Here we go, the last set of ten #SFGTop100 Asians of 2015 is out tonight; from now on, we will be revealing the very best players name by name. For this last collective work, all of our regular contributors have once again been called into action; Sina Saemian, Martin Lowe, Hamoudi Fayad and Tom Danicek. Have a nice read!
21. Sardar Azmoun
Rostov FC (RUS) / Iran / Striker
Some regard him as the heir to the great Ali Daei throne, some called him the “Iranian Messi” but for the rest of us, it’s just Sardar Azmoun. When his name is mentioned to any Iranian football fan, their mouths start watering at the prospect of this 19 year old striker. He’s considered as a phenomenal talent, and he is most definitely the poster boy for the new generation of Iranian football.
Sardar comes from a region in Iran which is more famous for producing volleyball players and race winning jockeys than footballers. In the province of Golestan, the town of Gonbad-e-kabus, most of the locals are considered to be Turkmen and Azmoun is no different. He comes from a sporting family, with his father being a volleyball coach. His talents from an early age prompted a move to Persian Gulf Pro League Giants, Sepahan Isfahan. But by the age of 17, his reputation had gone further than just Iran. He signed for Rubin Kazan of Russia when no one had heard of him and it was there where he made a name for himself.
The Russian club had really made him feel at home and he settled in quite easily. His great performances for Rubin, including a goal and an assist on his league debut vs Anzhi, brought around some interest from the biggest clubs in Europe. With Arsenal and AC Milan apparently speaking to the club for a possibility of a move, but Rubin were unwilling to sell.
During the first of 2014/15 season, he wasn’t getting many games on the pitch as he would’ve wanted so in February a loan move came along. Rostov in the Russian PremierLeague signed him until the end of the season. Rostov were fighting a relegation battle at the time and Azmoun slowly made his way into the starting 11. He scored 3 goals in 11 appearances for the club including the winner in their relegation play-off which guaranteed their survival in the league. During the summer, and after another set of speculations to move to west Europe, he agreed to re-join Rostov on loan for the rest of the season. He’s been playing regular football for the team which is crucial for a player of his age, he’s slowly become a key member of the squad as he hopes to to score 10 goals or more until the end of this season.
Many experts believe 2016 is a crucial year for Azmoun and in the upcoming summer he must agree a move to one of the top 5 leagues. Whether you agree with them or not, it’s tough to debate that Azmoun has the potential to be a great and with a little bit of guidance and work ethic, he can make it into any of the top 5 European leagues.
Iranian football has lacked a real centre forward for many years since the heydays of Ali Daei. Karim Ansarifard and Reza Ghoochannejhad have both filled in the position on a short term basis, but the arrival of Azmoun excited many Team Melli enthusiasts. He missed the plane to Brazil in 2014 after being named in the initial 30-man squad, but he made the cut for the 2015 Asian Cup. He scored two great goals in the tournament, against Qatar and Iraq, as the rest of the continent took note of what he has to offer. Carlos Queiroz has a real gem at hand and will be sure to use him to his full potential as Iran hope to qualify for Russia 2018.
Highlight of the season: His Bergkamp impersonation against Qatar at the Asian Cup
Let’s go all the way back to January 2015 and the Asian Cup. A group stage game against Qatar, and surprisingly Sardar Azmoun was starting ahead of Reza Ghoochannejhad. He repaid his manager’s faith with a stunning goal. As he was running towards the Qatari goal, Ashkan Dejagah sent in a low cross from the right, Azmoun shielded the ball across him with his body back to goal but used his right foot to turn the ball around the bamboozled defender as he knocked a past an outcoming Qassem Burhan for an exquisite goal. That was the only goal of the game which guarantees Iran qualification to the next round. SS
22. Sardor Rashidov
El Jaish (QAT) / Uzbekistan / Attacking Midfield
Sardor Rashidov hardly epitomises the typical Uzbek stereotype. A selfish, direct but highly skilled footballer with all the makings to score plenty in years to come, this past year was always going to be seen as Rashidov’s make or break year as he moved away from his homeland to the big money leagues of the Gulf. So far, he’s living up the big money contract he warranted.
