In our latest instalment of our SFG Top 100 series countdown we look at those players we’ve ranked 31-40 in Asia. In this selection we’ve included a Chinese Super League winner, the top scorer in domestic Iranian football and a European Champions League goalscorer no less. Again our team of writers comprising of Ahmed Hashim, Martin Lowe, Wael Jabir, Sina Saemian, Tom Danicek, Jun Kim & Hamoudi Fayed have profiled each of the players selected, if you agree/disagree with our thoughts let us know on Twitter using the hashtag #SFGTop100.
40. Odil Akhmedov (Last Year: 28)
Krasnodar (RUS) / Uzbekistan / Central Midfield
One of Asia’s most consistent performers in Europe, Odil Akhmedov brought to close his six-year stint in Russia, remaining at the top of the Russian Premier League and in the Europa League with Krasnodar, exiting to begin a new chapter in his career with Shanghai SIPG in 2017. He started the year being named the “Best Football Player” in Uzbekistan, and with another successful year under his belt in World Cup qualification, he’s up there again to repeat the same feat for a successive year.
For his country, he’s moved into a higher gear for this World Cup qualification campaign. In a team that doesn’t score as many goals as some of its fans would hope for, Akhmedov remains the second most productive despite being deployed in a much deeper midfield role. But it’s at the other end where he’s proven pivotal. While we’ve highlighted a number of Uzbek defensive enforcers in this countdown, Akhmedov’s strong presence in front of the back four is another reason why they’ve kept clean sheets in three of the four Round 3 matches he’s played in, and maybe the very reason they conceded for the first time at home when he wasn’t on the pitch against Iran.
Domestically, Krasnodar remain on the fringes of a possible debut in the UEFA Champions League, finishing 4th last campaign and currently hovering around the same spot as the RPL went into its winter break. Akhmedov’s talents have extended to the Europa League, where Krasnodar progressed again alongside Schalke to the knockout stages, a phase he’ll miss out on for the move to China. Opinion is split whether this is a good thing, given the experience he’s accrued to date and his influence in the national team setup. However, from SIPG’s point of view, no one can complain at the quality of player they’re bringing in.
Highlight of the Year – Returning to skipper crucial victory v China
Dropping points at home to Iran was seen as a typical Uzbek trait when it comes to World Cup qualification. With it however, came the return of their skipper Akhmedov to prove all is not lost in the final round group stage with a crucial victory over China. The cool head of the ex-Pakhtakor man slotting in at the base of the midfield allowed for calm, assured possession but an added burst forward when needed. Hardly a headline grabbing result, but an important psychological one going forward in an open qualifying campaign which runs into the new year. ML
39. Ali Al-Habsi (New Entry)
Reading (ENG) / Oman / Goalkeeper
You thought you wouldn’t hear about him once more, did you? Well, with Oman having to play next to no competitive games in 2016, we certainly can’t blame you fully. But boy, the English Championship has been as full of Al Habsi as ever, with the Middle Eastern icon quickly establishing himself as a cult hero at Reading.
Granted, the freshly 35-year-old veteran endured a rough start to his career with the Royals, as he battled for the no. 1 position with Jonathan Bond in the early weeks of 2015/16 season, but this past year was an overwhelming success for the sharp goalkeeper. After a strong spring, Al Habsi was named Reading’s player of the season; and after a no less strong autumn, just a few days ago in fact, he inked a new contract until 2018.
The phenomenal Ali Al Habsi, of course, is no new entity to any Asian Football Passionate who shall kindly see him as the best goalkeeper in Gulf Cup history. More or less the same goes for an England-focused observer, though. At many points between 2010-12, Al Habsi could well have been rated among the best custodians in the Premier League, which is reflected by one Wigan Athletic player of the season award (2011) and a rather impressive eight clean sheets for the 15th-placed side the following season.
But Al Habsi’s memorable 2016 looks only more so when you consider that this Reading stint is his first English one where he has had to get on without his family by his side at all times. While his wife gave birth to their third child just this fall and one of his daughters needed to be hospitalized at one point, Al Habsi has spent most of that time on his own, separated from his dearests.
