Today sees us reach the Top 50 mark in our #SFGTop100 Asia series which features a Champions League winner, a controversial Iraqi stalwart and a Japanese sensation from the East Asian Cup amongst others. Alongside the regular contributors of Tom Danicek, Martin Lowe, Hamoudi Fayad and Sina Saemian, our resident Australian football expert Ahmed Yussuf makes his first appearance of the series.
41. Zhang Linpeng
Guangzhou Evergrande (CHN) / China / Right Back
As an Asian football fan you rarely hear of your region’s top players being linked with a European champion, but this year has seen such an exception due to the form of Chinese full back Zhang Linpeng which may have been set to fling one of the continent’s best players spectacularly onto the European scene, had Chelsea’s rumoured bid actually materialized in August.
Quoted by his former coach Marcello Lippi as “the best Chinese footballer in the Chinese Super League” a few years back, the story instantly provided the continent with a buzz, but Zhang has well and truly lived up to his billing as he went on to clinch the double with his club Guangzhou Evergrande at the end of the year via Champions League glory.
Zhang’s greatest merit is his flexibility brought forward by his consistent attributes. He has been called upon for club and country across the back four, prompted by the fact he offers something different in each position. Zhang is cultured and steady enough in possession, quick enough in snubbing attacks, aware enough to provide overlapping runs, but accustomed to many aerial duels, as was illustrated in his bullet headed goal for China in World Cup qualifying against Bhutan.
Much of the national team’s rise has been fixated on a steady defence, in which Zhang has been critical to. His performances at the Asian Cup stood out, and had it not been for injury after the tournament he could’ve made a greater impact with his club side during midseason. His rustiness, if any, wasn’t noticeable on his return, culminating in another threatening display in the final continental match of the year against Al-Ahli in the ACL final. A possible swoop from Real Madrid in January might be more than the marketing stunt it may have been initially assumed.
Highlight of the Year: His long-range lob against Liaoning Whowin on April 12
Many in Europe will have dismissed a link to a player from the Far East as purely an example of their club engineering a foreign market. However, in April, many will have been watching in awe at Zhang’s 50 yard masterstroke against Liaoning Whowin in the Chinese Super League. Noticing the keeper was straying off his line, the Guangzhou right back didn’t simply hoof a clearance in hope, but sent a swerving shot on goal over the net minder’s head. An instant viral video, but mark our words, he’s much more of a player than just this goal. ML
42. Moharram Navidkia
Sepahan (IRN) / Iran / Central Midfield
Story of Moharram Navidkia is one of tragedy. A player with so much potential, talent and promise, but a career gripped and held back with constant injuries. The 33 year old Sepahan stalwart has been one of the greats of the Persian Gulf Pro League and he is certainly one of the most decorated ones. 2014/15 season started like every other season for the central midfielder, inconsistency in his performances due to injuries. But from the second half of the season, from January 2015 onwards, he managed to stay fit and lay ahead one of the greatest come backs for a club to win the league title.
Sepahan were outsiders to win the league by February, with Naft Tehran and Tractor Sazi leading the way. But Navidkia’s return to the team saw him complete an attacking force which pushed Sepahan over the line. Navidkia became provider for the in-form striking duo of Mehdi Sharifi and Luciano Chimba, with support from Mohammadreza Khalatbari. Navidkia’s vision and understanding of the game, alongside his experience, was the petrol Sepahan needed in the tank to fire up the engine and win the race on the final day of the season. He inspired a team which looked out of the title race to come back and make the seemingly impossible, happen. Just like every captain should.
After the highs of May, 2015/16 didn’t start so brightly for him. A player who has always been associated with professionalism, and had always remained far from controversies, was caught in a dispute with his beloved club and his manager, Hossein Faraki. Faraki had won 2 league titles in a row first with Foolad in 2013/14, and then with Sepahan. Navidkia was absent from training sessions for weeks and missed many games as he was supposedly unhappy with the manager’s decision to let go of certain players in the summer, alongside other issues. After weeks of ongoing disputes, poor results on the pitch made worse by loss of key players such as Ehsan Hajsafi, saw Sepahan firing Faraki just a few months after he landed the league title. Navidkia is back into the side as they aim to make up for the poor start to the season.