He was build up highly ahead of the Asian Cup in January, especially by fellow SFG writer Tom Danicek, who spoke highly of his ability to drift in from the wing and hit with either foot, while also striking the uncanny resemblance of a certain world player of the year when taking his free kicks. While our confidence in him was sky high, it took time to win over Mirjalol Qosimov in the dugout in Australia, mainly being utilised off the bench but notching two goals for his efforts, his star had awoken on the continental scene.
In the months to come Rashidov went on to star in ACL action with Bunyodkor, prompted another eulogising profile in our Asia’s Rising Stars series, followed by the big money move muted for a while to El Jaish in Qatar. While Russian Premier League clubs sniffed around, the decision to stay put in Asia could prove pivotal to his development. Rashidov, still only 24 has taken like a duck to water, despite struggling at first with injury and off the field settling, while on the pitch he has looked deadly, scoring on average a goal a game towards the end of the year. Another year has passed, another milestone is being warranted, given his form in World Cup qualification, it looks like we haven’t seen the last of it.
Highlight of the Year: Effective performances in World Cup qualifiers
While his talent has always been apparent, Rashidov’s excellence on the international scene seemed to be stunted under Qosimov’s leadership. Since the appointment of Babayan in World Cup qualification his talent has been harnessed into effective output. His two goal display away to at the time leaders Philippines was an example of his devastating efficiency. Not necessarily his most impactful game, but with two swift moments he had two goals, further underlying his deadly reputation from range. ML
23. Kwak Tae-hwi
Al-Hilal (KSA) / South Korea / Centre Back
A well worthy turnaround in a career, Kwak Tae-hwi has proved in the last two seasons his worth as not only a national team option but also one of the finest central defenders in Asia, all this at 34 years old. Starting with his ACL finalist medal at the end of last year, through to the same stage at international level at the Asian Cup, Kwak’s revitalisation continues to this day as he goes into his twilight years of his career.
Kwak’s style has broadly been seen as one dimensional. Given the dearth in physical defending from South Korea it’s clear to see why they laud a player solely in one area they have been lacking. However, his height, physique and dominance in the air aside, he’s a tactical, calm head in defence. Ever since missing out on any starting minutes at last summer’s World Cup his form has accelerated through the roof, seeing him quite deservedly regain a spot in Uli Stielike’s newly solid Korean backline in Australia.
Quietly effective, he doesn’t have the same star appeal as the likes of national team partner Kim Young-gwon, or the promise of some of his younger contenders, but Kwak remains critical to his sides’ successes. For Al-Hilal, so much so as the Riyadh giants looked a laughing stock when he was out injured earlier on this year. It’s by no coincidence that Kwak is one of the very few overseas defenders in Gulf football, the reason is purely his quality.
Either playing as a ball player in a back three for club, or as the conquering leader for Korea he’s been irreplaceable this year. The only limitation has sadly been his age which has caught up on him and has lost him a place in Stielike’s World Cup plans given Kwak will be 37 come Russia 2018. For 2015 however, this was Kwak’s year in the sun.
Highlight of the Year: Unexpected rise to occasion at the Asian Cup
In arguably his best period of play in his whole career, January’s runners up finish with Korea was a clear highpoint in Kwak’s year. Growing in importance as the tournament went on, Kwak’s resolute stature continued to form an impenetrable force, in a side that kept 5 straight clean sheets on the road to the Asian Cup final. His partnership with Kim Young-gwon saw an old head guide the young darling of Korean football through the competition, setting him up for a sparkling year of his very own. Kwak’s renaissance however is still worthy of some continental attention. ML
24. Abdelkarim Hassan
Al-Sadd (QAT) / Qatar / Left Back
It seems almost ridiculous that Abdelkarim Hassan is still eligible to be at the U-23 Asian Championship, fighting for a spot at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. That mature he is (after all, he captains Qatar there), and that long he’s been around, famously debuting in the Asian Champions League at the tender age of 17.
When Al Sadd celebrated their triumph in the said competition a few months later, Abdelkarim was already an established regular whose name was being thrown all around the continent, and so it’s no wonder he now looked like a proper bully in the U-23s opener, orchestrating a turnaround against China while delivering his trademark screamer, and once again putting in a man-of-the-match performance a couple of days later. He’s way past his peers, way past – and bound to become the tournament’s top scorer with four strikes after three group stage games.