The classy manager Jaap Stam, however, allows him to pop to Oman on the rare opportunity and that has undoubtedly helped Al Habsi on the pitch, where he’d once gone unbeaten for an incredible 446 minutes and shone against West Bromwich as well as Crystal Palace in the latter stages of last term’s FA Cup.
Highlight of the Year – The brilliant run amidst some shameful abuse from his own fans
On the last October Saturday, something unusual happened; or had to happen, more like. Soon after his heroics against Arsenal in the League Cup, Ali Al Habsi needed to be sat down and talked to by his own goalkeeping coach as some of the abusive chants from Reading fans, suggesting the Omani’s connection to ISIS (a very poor joke at best), quite understandably started getting to him.
A few ticket holders were banned over this incident, but more importantly, Ali Al Habsi himself responded in the exact manner only a great goalkeeper and persona could: on that very Saturday, he blanked Nottingham Forest with a man-of-the-match performance, and then proceeded to collect two more straight clean sheets in dominant 3:0 wins over Wigan and Burton. In the end, Reading’s official Player of October would go without conceding in four league games in a row for the first time in some three years. What a man, what a phenomenon! TD
38. Saeed Ezatolahi (New Entry)
Rostov (RUS) / Iran / Central Midfield
The Iranian national team enjoyed a phenomenal year in 2016, sitting at the top of their 2018 World Cup Qualification group and unbeaten for the entire year. The current team now has an almost different look compared to the one that qualified for the 2014 World Cup. And with so many new faces involved, 2016 was the year that one man really cemented his spot in the national team. 20 year old central midfielder, Saeed Ezatolahi, already had a reputation as one of the most talented young central midfielders in Asia, but this year he took another step towards realising his full potential.
Ezatolahi had previously signed for Russian side, Rostov, but had rarely featured for the team as they enjoyed an amazing season in 2015/16, qualifying for the UEFA Champions League for the first time. With many suitors lining up for him across Europe, it only seemed a matter of time before the Anzali born midfielder moved away from Russia. But he decided to stay put at Rostov and fight his way into the first team. This decision paid off as he has already made 17 appearances for the club in all competitions, including coming off the bench against Bayern Munich and PSV in the Champions League group stages. With Rostov going into the second half of the season having qualified for the UEFA Europa League, many Iranian fans will be keen to see their young star develop further.
For the national team, Ezatolahi had a stellar year. The retirement of Javad Nekounam, and with Andranik Teymourian coming towards the end of his career, many had fears over the future of Iran’s central midfield, a position that had been secure for many years. Ezatolahi gained the trust of Carlos Queiroz and he repaid the faith his manager put in him by putting in some great performances. His composure on the ball and passing abilities has made Iran more comfortable in possession and his newly found partnership with Ehsan Hajsafi as the two holding midfielders looks very promising for Iran. He started 7 out of 8 Iran games in 2016, only missing a friendly game against Papua New Guinea, which represents his newly found importance to Queiroz’s plans as Iran aims to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.
Highlight of the year: His first start is rewarded with a debut goal in the Champions League
In July, Rostov had to beat Anderlecht in the third round play-offs of the UEFA Champions League. The first leg of this tie at home was Ezatolahi’s first start for Rostov, a game of such importance for the club and it was time for Ezatolahi to prove his worth to many fans who finally got to see him start for the club.
Anderlecht took the lead inside the first 5 minutes to put more pressure on the hosts. Just over the 15 minutes mark, Christian Noboa saw his freekick saved by the keeper, only for Ezatolahi to pounce on the rebound and score his first goal for the club in his first start. It was a huge moment for him and also for the team as they went on to draw 2-2, and beat them 2-0 in the 2nd leg to qualify for the next round. SS
37. Nam Tae-hee (New Entry)
Lekhwiya (QAT) / South Korea / Attacking Midfield
It’s hard to pinpoint a better use of an AFC player slot than that of Nam Tae-hee at Lekhwiya. While we see many Koreans sworn into the Middle East, only a few (if any) have the same impact on their teams as Nam does. It is part of the reason his club doesn’t need to employ a stereotypically creative South American (a rarity in Asia as a whole), as Nam himself fits the bill as the creative supply line behind the central striker. Be it Sebastian Soria of old, Mohammed Muntari or Dioko Kaluyituka recently or Youssef El-Arabi this season, Nam finds a new level in every forward’s game.