Highlight of the season – Sepahan’s dramatic final day title win
Final week of 2014/15 season, Sepahan had to simply win against Saipa if they wanted to have any chance of winning the league. A Sepahan win, and a draw between Tractor Sazi and Naft Tehran, would make Sepahan champions. Navidkia performed at his best as he was involved in the first goal where Mehdi Sharifi gave yellows the lead. But 10 minutes later, Navidkia showed what he is best at, a simple through ball that no one could see but him, a ball that tore the Saipa defence apart as Mehdi Sharifi latched onto the pass and doubled the lead. Sepahan won 2-0 as results elsewhere went in their favour and became champions of Iran. SS
43. Mathew Leckie
Ingolstadt (GER) / Australia / Forward
It’s been a long time coming for the former Adelaide United man, Mathew Leckie. From his humbling beginnings in the old Victorian Premier League for semi-professional side Bullen Lions to finding himself in one of the better leagues in European football.
While Leckie’s found success as a footballer, he was a bit late to the football party. The 24-year-old only picked up the round ball game as an 11-year-old, opting to leave the much beloved Aussie Rules football. Some years later, Leckie’s found himself plying his trade with newly promoted Ingolstadt. Having started 16 of 17 games in the first half of the Bundesliga season, and only missing one game due to a suspension.
The wingers’ game has developed significantly since his time in Germany, moving from Adelaide United as a raw 20-year-old having just spent two seasons with the A-League club. Especially a sidefoot delivery seems to be his new specialty, and a dangerous weapon, as demonstrated more than once at the Asian Cup.
Despite adding more layers into his game, though, Leckie’s most influential attributes are still his pace and power on the ball. Those qualities standout but so does his deficiencies, and his lack of production being a glaring flaw in his game. The youngster showed at the 2014 World Cup how dangerous his physical attributes could be, but at the same time how limited he can be as a creative outlet.
Highlight of the year: His country’s Asian Cup win to which he vitally contributed
Although Leckie wasn’t directly involved in the defining moment of the Asian Cup, he played a vital role in the Socceroos squad that’s been in an ongoing regeneration. As well as being a part of the first Socceroo squad to win the Asian Cup, and on home soil. The Ingolstadt man would’ve definitely be counting this moment atop his list in 2015, not too far away from his starring role for Ingolstadt in the Bundesliga. AY
43. Nathan Burns
FC Tokyo (JPN) / Australia / Striker
On the face of it Nathan Burns’ inclusion in our SFG Top 100 lists is perplexing, a solid 2014/15 season with Wellington Phoenix followed by a stop start showing with Tokyo, but his impact for us has stood out across the year. Starting with that spell with Wellington, where he notched 13 in 24 in the A-League. Burns was consistently a menacing runner with the ball, and didn’t only provide goals for himself but assists for those around him. It was no mere coincidence that those teammates that included a revitalised Roy Krishna and veteran Kenny Cunningham also engineered hot streaks in Burns’ presence. His impact has since been felt this season since his exit leaving Phoenix well adrift of a top two pursuit.
Burns’ career to date had been a broadly nomadic existence, travelling through Europe and Asia before eventually proving his worth with Phoenix. His talent has always been sought after, however his finishing has sometimes let him down. Fresh off the back of his deadly showing last season he has now moved to Japan to replace the mercurial talent and Europe bound Yoshinori Muto at FC Tokyo, an unenviable task. While his start has been frustrating, picking up little injuries, and appearing occasionally from the bench, his real impact is expected to engage in the next few months as the J-League season returns.
Club form has only been one side of an impressive year for Burns however, as he forced himself back into contention with the Socceroos after years of mild flirting with any potential call up. His rise arguably has been timed at the right juncture with the phasing out of legend Tim Cahill likely to occur sometime this cycle. Burns offers more than the archetypal lone front man, utilising incisive runs down the flank, to dropping back and collecting the ball from deep. This flexibility has seen Australia coach Ange Postecoglou create a Plan B approach in a 442, diamond formation which has gained impressive results in World Cup qualification. All promising signs going into 2016.
Highlight of the Year: Winning goal against the A-League champions elect
Back in March, the killer tie of the A-League weekend pitted clear favourites Melbourne Victory against outsiders Wellington Phoenix who were surprisingly leading the pack. While the home side expectantly dominated play, going 2-1 up in the second period, Wellington led by Nathan Burns weren’t in any mood to go with the script. His poachers finish with 10 minutes remaining silenced the Melbourne crowd, as Phoenix quickly broke the favourite’s hearts in a sensational 3-2 turnaround.