As of now, Abdelkarim Hassan has been through more than 150 competitive starts for the club, and stands tall – head and shoulders above all his colleagues – in the Qatar Stars League as an incredibly strong and powerful, yet technically adept fullback. If you search for some tangible success of the often discussed Aspire Academy, look no further. Here you have the most complete and influential Qatari youngster since Khalfan Ibrahim and his remarkably early rise to prominence in mid-2000s.
That said, it is worth noting that at one point of 2015, identity crisis of sorts had been forced upon Abdelkarim Hassan as the incoming Qatar national team manager José Daniel Carreño was for some time searching for an ideal setup and initially preferred the established defender on the left wing. That experiment soon had to be ditched, though, as even Carreño inevitably realized Abdelkarim is at his best when powering through or cutting inside from deep, rather than starting higher up.
Highlight of the Year: Growing impact in front of opponent’s goal
There may be some concern about his positional awareness (although that issue also tends to be exaggerated by one friendly with Scotland), but all those occasional defensive hiccups look rather petty when put next to Abdelkarim’s offensive contribution, that’s getting only more accentuated with time. For a longtime now, it has been clear Abdelkarim does possess quite some eye for delivery from deep, totally unrivalled across the continent as far as fullbacks go, but my consultant Ahmed Hashim has also recently noticed the Doha native is growing on confidence to such extent he seems to be keen on scoring more often.
We have already grown accustomed to Abdelkarim’s splendid diagonal passes to the right wing where he starts Al Haydos’ dangerous runs on a regular basis, but this season, one more phenomenon was born out of the fullback’s high IQ and a new high-profile arrival. Abdelkarim Hassan has been able to forge almost telephatic understanding between himself and the Spanish wizard Xavi, whose three set piece deliveries have already resulted in goals scored by the 22-year-old (however one was an utter fluke). TD
25. Wang Dalei
Shandong Luneng (CHN) / China / Goalkeeper
As one of our regular contributors Tom Danicek commented back in March, Chinese goalkeeper Wang Dalei is a name worthy of our Asia’s Rising Stars series. Fast-forward nearly 12 months now, and we still have high hopes for Wang, but our clear focus will undoubtedly look back on what was a potentially career defining tournament in Australia’s Asian Cup.
Prior to the tournament, Wang hadn’t ever been able to truly call the number one jersey his own, but after a series of memorable performances in Australia, he can rest assure that he’s well and truly clinched the deal. He’s no stereotype by any means; China are used to relying on a steady, risk averse stoppers, well skilled but with a calm presence, Wang doesn’t exactly breed confidence, his eccentric nature often leaves onlookers uneasy. Not that this should deter his perception, Wang is a flamboyant but fantastically talented keeper who is equally capable of the stunning one handed save than that of an ill-judged clearance from the back.
His displays in the national jersey have been pretty much faultless, a strong display in Australia has been followed up with 5 clean sheets in 6 World Cup qualification matches, but he has also translated this form to his domestic showings. Wang was an ever present between the sticks for Shandong, and while their clean sheet figures may not stack up against other top Chinese sides, he recorded a number of match winning performances along the way to another successful ACL qualification campaign after finishing third in the Chinese Super League.
Highlight of the Year: Inspired to a penalty save against Saudi Arabia through the direction of a ball boy
When I think back on the year, one moment ticks all the boxes for me in terms of memorability, skill but also bravado. Struggling in their Asian Cup opener against Saudi Arabia, China gave away a penalty mid-way through the second half. Instead of going through a ritual preparation routine, Wang looked relaxed, almost cocky, opting to have a discussion behind the goal with Australian ball boy Stephen White.
After direction from the young lad (who also is a keen goalkeeper) Wang thwarted Naif Hazazi’s penalty kick, which in turn spurred on his side to victory in a match up where they were clearly second best to that point. Wang heaped praise on young White after the match, adding to his humility and general cult status within the Asian games, which he has continued to attract ever since. ML
26. AJ DeLaGarza
Los Angeles Galaxy (USA) / Guam / Centre or Right Back
The year 2014 wasn’t too kind to Adolph Joseph DeLaGarza. While he was his usual class on the pitch and was named LA Galaxy’s best defender after covering all positions across the backline, he and his wife have lost a baby only a week after he was born – and that obviously overshadowed everything.