As a whole, his club struggled last season, finishing a distant 4th outside the ACL qualifying spots, terrible news for a club with such lofty ambitions. It was an off season for the team, but not for the playmaking wizard who continually stuck out as their most impactful player, becoming the club’s highest goalscorer over the last 12 months. He illustrated his talents again on the continental stage, as Lekhwiya made the last 8, with Nam scoring in their near comeback away to national rivals El Jaish. He also turned it on in the domestic cup competition, where he scored and assisted in their Emir Cup comeback victory over Al Sadd, ensuring Lekwiya would indeed have a direct passage through to the ACL after all.
Nam’s flexibility to score from distance as well as from up close, to be adept at build-up play as much as he is running with the ball, is nothing short of admirable. It sometimes appears that the ball is glued to his foot, and many are often openly asking which foot he favours. The only downside so far has been his underutilisation at national team level. In his only start in WCQ this year, he underlined his argument that he should be starting more often, with the equalising goal against Uzbekistan back in November.
Highlight of the Year – A stunning hat-trick vs Al-Gharafa
In one of the best games anywhere this season, Lekhwiya edged out Gharafa 5-4 in the Qatar Stars League after a thrilling end-to-end encounter. Throughout, one man glistened the most in the away colours, that being Nam Tae-hee, notching a hat-trick over the 90 minutes. His first may have been a mere tap in, but it again shows his flexibilities when this is broadly an exception to much of his efforts.
For his other two, he first curled in a free-kick from the right of the box to reaffirm Lekhwiya’s 4-2 lead, and was then called upon again late on thanks to some sloppy keeping from the ever reliable Lecomte, something special was needed to clinch the winner in stoppage time. Nam again lined up a free-kick, this time to the left of the area, shaping to cross, he whipped it to the back post, straight into the top corner. A delightful way to end a delightful match, with one man taking all the praise. ML
36. Khalid Eisa (New Entry)
Al Ain (UAE) / UAE / Goalkeeper
The year 2016 saw UAE side Al Ain cement their reputation as a powerhouse of Middle Eastern and Asian football. And while Omar Abdulrahman was the poster boy for Al Ain’s success, 27-year-old goalkeeper Khalid Eisa has arguably been equally important.
After back-to-back semi-final appearances, in 2016, Eisa and co. were determined to go one step further in the continental competition and so they did, reaching the final after an impressive run that featured five clean sheets. Away shut-outs against Zob Ahan in Isfahan and Lokomotiv in Tashkent were crucial for their progression through to the knock-out stages with Eisa’s numerous saves being as decisive as Amoory’s deadly passes.
Khalid Eisa came through the ranks at Al Jazira, making his first team debut in 2010/11 season, but the young goalkeeper found himself constantly playing second fiddle to the team’s captain Ali Khaseif, so in 2013, he sought a move away from Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium and Al Ain came calling. Eisa jumped at the opportunity which would prove to be a life-changing decision.
Under the tutelage of Uruguayan manager Jorge Fossati, a former international goalkeeper himself, Eisa developed into number one in his position in the country, earning a call-up to the national team and going on to become a mainstay between the sticks for the whites.
The 2016 hasn’t been a year full of happy endings for the UAE international, defeat in the Champions League final was preceded by a penalty shoot-out loss against Al Jazira in the President’s Cup final despite Eisa’s best efforts in saving Ali Mabkhout’s penalty before his colleagues went on to miss twice from the spot. Al Ain also came agonizingly close to winning the league before succumbing to a 1-0 defeat at the hands of their title rivals Al Ahli in the penultimate round.
Individually, Khalid Eisa will be encouraged by his progress as a goalkeeper and the fact that he is now the undisputable no.1 for the national team whenever he is fit. Eisa cited “challenging for top honours” as one of his reasons for making the switch from Al Jazira to Al Ain four years ago and while a runner-up finish in three competitions in 2016 might be a disappointment, it is certainly a sign that Eisa is in the right place to win major silverware soon.
