As we inch close to the Top 50 in our #SFGTop100 Asia series, we profile the Asian Cup final headline grabber, an Asian star fighting for the English Premier League title and one of the only good things to come out of Malaysian football this year. Once again, SFG regulars Tom Danicek, Hamoudi Fayad, Sina Saemian and Martin Lowe have helped compile this section, alongside South East Asian expert Teng Kiat.
51. Yu Dabao
Beijing Guaon (CHN) / China / Forward
One of the early highlights of the year came with the surprise (for some anyway) of China, who impressed along the way to an eventual Asian Cup quarter-final exit to hosts and eventual champions Australia. The one area that was questioned was their attack. For their new campaign, Perrin put his faith in converting what he already had, in the shape of an erratic winger in Yu Dabao.
He had been given his chances before, but in truth he was little more than squad filler with a lack of illustration on the pitch for his club encouraging many to believe he would be able to lead the line for the national team. However, during the pre-World Cup qualifying friendlies in March while China generally disappointed Yu stood out as one of the only successful experiments rolled out by Perrin. Two goals in two matches against Haiti and Tunisia, being his first goals in two years, were a sign of things to come, alongside a blossoming relationship with focal point Yang Xu, who allowed Yu’s flexibility to initiate attacking sequences across the attacking line.
While he took some time to fully prove his worth to Perrin, Yu continued to score even when only being called upon off the bench. While his domestic figures remained slow (5 in 29 last season), he well and truly found his feet for China, scoring six in as many games during qualification. Yu has always had the talent that coaches and scouts have craved, missing out on the chance to make it with Benfica, in MLS and most recently with Chinese giants Guangzhou Evergrande. However, under Perrin he looks to have finally found his true calling, as a link up man alongside a stationary attacker.
Highlight of the Year: His refreshing presence in the World Cup qualifiers
Despite scoring three in three matches on his return to the national team, Yu remained a spectator for at least the first half of World Cup qualification as Perrin aimed to integrate him into the squad. A stunning brace from the bench against Bhutan was too hard to ignore. Almost immediately, he showed his willingness to move, at times looking like an orthodox winger before popping up on the end of central flick-ons. Yu showed the dynamism and crucial finishing ability that China previously had missed. He went on to score a further four in qualification before the year was out, thus cementing his integrity from the start. ML
52. Akram Afif
Eupen (BEL) / Qatar / Attacking Midfield
One of the rising stars in Asian Football, what sticks out in Akram Afif as a ‘Khaleeji’ (Gulf) star is the fact that he plies his trade away from home and away from the continent. As opposed to Omar Abdulrahman, Yasser Al-Qahtani and Hassan Al-Haidos, Afif, who turned 19 in November, is enjoying a loan spell in Belgium’s lower divisions.
Earning a senior cap for the Qatari national team (scoring and assisting for them too) was the highlight of his glamorous 2015. It all began with a promising move to Eupen after periods at the Aspire Academy, Al-Sadd, Sevilla and Villarreal. It wasn’t even a few weeks before Afif bagged his first senior goal in Eupen colours and grabbed the headlines just five days later with a hat-trick of assists for his teammates against Racing Mechelon.
On the international side, he has been present amongst Qatar’s U-20 and U-23 teams – the World Cup and WAFF Championship, respectively, at those levels. In the summer, viewers looked to him as the star of a growing Qatari youth team. Yet, for all his talent, there is one side of his game that he failed to show any promise in which has been his behaviour towards teammates and opponents.
Some would describe his U20 WC performances as selfish, due to his persistence on keeping the ball to weave past players and make a name for himself at the tournament. But after elimination from the group stages, he seems a changed player. Appearances at the senior level of national team football have done him some good, being surrounded by the likes of Hassan Al-Haidos, Luiz Mairton and now Rodrigo Tabata helping him grow in terms of his character. It is only a matter of time before we see Afif shine on a larger stage.