This past year, however, has brought some special satisfaction to the DeLaGarza family. In October, the married couple celebrated the birth of a perfectly healthy baby girl, while earlier in 2015, AJ himself lived his own fairytale as Guam bursted onto the qualifying scene with two wins and some surprising solidity at the back.
The fact DeLaGarza was marshalling national team’s defence as confidently as he did, mind you, shouldn’t be taken on a light note, because it required some serious adjusting. At club, the 27-year-old has been used mainly as a right back (pretty bloody good right back, by the way, statistically the 4th best defensive one in the whole of MLS) while functioning within vastly experienced back line; something that obviously doesn’t correspond with the Guam reality.
What allowed DeLaGarza to slip so effortlessly into a brand new role, then, is the peculiar set of abilities he brings to the table. “He’s one of, if not the most positionally gifted defenders in the league,” notes Sean Steffen, writer for LAG Confidential, and adds: “When you combine AJ’s ability to position himself and read runs, with how fast he can run, you get a player who does stuff like this regularly.”
“The sport is extremely physical in the States and is incredibly unforgiving on small centerbacks, so any time you see one at the professional level, it tends to be because they read the game at a whole another level, and this is especially true of AJ. It is very rare that he will miss his mark, misread a defensive rotation, pick up a run too late, or ever be caught ball watching or flat-footed,” Sean continues.
That said, the two-time MLS champions has already had better years in Galaxy jersey. While my consultant cites “spectacular show” as DeLaGarza’s blueprint, the fans haven’t enjoyed much of it in 2015, mainly because of some badly timed injury concerns. DeLaGarza was on and off the pitch at the beginning of the season due to a foot injury and, according to Sean, he finally settled back in his position for only the last third of the campaign. After its end, DeLaGarza underwent a surgery on a groin issue that had been bothering him for five months, hoping this calendar year will mark comeback to his very high standard.
Highlight of the Year: Turning up for Guam and leading them to the great opening set of qualifiers
There is little doubt AJ DeLaGarza would cut it for the United States, a country he was born in and whose colours he wore in two 2012 friendlies. In fact, not just “cut it”, more than that – Sean Steffen even argues the 28-year-old would now be headed into the pantheon of American defenders, challenging Eddie Pope for the unofficial title of the greatest one of the lot.
This arrangement, however, clearly wasn’t meant to be. Bob Bradley more or less passed on the player when he was still eligible for selection, and AJ himself committed to Guam as soon as in August 2013. Almost two years later, Adolph Joseph DeLaGarza finally lined up for Guam – the Pacific island he has tattooed on his right arm, since many members of his father’s family still lives on it. And it was some occasion to celebrate indeed.
Albeit he looked a bit rusty in the preceding MLS matches, the experienced defender turned up for Guam precisely as the ever dependable general coach Gary White was always counting on. Confident on the ball and immaculate when reading the game, DeLaGarza led the islanders to only one conceded goal in the two opening June fixtures. And while it hasn’t been such a lovely ride further down the line, putting aside that one mismatch with Iran, Guam have still allowed only two goals in four qualifiers under AJ’s watch. TD
A return to the days of old, Taisir Al-Jassim produced a memorable performance for the Ahlawi and Saudi Arabian national team in 2015. A lung-bustling runner from deep, Al-Jassim is Saudi Arabia’s Steven Gerrard. Spending the whole career in green for Al-Ahli, Al-Jassim – like Gerrard – has also been part of a club that boasts a large fan base yet have not been league champions since the 1980’s.
Al-Jassim also possesses the traits needed to help promising Al-Hilal midfielder Khalid Kaabi replace himself over the next few years. Slowly moving towards his twilight years, it would be a shame not to see the talented midfield maestro win the Abdul Latif Jameel Pro League (the Saudi Premier League). Al-Ahli are undefeated in more than 40 games as they enter 2016, but it seems to have become a real burden on them in their fight towards the coveted league title. Al-Jassim, clearly, is the pioneer of such a glamorous team that needs a bit more luck to earn the crown of Saudi Arabia.