45. Yuki Muto
Urawa Red Diamonds (JPN) / Japan / Attacking Midfield
On 31 August 2013, Yuki Muto was most probably over the moon. He received a call into the Vegalta Sendai starting line-up for only the fourth time in his professional career and finally got to finish the whole 90 minutes; something he’s never experienced before. Frustratingly, though, Vegalta lost to Shonan Bellmare 2:3, and Yuki Muto wouldn’t return to their starting eleven for the following seven months.
It would be tempting to shrug this piece of information off, blaming it on Muto’s inexperienced youth, but don’t make a mistake – he had actually turned 25 at the end of that 2013 season, technically approaching his peak. So when we earlier suggested Yoshito Ōkubo is a late bloomer of sorts, Yuki Muto fits the notion too, albeit in his own way; as arguably the best J1 League signing of the past calendar year.
Players grow in company of better players, that’s an old truth, and Muto’s case is clear testament to it. As football coach, Urawa Reds supporter and Football Channel Asia writer Ryan Steele illustrates, the way coach Mihailo Petrović sets his team up – with three at the back, one striker and two players just below him – couldn’t suit Yuki Muto any better. His immaculate anticipation is being channeled greatly, his intelligent runs utilized regularly, and his audacious passes becoming properly dangerous.
That said, as opposed to his fabulous introduction to a wider audience in the opening East Asian Cup game, Yuki Muto is not so much an unselfish creator as a clinical finisher on the club level; something that Ryan explains as follows: “With Urawa, Muto tends to be one of the players to make attacking runs either behind or across the defensive line, meaning he typically sees more chances to finish attacks than create them.”
Either way, my consultant still sees Muto’s potential value for Japan in the long-run: “His ability to sneak behind defences and latch onto loose balls makes him an extraordinarily deadly asset at international level, where being able to capitalise on the smallest mistakes can seriously hurt opponents. He’s not necessarily going to pick out a player from 40 yards with a lofted pass, but that’s why he can be considered a different option where needed.”
Highlight of the Year: Standing particularly strong during the crucial month of May
This was already the seventh season Urawa Reds have finished among the best three J1 League outfits since 2004, and even then, the club would have been typically defeated for the first time only a few rounds inside the season (cca four on average). It was therefore rather shocking to witness last year how Petrović makes his boys to go undefeated for the whole first stage and 19 rounds in total.
The interval between May 2 and March 3 meant an especially tough challenge for Urawa, with five top 10 teams about to face them and the particularly strong duo of Gamba Osaka and FC Tokyo coming to town. Yet, the Red Diamonds were able to withhold the pressure, and they did so mainly thanks to Yuki Muto, who would register a five-game streak of having a direct hand in at least one goal move of his team.
Over that stretch, Muto has bagged four goals in total, and as many as three times in the process, he brought his team level in difficult circumstances. At Kashiwa Reysol, for instance, his header from the 90+1st minute had at last saved Urawa from falling off the cliff, fixing up a crazy 3:3 draw. TD
46. Hassan Maatouk
Al-Fujairah (UAE) / Lebanon / Winger
It’s hard to remember one game during 2015 where Hassan Maatouk didn’t perform. From taking Fujairah to avoid relegation in their first ever season at the top level of Emirati football and pulling all his weight to help the Lebanese National Team finally break their Asian Cup hoodoo – which, by the way, is still in the works – it’s just a matter of when and not if we see Hassan Maatouk in Europe. Unlike players from the Gulf, Lebanese players are known to attempt a footballing career outside of the Middle East. Whether it is Roda Antar and Youssef Mohammad in Germany or Imad Ghaddar in Malaysia, there has always been that sense of adventure from Lebanese footballers ingrained inside them. However, Maatouk is nearing the age of 30 and is still at Fujairah.
Standing at only 1.72m tall isn’t a detriment for Maatouk, rather it is a tool that helps him ooze his way past defenders and in between tight spaces. Maatouk can play centrally, on the right or on the left but is more suited to playing down the left flank to cut inside onto his preferred right foot.
Even in rough times for Fujairah and Lebanon, he is still able to make a difference. Such as when Al-Ahli Dubai thrashed Fujairah 8-1 in the opening week of the 2015-16 AGLeague, Maatouk persevered and scored a fantastic consolation while playing through an injury.
On the international scene he only needs 10 goals to break Roda Antar’s record as the top Lebanese goalscorer of all-time. His rate of goalscoring for the LNT is at 2 goals per year on average, which isn’t a fantastic record – although the LNT record is poor at only 20 goals. It’s his creativity that is more valuable to the Lebanese national team, however. In times of need, in times of failure to break down the opposition, Hassan Maatouk is there to save the day.