Highlight of the Year: His first goal for the senior national team
Despite the strength of the opposition at hand, Afif added the 10th and his first for Qatar in the September mauling against Bhutan. That announced his arrival on the national scene after a period of success with the U-20s and U-23s, and Eupen themselves. HF
53. Kim Jin-Su
Hoffenheim (GER) / South Korea / Left Back
Literally every time there’s an U-17 World Cup taking place, it tends to be stressed all over again that barely any of those better performers ever makes it onto the big stage. And yes, that may be truth in general. The 2009 edition, though, was pretty special at least from South Korean perspective. I believe Son Heung-min requires no introduction and so does Lee Jong-ho, another #SFGTop100 nominee. Yun Il-lok has cut it in the K-League with utmost ease, even making it into the senior national team. And finally, there’s Kim Jin-su who has this year risen to the occasion in quite some style…
The first three months of this calendar year were like a fairytale for the 23-year-old. Confident and daring, Kim Jin-su enjoyed a very good finish to 2014, which saw him clinch the starting berth at the Asian Cup – his ultimate showpiece event, where he looked like a superior runner, tackler and chance creator; all at the same time and for most of the time. Judging solely on the back of those weeks, Kim Jin-su would in all seriousness be vying for a top 10 spot in our rankings.
Sadly, at the end of March, the explosive fullback suffered a concussion; an unusual type of injury for a footballer that had also taken an unusual, rather serious toll on his performance levels. Plenty of uncertainty had suddenly crept into his game and errors stemming from poor concentration started begging to go down as a standard feature of his blueprint. Add one confused head coach in the mix, and you have a lost, frustratingly inconsistent Kim Jin-su.
“He’s got all the pace in the world, some good passing skills and good blocking but he rarely provides all three at the same time. More problematic is his lack of defensive intuition. I’m assuming that he relied on his physical tools at lower levels and never understood how to handle a fast offense like Dortmund. I didn’t think that he’d get the proper kind of tutelage to better those faults under Gisdol but maybe there’s hope with Stevens and new coach next year,” expects the very knowledgeable man behind Korean Footballers twitter account.
Indeed, under the new leadership, there’s a brand new hope for Kim Jin-su, which he should definitely capitalize on. His playmaking skills are something barely seen in a fullback, he can be a great set piece taker (see his assist in the Asian Cup semi-final) and has this instinct that tells him exactly when to go forward and push hard at the opponent’s defence. Through that, Kim, with some polishing, can be a real asset for Hoffenheim as well as South Korea in the long-run.
The good thing is Huub Stevens has been quietly leading Kim to become a more complete player, as my consultant observes: “Under Stevens he started very conservatively. Stevens started off keeping back four as strictly defenders. Kim adjusted well to this single mandate even if not best use of his talents. And now that Hoffenheim have stabilized it seems Kim has greater license to attack. He’s still far from where he was when first arriving but a similar player is returning.” Indeed, it is no coincidence Kim Jin-su has once again been picking up 7+ ratings from WhoScored since the veteran coach landed in Sinsheim (four out of seven occasions)…
Highlight of the Year: Asian Cup as the definition of a breakout tournament
They say a tournament success is, above all, about timing your form to perfection. And Kim Jin-su surely listened to that advice, as he was a monster in Australia; in more aspects than one. The Hoffenheim fullback finished the event as the second most active crosser; ranked in top 10 for clearances; he intercepted (by far) the most passes out of all finalists; won an astonishing 23 tackles from 30 attempts (even in that final game, where he messed up terribly at the end he had managed to complete an incredible eight tackles); suffered more fouls than he conceded; and, until the very end, he remained to be the only player to not get owned by Ivan Franjić throughout the whole tournament. Twice. TD
54. Yasser Al-Shahrani
Al-Hilal (KSA) / Saudi Arabia / Right or Left Back
Yasser Al-Shahrani used the year of 2015 to his advantage, earning the plaudits and respect of many fans across the Middle Eastern football spectrum. Although done by the vote of many Al-Hilal fans and possibly not fully deserved, Al-Shahrani was crowned the best GCC Player of the Year at the Dubai Globe Soccer Awards. He overcame the likes of Mohammad Al-Sahlawi and Omar Abdulrahman to be rewarded that way which is no small feat. However, that award could’ve really been done to see who has the most fans on social media rather than a vote for the best player in the region.
A shy character when speaking with him, Al-Shahrani clearly isn’t a show off about what he does and the best part is that he compensates for all of that on the pitch with his energetic performances. A pivotal player in Donis’ 3-6-1 system at Al-Hilal where much of the emphasis was placed on the wing backs to create play, he certainly didn’t disappoint whether on the left or right flank. After all, he was among Ahdaaf’s four Best Players of the Year.