Highlight of the Year: Shining brightly in his twilight years
Taisir Al-Jassim may be on the wrong side of 30 but his performances for both club and national team have been immense in 2015. Rejuvenated and buzzing, Al-Jassim was the epitome of how players should use their experience in the Middle East. Or for him, add talent to that too. HF
28. Odil Akhmedov
FK Krasnodar (RUS) / Uzbekistan / Central Midfield
Growing into an instrumental part of Pakhtakor squad at the tender age of 20, Odil Akhmedov has seemingly been around forever. Only now, however, it really feels like he’s living up to the initial hype; like he’s properly maturing and finding the ever needed consistency.
Always an avid long-distance shooter, Akhmedov has started to be somewhat pickier and finally uses his tremendous versatility to perfection, representing a true asset both when going forward and defending.
It was precisely Akhmedov’s step up what, above all, made Uzbekistan such a formidable force again – this fall, he was imposing and prolific as barely ever before, as he’s managed to score in three competitive games in a row for the first time in his international career. Even two would mark his first.
Akhmedov’s progress hasn’t gone without recognition on the club level, too. Although Krasnodar had struggled in the early proceedings of this season, Odil Akhmedov – freshly named club’s best player of the 2014/15 season after collecting four assists throughout the historic Europa League campaign – still tends to not disappoint on his own.
“Akhmedov remains one of the better central midfielders in the Russian Premier League, and with his powerful shot from the distance, great passing skill and calm overview of the game, it is no wonder that Arsène Wenger was once keen on the Uzbek,” notes Toke Møller Theilade, editor-in-chief of the excellent Russian Football News site. No wonder Akhmedov has recently been rewarded by a new contract running till 2019.
Highlight of the Year: Appointed Uzbekistan captain by the new manager
When Samvel Babayan arrived to the Uzbek dressing room ahead of the September qualifiers, his very first decision in the office was also the most logical and symbolic one he could’ve possibly made. After all, Odil Akhmedov had captained the team before, and it’s indeed no coincidence that those minutes under his watch also made for the best ones Uzbekistan have played out recently.
A responsible Akhmedov drove the rejuvenated team to the crucial Asian Cup group stage win against Saudi Arabia and a combative Akhmedov held South Korea at bay expertly up until he got injured after 30 minutes of the quarter-final. Only now, then, the 28-year-old finally embodies a true flagship of the side; outshining Djeparov, getting important goals and leading by example via improved commitment. TD
29. Jong Il-Gwan
Rimyongsu (PRK) / North Korea / Attacking Midfield
It’s no understatement to suggest that North Korea have been one of the teams of 2015. Despite a miserable start to the year, with a swift exit from January’s Asian Cup, the East Asian side have taken the continent by storm with their revamped brave, energetic, forward thinking brand of football, spurred on in no small part by attacking linchpin Jong Il-Gwon.
The 22-year-old who we hyped up ahead of the Asian Cup, did initially falter, mainly due to the team’s tactical shaping rather than anything to do with his own individual endeavour. Under Jo Tong-Sop however, Korea DPR have looked a different beast. Gone are the days of packing men behind the ball, now they seek to press high up the pitch and work intelligent interplay between the attackers at speed. Jong’s role within this, as an attacking midfielder either drifting in from the left or in a more central role has proved effective, as he starts to reap his goal scoring rewards in the last few World Cup qualifiers.
His place hasn’t always been guaranteed, in fact he’s only featured in half of Korea’s qualifiers from the start. However his importance to the team remains high, scoring three of Korea’s last 5 goals in qualifying including winners against Bahrain and Yemen. He’s sometimes held in higher regard outside of the Korean camp, purely for his technical ability that rank’s him ahead of his peers. His lacking work ethic off the ball which had seen him be benched a few times now seems to be well-improved, while his relationship with front man Pak Kwang-Ryong continues to look threatening going into the New Year.
