup qualifiers has been Hong Kong, who were always going to be in a well-focused position as they came up against their now increasingly heated neighbours China. One man stood out in both encounters against their rivals, that being Cantonese keeper Yapp Hung-Fai. Back-to-back goalless draws may not have been enough for Hong Kong to progress, but the stunting of their rivals’ progression will be reward enough for the nation.
Much has been made of Hong Kong’s nationalisation process, something that was brought up in an open racial provocation by China in their upcoming internationals, however the true success has been the step up in their home grown talent which Yapp represents. In previous years they only had brief experience of qualification before being swiftly eliminated. With a promise of at least 8 matches to build a campaign, Hong Kong like a number of other so-called minnows have been given the resources to up their game.
Yapp’s heroics across the campaign which includes 6 clean sheets in 7 have rubber stamped their potential to qualify for the next Asian Cup in 2019. Some of the saves he pulled off especially in China were inspiring, a player who has been number one for his country since he was 20 and has also just been named as captain by influential coach Kim Pan-Gon. His displays have been shared with his domestic employers Eastern with some tipping one of their top assets to move abroad. After his heroics against China, he may have to look elsewhere in Asia for a transfer first.
Highlight of the Year: Back to back clean sheets against their local rivals
The two encounters against China in September and November were a true calling card of Hong Kong’s new capabilities in the international game. Considering the rising tensions that were especially prevalent in the home tie, Yapp’s performances continued unabated proving an insurmountable wall in front of the Chinese attack. Whenever a player can provoke a rise from a former Asian Player of the Year (China’s Zheng Zhi allegedly called Yapp a dog during the home match) has clearly been instrumental. Who knows we could be set for another rematch in Asian Cup qualifying Round 3? ML
80. Vitaliy Denisov
Lokomotiv Moscow (RUS) / Uzbekistan / Left Back
Vitaliy Denisov has arguably been hit hardest by the whole Uzbek power shift from Djeparov’s left-hand side to Rashidov’s right. Going into the Asian Cup, I‘d tipped Denisov to be the best LB out of the lot, yet instead he ended up being a bit ‘meh’ going forward. That said, he’s still a balanced, dependable and particularly hard-working fullback, whose consistency comes in handy especially for a side in rebuild.
What mainly provides an undisputable merit for Denisov’s inclusion among our top 100 Asians players of 2015, however, is his club form. At Lokomotiv Moscow, the player of Belarusian origins is highly valued for numerous skills; as listed by Stefano Conforti, founder of the very well run blog on all things Loko:
“He has got a great throw-in ability that permits Lokomotiv and the Uzbek national team to be much more dangerous. He has got a very good left foot and some useful dribbling skills. He’s humble, he never gives up and he’s always ready to help the teammates on the pitch.”
Conforti also observes that with his pace, tenacity and ability to break up opponent’s play (Denisov intercepted an incredible six passes in the recent derby win vs Spartak), the 28-year-old embodies a perfect weapon for the new head coach Igor Cherevchenko and his high-tempo football.
Another appreciation of Denisov’s 2015 then comes from the very best source out there, Russian Football News, that has included the Uzbek among their top 50 players in Russia, citing the following reasons: “He is one of the league leaders in challenges, recovered balls, interceptions and picking up free balls. Because of the limit on foreign players, full-backs in the Premier League are usually Russians, so the fact that Uzbek international Denisov plays instead of solid Russians Yanbaev and Logashov says a lot about his level.”
Highlight of the Year: Signing a new contract with Lokomotiv in October
The year 2013 was probably richer on true highlights – with Denisov’s three assists in a game against Rostov and consequently earned nickname of ‘the Uzbek Dani Alves’ being the prime example – but the long delayed signing of a new contract still makes for an absolute no-brainer here.
Firstly, because it underlines how loyal a guy Denisov is, since he apparently shrugged off interest from Villarreal. Secondly, and more importantly, because it’s a great testament to how well the former Uzbek Footballer of the Year (2013) has settled in at Loko – coming from being perceived as an underwhelming replacement for Eshchenko to easily topping a recent fan poll at Soccer.ru as the unofficial best left back in the league. TD
Have you missed previous segments? Don’t worry, you can easily continue here…
#SFGTop100 – 91-100; featuring a ‘Bhutanese Ronaldo’, the prominent Tajik goalscorer, two Lebanese mainstays, or a couple of Japanese defenders.
#SFGTop100 – 81-90; featuring the first truly high-profile name, the sole Kuwaiti and Indian representatives, or a keen Khalfan Ibrahim understudy.