Highlight of the Year – Quarter-final heroics against Lokomotiv
Against one of the meanest defences in the competition, Al Ain knew they’d not get much against Tashkent based Lokomotiv in the ACL quarter-finals, and so it proved. In a tense tie, Eisa ensured back-to-back clean sheets would see his side through. A couple of saves were truly outstanding, two in particular to deny Sandjar Shaakhmedov from distance in the first leg, and Marat Bikmaev in the second ensured the Emiratis progressed 2-0 on aggregate. WJ
35. Sebastian Soria (New Entry)
Al Rayyan (QAT) / Qatar / Striker
Looking back at the past year, one may wonder if the 33-year old Sebastian Soria really deserves a place in this list. That thought arises because we are reminded of the ferocious Soria of old who was at another level. In 2015-16, he managed 10 goals in 22 matches, which was his 2nd lowest goal-per-game ratio in his 12-year long career in Qatar. But the Urugayan-born striker still has enough reason to look back at 2016 with fond memories.
For one, Soria was a vital cog in the Al-Rayyan juggernaut that went on to win the league in their first season back after promotion. If it was Tabata who took the lead, Soria aided him in his goalscoring duties alongside Sergio Garcia. The T-S-G trident proved to be fearsome – netting 47 goals between them as the Lions romped to victory. At the end of the season, Soria’s record showed 10 goals and nine assists. He also kept his place as the QSL’s all-time leading goalscorer with a tally of 170 goals while getting his name into the history books after winning the league title with three different clubs.
The year 2016 also saw Soria affirm his place in the Qatari national team, after being left out during the spell of former coach Djamel Belmadi. Playing under two Urguayan coaches who acknowledged his value – Carreno and Fossati – Soria went on to score eight goals for the national team in 2016, including hat-tricks against Serbia and Jordan. His first of the year was in March, during the World Cup qualifier against Hong Kong, where he finished off Ismail Mohamed’s pinpoint cross with a Soria-esque toe-poke. The goal was a special one because it came almost 15 months since he last netted for Qatar.
Highlight of the Year – Showing his worth against Lekwhiya
On February 26, Al-Rayyan faced Lekhwiya at the Al-Sadd Stadium in what was billed as a high-voltage clash. To the more observant watcher, there were additional sub-plots which made the match more interesting. First, Al-Rayyan were on the verge of winning their first league title in 21 years. A win against the defending champions on that night would take them ever closer and personally for Soria, this was a chance to show his worth to Lekhwiya, after leaving the club in the summer for promoted Al-Rayyan. Then there was Djamel Belmadi, Lekhwiya’s manager and the guy who had kept Soria out of the national team during his tenure in charge of Qatar.
What transpired was a dream outing for Al-Rayyan and Soria. The Lions were 2-0 up at half time, and as the second half kicked off, Alain Dioko was brought on, the striker who replaced Soria at Lekhwiya. Within a minute of Dioko’s arrival, Soria scored to make it 3-0. The crowd went into raptures. Fossati pointed to the sky in celebration. Belmadi closed his eyes and leaned back. Dioko was completely overshadowed as Al-Rayyan went on to complete a superb 5-0 win. AH
34. Koo Ja-cheol (New Entry)
Augsburg (GER) / South Korea / Attacking Midfield
Once dubbed the “Korean Lampard”, now at 27, the former captain of Korea Republic Koo Ja-cheol surprised many by choosing to return to his old club Augsburg in 2015, where he enjoyed prominence and reasonable success three years ago.
Koo looked ready to announce himself on the European continental stage last season – though he did play his first Europa League match for Mainz 05 against Astera Tripoli back in 2014/15 season, 05ers did not to make it to the group stage – but he couldn’t help his team get past Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool in the Europa League’s first knockout stage.
His Bundesliga form was very good early last year. By the end of 2015/16 season, with career-high of 8 goals and four assists, Koo once again rescued his team from relegation and his efforts were rewarded with being named as the 5th best attacking midfielder in the league by the German sports magazine Kicker.
However, the current season hasn’t been so great for the Taeguk Warrior. After a rather slow start to the season – collecting only a sole goal and one assist in 10 rounds – Koo picked up a calf injury in November, sidelining him for almost a month. After his return from injury, Augsburg parted ways with their head coach Dirk Schuster who assembled his team around Koo, and so it will be interesting to see how the new head coach Manuel Baum will utilise the South Korean midfielder.