Highlight of the Year: His difference-making cameo against Bahrain on September 3
Back in September, with only minutes to go until the half time break in Bahrain, Jong was called upon to replace So Hyon-Uk (arguably Korea’s greatest goal scoring threat up to this point) and proved to be an instant masterstroke. Within a minute he’d latched onto a Pak knockdown before striking past Sayed Jaafar at the second opportunity. This proved a key moment in North Korea’s year, their first real away test passed with flying colours, but also a key turning point for Jong who went on to score two more before the year was up. ML
30. Gaku Shibasaki
Kashima Antlers (JPN) / Japan / Central Midfield
Heir to the Kashima Antlers idol Masashi Motoyama and his iconic number 10, studious apprentice to the legendary club captain Mitsuo Ogasawara, and finally the only possible successor to Yasuhito Endo and his well-documented ball wizardry – Gaku Shibasaki has simply been surrounded by some great compliments and even greater people ever since he broke onto the biggest stage in quite some style, as the J.League Rookie of the Year 2012.
In that inaugural season, Gaku Shibasaki obviously set the bar very high for himself, but that was never going to be a problem for the laudably disciplined, focused and self-challenging midfielder. In 2014, an excellent Shibasaki followed up on Ogasawara’s inclusion in the J. League Best XI (2009), and this past year, he’s further improved as a versatile central midfielder without being officially named among top performers in the country.
Always praised for maturity beyond his age, the 23-year-old has acquired even a bigger role within the ambitious team during 2015, captaining Kashima throughout the first stage and leading by example on a side that’s been gradually losing their most experienced components (Motoyama, Koji Nakata and Toru Araiba are gone, with ageing Sogahata and Ogasawara to soon follow the suit).
Shibasaki has also stepped up in terms of productivity. On top of registering a good couple of second assists, he’s been directly involved in 20 competitive goals for the first time in his career, and Sagan Tosu in particular was destroyed by him on both league occasions. Also, however short experience it was for the underwhelming collective, Shibasaki himself certainly didn’t disappoint in his first Champions League campaign as the Antlers mainstay.
Although he’d missed out on majority of his club’s greatest achievement in 2015 – having to skip most of the golden Nabisco Cup run due to national team callups – Shibasaki was once again superb in the lopsided final against Gamba Osaka, delivering the last nail in the coffin with a prompt pass behind the line in a 3:0 win.
Precisely his great vision and passing ability shown in that Cup final instance, along with some dangerous corner kicks and mid-range shots, is what leads many experts and observers – including Gabriele Anello – into thinking that Gaku Shibasaki should eventually prove to be good enough to comfortably fill Yasuhito Endo’s big boots, as the main ball distributor for Japan.
“Building the game with Shibasaki as DM/CM is the best option (as opposed to him starting further up the pitch). I think a couple of midfield with Wataru Endo and Gaku Shibasaki could even exceed what Makoto Hasebe and Yasuhito Endo have done together for JNT,” Gabriele looks into the future with excitement.
Highlight of the Year: The great introduction of Endo’s inheritor at the Asian Cup
It was only his second competitive senior cap, and he instantly looked like a difference-maker. As the Samurai Blue were desperately knocking on UAE doors in the frustrating Asian Cup quarter-final, the incoming Gaku Shibasaki did something no one had actually tried till that 81st minute – he went for an audacious one-two with Keisuke Honda and then produced an unstoppable effort from the edge of the penalty area.
It was the sort of daring bit of play Yasuhito Endo was no longer able to produce, and it was therefore only symbolic that Shibasaki replaced him in the 54th minute to later convert a spot kick in the ill-fated shootout with the utmost confidence. Like Endo, a renowned specialist, surely would have. 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.
#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 Arab thing, author of the Asian Cup winning goal, the sole Filipino, a Japanese making waves in the Premier League, or an ‘Australian Iniesta’.
#SFGTop100 – 41-50; featuring Marcello Lippi’s favourite, a controversial Iranian figure, the Australian sidefoot pass master, the main Lebanese and Syrian star, or the first North Korean.
#SFGTop100 – 31-40; featuring two South Korean fullbacks, an Iranian sniper, two often overlooked stars from the UAE, a former ‘Chinese Maradona, or three inventive penalty takers.