Highlight of the Year: Posing next to the likes of Messi, Pirlo and Lampard
The real truth about Al-Shahrani’s shyness could be due to the magnitude of the people he was alongside. Al-Shahrani’s GCC win allowed him to stand on the podium with legendary footballers, Lionel Messi, Frank Lampard, Andrea Pirlo and more. The latter two were crowned winners of the Player Career Award, so is it possible that the advice received from those players lead him to a better future? Whatever the answer, his night with the players seems to have been a building block for his own career. HF
55. Mohd Safiq Rahim
Johor Darul Takzim (MAL) / Malaysia / Attacking Midfield
A stalwart of the Malaysian national team and at club level wherever he went for the past few years, Safiq Rahim rose to greater heights this year after a solid 2014.
The dynamo became the first-ever midfielder to top score at the AFF Suzuki Cup when he struck six goals last year, while he also led Johor Darul Ta’zim (JDT) to their first Malaysia Super League (MSL) crown. This year, he was named as part of the Asean Football Federation’s Best XI and led his club to even more glory as captain by driving them on from the middle of the park.
The MSL title was retained as JDT cemented their dominance on the domestic front while remarkable inroads were made on the continental stage with the capture of a first-ever AFC Cup crown – a first for any Malaysian club.
On the international stage, things were less memorable for Safiq and his Tigers as they suffered heavy defeats in World Cup qualifying. But those results are arguably more reflective of chaos off the pitch and there is still enough left in the 28-year-old to potentially lead a new generation out of the current gloom.
Highlight of the Year: Leading Johor to the historic AFC Cup triumph
On the greatest of stages, the best players tend to step up to the occasion and lead the way. So it was with Safiq, who led his JDT side to a historic triumph in this year’s AFC Cup. The Malaysian champions had shown incredible tenacity to get to the semi-finals of the tournament, before a FIFA ban on Kuwait saw their opponents struck out to see them nab a place in the final.
That was a stroke of fortune for JDT, but they were still underdogs against FC Istikol, who would have home advantage in front of a packed stadium in Tajikistan. However, Safiq led his team to defy the odds and provided the most vital contribution of the game – a precise corner delivery for Leandro Velasquez to slot home the only goal.
That capped a man-of-the-match performance from the JDT captain, which cemented his place as one of the best central midfielders of the region. TK
56. Aaron Mooy
Melbourne City (AUS) / Australia / Central Midfield
Come 2015, there arrives a long overdue appreciation of one of Australia’s most unassuming but dangerous players. Don’t let the lack of razzle dazzle put you off, the mesmeric style of Aaron Mooy in the Melbourne City midfield has been one of my personal high points this year. His style, generously likened to an early-Andrea Pirlo, pits him at the fulcrum of his side’s endeavours, from defensive magnitude to creative vision, he’s the full package that has come into his element this year.
The stats underline his importance to his club, who were hardly a bunch of stars last season, forcing Mooy at times to singlehandedly drag them through to the end of season playoffs. Mooy topped the club charts in terms of tackles won, passes completed, assists attributed, chances created and goals scored, the perfect all-rounder who finally made the impact in Postecoglou’s national team plans, earning a recall in the post-Asian Cup winning friendlies in March.
Since then, Postecoglou has experimented the hell out of his side; with one notable exception. Mooy has remained integral to the Socceroos, from starting off as a deep-lying holder to being used more as a lung buster at the tip of the diamond in their final qualification victories of the year. Murmurs of a possible transfer to Europe, maybe even a Premier League move in the offing continue to swirl, the coming year could yet again be another Mooy-appreciation festival over at SFG towers.
Highlight of the Year: An all-round display in the A-League playoffs
Singlehandedly, with one performance, Mooy engaged us so much we reintroduced our SFG Player of the Week back in May, with a wondrous individual performance against Wellington Phoenix in the A-League playoffs. A pretty ordinary game for the neutral (culminating in City’s 2-0 win), the focus however was rarely off Mooy who created everything for Melbourne, whilst nullifying a terrifying Wellington attack who had the upper hand for much of the match. Effortless was the word to describe it, he motored around with little fuss to be made. When we compared him to Andreas Iniesta, we were admittedly getting ahead of ourselves, but it’s testament to how good this performance actually was. ML
57. Shinji Okazaki
Leicester City (ENG) / Japan / Striker
Caught up in the success story that has been Leicester City in the English Premier League this season, a little appreciated Japanese star remains a key mechanism in his new team’s rise. While the plaudits obviously go to the record breaking goalscorer Jamie Vardy and the sublime Riyad Mahrez, Shinji Okazaki has often played foil to the effectiveness of those around him, an unselfish manner that has seen him reap the rewards of a big move he’s deserved for years.