Highlight of the Year: An inspirational derby day performance
So many to choose from, but let’s go for a completely unorthodox one. Ittihad Kalba are winning 2-0 at home, in what is called the semi-Fujairah Derby as the clubs are only 20 minutes away from each other. The game enters its last 20 minutes, and Kalba, who haven’t won a game in the Arabian Gulf League more than halfway into the season, look comfortable in the lead. Hassan Maatouk leads a comeback with 2 goals and an assist, helping Fujairah avoid relegation in the process over the next few weeks. HF
47. Ri Myong-Guk
Pyongyang City (PRK) / North Korea / Goalkeeper
Pak Nam-Chol, Chong Tese, Pak Chol-Jin, Ri Jun-Il, Ri Kwang-Chon – can you guess what’s the common link between them? They were all DPRK mainstays in their mid-20s at the introductory 2010 World Cup and they all vanished from the national squad soon afterwards, within a year or so. One familiar given name that has managed to hold onto his starting berth, though, coincidentally reads “bright country”. And boy, how bright Ri Myong-Guk tends to be between the sticks for North Korea!
Much quietly – as the North Korean blueprint commands, after all – Ri Myong-Guk has been right up there among the steadiest goalkeepers on the continent for quite some while now. You may remember him for letting in a softie against Brazil at that World Cup, but that is proving to be an exception to the rule rather than the opposite. A great commander of the usually impenetrable penalty area and genuine force in the air, Ri definitely embodies one of the most complete goalkeepers in Asia.
In 2015, the loyal servant of Pyongyang City has had a lot to do, and especially in the second part of the year, his performances were simply stellar. To demonstrate his consistency, the national team captain reclaimed the Best Goalkeeper award at the East Asian Cup after a seven-year hiatus following his tournament debut aged 21, and further proceeded to prove his qualities in the World Cup qualifiers.
Ri Myong-Guk clearly loves the WCQ, since he was virtually unbeatable in 2008 as well as in 2009. And in this particular qualifying set, he’s been his old self – yet to concede from anyone whose passport doesn’t scream “Uzbekistan”, standing tall with five clean sheets.
Highlight of the Year: His heroics against South Korea in the last East Asian Cup game
Going into the last East Asian Cup encounter, South Koreans knew that – with a little help from Japan (which everyone would rather avoid, naturally) – a draw could be enough for them to clinch the title. It indeed was, ultimately, but before that the favorites needed to go through a proper hell where the Lucifer was called Ri Myong-Guk. The then 28-year-old frustrated South Koreans with no sign of mercy; he would claim every high ball, make the routine stop when needed and deny some certain goals along the way, too. He was an all-round beast on the day and later used the acquired confidence in order to keep three more consecutive clean sheets. TD
48. Ehsan Hajsafi
Sepahan (IRN) / Iran / Left or Central Midfield
It’s very rare for Iran to produce players such as Ehsan Hajsafi, a player with immense workrate, extremely versatile and technically at a very high level. Only aged 25, he has already amassed 74 international caps and that is a testimony to how highly he is rated by his coaches. After his impressive performances in the 2014 World Cup, he attracted a lot of interest from European countries but his move to Premier League side, Hull City, didn’t materialise due to work permit issues. After his failure to move to England, he decided to stay with his club, Sepahan, for at least one more season. He was a key part of a team that went on to win the 2014/15 league title. His stamina and constant runnings down the left, gave Sepahan a different outlet and he assisted many goals for Mehdi Sharifi and Luciano Chimba. His maturity and experience at such a young age is impressive, his performances have always begged the question to why he doesn’t try his hand in Europe?
Well, the question was answered in the Summer of 2015. A move to England came about again, this time with Championship club, Fulham, but he still did not qualify for a British work permit as the move failed. Few weeks later it emerged that he has travelled to Germany ahead of completing a move to Bundesliga 2 side, FSV Frankfurt. As criticising players’ every decision has become a longstanding tradition in Iran, his move to a midtable 2nd division club was questioned, but at this age, it was a now or never situation for him to move to Europe. 2015/16 has been nothing special for the midfielder, 13 league appearances for him so far in the campaign, we’ll have to wait and see if 2016 will see his rise in Europe or not.