Although Koo is an attacking midfielder by trade, he can play all over the pitch; he is quite capable on either wing, playing just behind the striker, or even in a deeper central midfield role. It will be a tough job for both Manuel Baum and national team manager Uli Stielike to get the best out of Koo and find his most suitable position.
Highlight of the Year – First career hat-trick for Augsburg against Bayer Leverkusen
Koo grabbed his first professional hat-trick against Bayer Leverkusen in March, while also becoming the first ever Augsburg player to score a Bundesliga hat-trick.
Technically decent, Koo is an intelligent player with goal-scoring instinct. These qualities were truly highlighted in the game against Bayer Leverkusen; he scored his first after Alexander Esswein’s shot had hit the crossbar, then added his second with another superb positioning, simply slotting home after Alfred Finnbogason’s shot came off the woodwork. And finally, Koo displayed his technical prowess by completing his hat-trick with a nice half-volley inside the box.
Unfortunately, Augsburg went on to concede three goals and walked away with only a point, leaving Koo somewhat dejected after the final whistle. However, the game was truly a memorable event for the man who had already become a Fuggerstädter fan favourite. JK
33. Taisir Al-Jassim (Last Year: 27)
Al-Ahli (KSA) / Saudi Arabia / Central Midfield
At the age of 32, Al-Ahli Jeddah veteran Taisir Al-Jassim is still an ever-present for club and country as he enjoyed what was arguably his best year as a footballer in terms of collective achievements. His lung-bursting runs from central and attacking midfield have been absolutely crucial, even though his output for his club side has lessened (four goals and 10 assists in the space of 38 league games in 2016) compared to previous seasons.
Although Al-Jassim’s “tangible” output statistics have been relatively poor, his contribution via a more controlled role than usual in the middle of the park. and a wealth of experience, has helped youngsters around him develop and shine as they won the Saudi League in the 2015-16 season.
For Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, Al-Jassim has been much more of a powerful influence on the side’s goalscoring as he scored four in 8 games, including very crucial ones against United Arab Emirates, to ensure top of the group status in the second round, and Australia, which helped Saudi Arabia keep their spot at the top of the table come the end of 2016.
Many have attributed the excellent performances due to his place in the national team as an attacking midfielder as opposed to a central midfielder, where he would be tasked with more box-to-box duties as he protects the defence, helps his technically poor teammate Abdulmalik Al-Khaibary build play from deep and occasionally runs to 18-yard box to pose a threat to the opposition’s goal from deep.
Many of his fans have complained about the fact that he was never part of domestic league-winning or Champions League-winning sides prior to 2016, hurting the public perception of him. They consider him to be one of the best players in recent Saudi football history, but his time at Al-Ahli as opposed to playing for successful clubs Al-Hilal, Al-Ittihad and even Al-Nassr has supposedly prevented him from being placed in the bracket of Saudi greats. An icon, but not a legend.
Highlight of the Year – Winning the league after years of waiting
Unlike Steven Gerrard, Taisir Al-Jassim was able to break the curse of his club not being able to win the league after decades of struggles. Although Al-Jassim didn’t grow up at Al-Ahli’s ranks, he has spent a large portion of his senior career at Al-Ahli and was the captain when they finally won the league after a 32-year hiatus, putting him in the club’s history as one of their best players of all-time. HF
32. Mehdi Taremi (Last Year: 33)
Persepolis (IRI) / Iran / Striker
Mehdi Taremi is a player that broke onto the scene in the 2nd part of 2015 with his fantastic goalscoring record for his club, Persepolis. He was introduced to the wider football community in Iran when Ali Daei brought him to Persepolis from first division club, Iran Javan Bushehr. No one had previously heard of the striker but with Branko Ivankovic’s arrival in 2015, he began to turn a page in his career as goals started pouring in for the 24 year old. His movement off the ball and his great intelligence to create space for himself and his teammates, are skills and abilities that not many Iranian strikers boast, though his concentration in front of goal and composure still could improve.