All in all, it’s been a productive year and a half for the diminutive forward, on from 2014’s World Cup, where Okazaki (finally) was moved into the number 9 role for the national team, pushed on by his incredible form in Germany with Mainz. In his career to date he’d largely been utilised for his work rate, in that he fits the old East Asian stereotype of a hard-working, quick but possible lacking technically. While previous clubs focussed on the former within Okazaki’s selfless attitude, Mainz build on his penalty box nous, harnessing his diminutive stature to ghost into holes and squeeze in the unlikely goals.
Back-to-back double figure hauls later, the big money move to the Premier League catapulted a Japanese star back onto an English conscious. Despite initial skepticism that he’d be reverted back to an all action winger, Okazaki remains the link between midfield and attack (being Vardy) in a fluid 442 formation that is gaining results. His domestic form has stood out, mainly as his international record continues unabated in such a consistent manner. Another 7 goals this year for the Samurai Blue takes him closer to the top two goal scorers in the nation’s history.
Highlight of the Year: Scoring the winner against Everton to send Leicester top of the Premier League at Christmas
For all his work rate, neat interplay and quick breaks, Okazaki would’ve largely been overlooked by many English Premier League observers up until December. However, with a goal and a assist the Japanese international ensured onlookers would start to sit up and take notice as he sent the Foxes to top of the pile at Christmas.
His assist came through persistence, eventually bundled down for Leicester’s opening penalty, before he arguably deserved a second assist in the second half, providing a deceptive run to allow strike partner Jamie Vardy to ensure a second penalty. Okazaki piped the icing on Leicester’s cake later on, rasping in the eventual winner in the 3-2 away victory. Finally a match that saw him gain widespread praise, that his previous performances warranted. ML
58. Andranik Teymourian
Umm Salal (QAT) / Iran / Central Midfield
Some set of players tend to be like fine wine, they get better as they’re older, and this is definitely the case with Andranik Teymourian. The man nicknamed “Samurai” by Iranian fans for his fighting spirit has become one of the best defensive midfielders in Asia. Seeing his willingness to give 100% on the pitch for his team, and the passionate performances he puts in, it’s difficult to argue his growing reputation amongst football fans across the continent. 2015, however, has been up and down for him, both at club level and on the international stage.
In January 2015, Teymourian left his beloved Esteghlal for Tractor Sazi in a bid to win the Persian Gulf Pro League for the first time in his career. It was a controversial move which is still discussed today, but ‘Ando’ felt this was the time for him to finally win the league. This move started really well, with Tractor Sazi leading the race to win the title, some impressive wins and performances on the way, the partnership between Andranik, Narimanjahan and Edinho was really the best attacking three in the league.
But as the final matchday arrived, Tractor Sazi had to face a Naft Tehran; side who were level on points with them, with Sepahan 2 points behind them at third. Andranik put in a good performance, with a goal and an assist, until the 64th minute when he was sent off for an off the ball incident as he left his team with a man down and the score being 3-1 in their favour. Naft made the impossible happen as they scored two to draw level, and at the end it was Sepahan who won the league with a win elsewhere.
This left a scar on Andranik and during the summer he decided to leave Iran and play his football at Umm-Salal of Qatari Stars League. As the 2015/16 season has been nothing special for the 32 year old, he left his club a week ago having made 14 appearances for the club.
For Team Melli, Teymourian has been as consistent as ever. In April 2015, he became the first Christian to become Iran’s captain as longstanding skipper, Javad Nekounam, retired from international football. The armband was nothing less than what he deserved, as he’s one of the most popular names amongst fans and he’s very well respected by his fellow teammates. With 2016 now underway, it’ll be interesting to see if he can lead his nation into successful qualification stages as they bid to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.
Highlight of the year: His trademark performance against Qatar at the Asian Cup
When it comes to Andranik, it’s difficult to pick out a highlight or a single match where he played very well as he always is one of the best players on the pitch when the final whistle is blown. But as I began to think about this section, the first thing that came into my mind was the match between Iran and Qatar in the 2015 Asian Cup group stages. There, his brilliance in reading the game allowed Andranik to intercept a Qatari move very well on the right side high up the pitch and lay the ball for Dejagah who assisted Azmoun for the goal.