For the Iranian national team, however, he is as important as ever and he’s become one of the senior and key figures in the dressing room. He was again one of the best performers for Iran in the 2015 Asian Cup, as they made it to the Quarter finals but lost to Iraq in penalties. In that game, his 2nd half performance was questioned as he was switched to left back after Mehrdad Pouladi was sent off early on. He is regarded as a future Iran captain, and with so much experience and maturity in his game, it’s not unlikely to see him wearing the coveted Team Melli armband in the coming years.
Highlight of the season; His sublime goal against Bahrain
Iran started their 2015 Asian Cup in Australia, against Bahrain. Iran had initially failed to get a foothold in the game and it looked like both teams would go into the half time break at 0-0. Until a moment of magic from Hajsafi. Andranik Teymourian’s corner kick was punched away by the keeper, but the ball came to Hajsafi behind the box. A first touch with his left foot, and a subsequent incredible volley with his right foot sent the ball over everyone, including the keeper into the back of the net to the jubilation of the Iranian fans. SS
49. Mustafa Al-Bassas
Al-Ahli (KSA) / Saudi Arabia / Left or Central Midfield
The success story of Al-Ahli and their incredible unbeaten run across the Saudi Pro League year has been mainly affixed to the leading goal scoring machine Omar Al-Somah, however the Jeddah based club are far from a one-man team. The impressive form of Mustafa Al-Bassas in behind Al-Somah, either in a central or flanked role, has been crucial in their rise, and something that has been threatening to emerge for a while for the player himself.
Al-Bassas has long been waiting in the wings of Saudi Arabian football, previously touted as the new superstar of the region. Either flung onto covers of glitzy computer games or regularly spotted as “the next top talent” amongst sports publications, the midfielder has been a regular at the heart of the midfield as a creator for Ahli over the last three seasons. However, it was last term and his conversion into a more advanced and wider role that has brought forward further success.
His impish frame worked well with the static Al-Somah, famed for his dead ball abilities; virtue that perfectly gelled with Al-Bassas knack of winning free kicks high up the pitch. While his output continues to disappoint his followers, Al-Bassas’ talent has been in little doubt which has seen him garner greater recognition within the national team.
This season he’s had to focus ever more so with the influx of new overseas talent being shipped in by coach Christian Gross ahead of another SPL title assault. But write off Al-Bassas at your peril; for us, at 22, he continues to live up to the billing as one of Saudi’s most exciting talents.
Highlight of the Year: His inconspicuous efforts throughout the big clash with Al Nassr
In October, the key clash that everyone was talking about was the battle of last year’s top two, and how it didn’t let viewers down. Another Al-Somah hat-trick in a 4-2 win over champions Al-Nassr masked the personal performance of Al-Bassas who was everywhere, from harrying defenders to linking up with Ahli’s big name striker, being particularly instrumental in the Syrian’s third. As we head towards the New Year, Ahli continue on their good form at the top of the table, with Al-Bassas featuring prominently on the break. ML
50. Omar Khribin
Al-Mina’a (IRQ) / Syria / Striker
Omar Khribin has come all the way from playing in the Syrian league to making a big move to the UAE’s Arabian Gulf League, where Abu Dhabi-based Al-Dhafra play. They did good in signing him, as the Syrian International proved himself wherever he went. He ended his 2015 internationally with 2 goals for Syria against Singapore, something we will talk about later, and on club level by topping the Iraqi Premier League scoring charts with Al-Minaa. On a completely different note, he started off 2016 with a debut goal against none other than AGLeague Champions Al-Ain.
He’s able to play in attacking midfield, on the flanks and even up front. His best role would be as a False 10, occupying the #10 position in the defensive phase but operating away from Zone 14 while Syria are on the ball. He pushes up to draw the attention of opposition defenders, or moves out to the flank to help his teammates build play if isolated.
In terms of on the ball ability, Khribin is very good at shielding the ball and uses his physical abilities to turn well and pass. However, his first touch is often too heavy and he is prone to losing the ball early when receiving it. His scoring abilities on the other hand are fantastic, able to use his head and feet to score.
Highlight of the Year: A delightful double against Singapore
Syria conceded a late equalizer against the resilient Singaporean National Team in the World Cup Qualifiers, which would have delayed their Asian Cup qualification announcement and also hinder any chance for overtaking Japan in first place. Khribin, who had already scored the opener in the game, scored in the 93rd minute and helped Syria to 3 valuable points in Singapore and helping them qualify for the 2015 Asian Cup. HF
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.
#SFGTop100 – 51-60; featuring the next big thing in Arab football, the author of the Asian Cup winning goal, the sole Filipino, a Japanese making waves in the English Premier League, or an ‘Australian Iniesta’.