In 2015/16, Persepolis had a poor start to the season and were sitting in the bottom 5 of the table after the first few weeks. But his importance to the team really shone as he inspired Persepolis to go on an incredible 21 match unbeaten run as they finished 2nd behind Esteghlal Khuzestan. 16 goals and 5 assists in 26 appearances marked a brilliant season for him as he finished top goalscorer in the Persian Gulf Pro League.
The only disappointing event in 2016 for him was his move to Rizespor of Turkey. He signed with the Turkish outfit in the summer before deciding to terminate his contract just a couple of weeks later as he re-signed with Persepolis.
However, his failed move to Turkey did not set him back and he has started the season in good form once again. Persepolis sit at the top of the table as they went into the winter break, as Taremi has scored 7 goals in 15 appearances so far. In 2017, many eyes will still be on him to see whether he can push Persepolis over the line as they aim to win their first league title since 2008. Also, with AFC Champions League in the horizon in 2017, he will be hoping he can make a great contribution on the continental stage.
For Iran national team, his stocks are still on the rise. He’s slowly becoming a favourite of Carlos Queiroz as the Portuguese continues to involve Taremi in most of Team Melli games. Taremi was a regular for Iran in 2016, receiving 7 caps in, including 5 starts. He has been predominantly used as a winger by Queiroz, which explains his ineffectiveness in most games, but he has worked his way into the line-up and he’ll continue to do so if he keeps up his good performances for Persepolis.
Highlight of the year: Dominant performance in the Tehran derby
For many Persepolis fans, the highlight of the year will be their emphatic 4-2 win over their arch rivals, Esteghlal. A game where Persepolis thoroughly dominated and the Blues were somewhat lucky to get away with only conceding 4 goals. Taremi pulled out possibly his best performance for the Reds of Tehran as he scored two and assisted one in the Tehran Derby.
He pounced on a loose ball in the box inside the first 5 minutes of the game to score his first goal of the game, 30 minutes later, he doubled the lead when his diving header guided the ball into the far corner of the goal. But the moment of the game for him came when he was on a hatrick as he went through one on one with the keeper, but he acted selflessly when he passed the ball to his teammate Mohsen Mosalman as the midfielder made it 4-1. This remains an iconic moment for Persepolis fans in a such a historic game. SS
31. Feng Xiaoting (New Entry)
Guangzhou Evergrande (CHN) / China / Central Defence
Guangzhou Evergrande recorded their 6th consecutive Chinese Super League title in November, and while their successes have been built on a potent attack, this year’s triumph – more than the ones before – has been built on a solid defence. While the spotlight has been broadly shone on his centre back colleague Kim Young-Gwon, Feng Xioting has consistently been a stalwart in Evergrande’s successes at home and on the continent.
A part of the Chinese champions back four since their second tier days, Feng has year-on-year become a more accomplished defender. After conceding a record low of 19 goals this year, it’s no coincidence he has been the key man behind yet another title. While much of the emphasis of CSL clubs focuses on securing highly skilled attacking talent from outside the continent, Guangzhou’s strength has been in buying and retaining their top Chinese talent, something previous coach Marcello Lippi was keen to do when he tied down Feng’s long term services three years ago.
Even before he was reunited with Lippi back in the national team, Feng’s performances had been rewarded, developing into a mainstay in the back four in World Cup qualification, even becoming captain of the side in Zheng Zhi’s squad absence under Gao Hongbo. It seems unconceivable now that Feng wouldn’t be selected in central defence for China, ever since missing out on the squad cut for 2015’s Asian Cup. With every knock back, Feng’s game has improved, all from a player who was considered an occasional liability as of two seasons back, he’s now pushing to become one of Asia’s top centre backs.
Highlight of the Year – Clinching his sixth CSL title with Guangzhou Evergrande
In a year known for defensive strength, it was against the grain for Guangzhou to clinch the 2016 CSL title with a 1-1 draw against Yanbian Funde. It was confirmation, if it ever was needed, that despite the improved overseas talent in the last two years brought in by Shanghai SIPG and Jiangsu Suning, Guangzhou’s home born players were far superior to their competitors’. Across the season in his 22 matches, Feng led Evergrande to 12 clean sheets, including those against local rivals R&F, and against both title rivals SIPG & Suning. ML