It may not seem like he did much, but that’s Andranik’s game all in one move; his incredible work ethic and his ability to set up the counter in one or two moves. He won the Man of the Match award for his performance in that game, and rightly so. SS
59. Javier Patino
Henan Jianye (CHN) / Philippines / Striker
A controversial figure for the past couple of years, Javier Patino seems to be now settling down as a leading front man in Chinese football but also as the spearhead of a very promising Philippines national team squad. The ongoing soap opera which has engulfed his call up has been a clear indication of the quality he brings to his motherland; not every player could get away with refusing to play for his country on three separate occasions, only to be welcomed back with open arms time and time again.
“We can create chances but we are found lacking in finishing ability. Patino is a striker who knows where to be and how to finish. He is a typical one-touch player in the box.” Thomas Dooley, Philippines coach.
Praised above all, Patino is known and selected for his penalty area brilliance. The Spanish born Patino only started to find his goal scoring feet once he moved to Asia with Thai giants Buriram United where he scored 35 goals in two years before moving to China in January. His 11 goals (a substantial effort in a predominantly defence-minded team) for Henan Jianye helped them finish way above expectations in 5th in the Chinese Super League, thrusting Patino’s name towards household status across the region, with some muting an even bigger move for him on the horizon.
For the national side however, he is yet to translate his terrific domestic form, mainly due to the erratic nature of the squad. Patino thrives on chances, so if he isn’t getting them you aren’t getting the best out of him. Going into Round 3 of Asian Cup qualifying however, he’ll no doubt be the first name on the team sheet for the national team.
Highlight of the Year: Finally winning over fellow Filipinos in his national comeback
Thrown back into the deep end with his country after not featuring competitively for the Azkals in over two years, Patino didn’t disappoint in one of the Philippines greatest ever footballing victories. Lively throughout, Patino netted his side’s second in a 2-1 home victory over Bahrain, typically blasting home a loose ball in the box, while defenders were left flatfooted. A week later, he led the line again as they recorded back-to-back victories, while topping the pile in the cliché dubbed “group of death” in World Cup qualification. Whatever had happened before Patino was now a reputable national idol. ML
60. James Troisi
Al-Ittihad (KSA) / Australia / Attacking Midfield
On the face of it, James Troisi will look back on 2015 for one moment of pure adulation in particular, as his goal clinched a home Asian Cup for Australia. However fast forward some 11 months, and he’s a player continuing to break new ground both domestically and increasingly as a key member of the national team squad, setting up another promising year ahead for a player that has often been criticised for not making the most of his given talent.
While his high point in Socceroos jersey came in their home games in January, Troisi only started making a sustained impact once the new Asian cycle returned in March. He’s moulded himself into a flexible starter rather than an impact substitute that he once was; starting wide as part of a front three in Australia’s headline grabbing 2-2 draw in Germany with the World Champions, (Troisi himself getting on the score sheet in Kaiserslautern) before being used in his more preferred position at the tip of the diamond in Postecoglou’s new 442 template in World Cup qualification.
Domestically, Troisi’s path has been too often ruptured by a lack of form and countless loans across the globe. His latest stop on a whirlwind tour of the footballing world routed him in Jeddah with Saudi giants Al-Itiihad. His early form suggested he’d found the ideal place for his development, slotting in as a creative attacking midfielder who is supported well by runners in and around him.
However, in typical Ittihad fashion, Troisi looks set to return to Australia in the new year after having his contract terminated prematurely by the Tigers over the Christmas break. Adelaide United currently lead the way for his signature back to the A-League.
Highlight of the Year: Clinching the Asian Cup title for Australia
One of the key moments of the Asian footballing year, Troisi’s name will no doubt go down in history. Introduced in the 71st minute, Troisi made a continual nuisance of himself going into extra time against the South Koreans in Sydney, drifting late into the box to provide Tom Jurić with someone to knock down to. It all paid dividends as Jurić made something out of nothing for the Socceroos before cutting back to the alert Troisi on the six yard box to smash the ball past Kim Jin-Hyeon and clinch the Asian Cup title for Australia. ML
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.
#SFGTop100 – 71-80; featuring two of the very best centre backs at the Asian Cup, the first Saudi representative, or a trio of outstanding goalkeepers.
#SFGTop100 – 61-70; featuring two fairytales written in Suwon, an Asian Cup rock from the UAE, a skilful Thai, or one of the brightest goalkeeping talents on the continent.