Lost in Barcelona's exhilarating start to the new season is the absence of Javier Saviola, quite possibly the most underappreciated goalscorer in Europe.
The diminutive Argentine, nicknamed 'The Rabbit,' has been exiled on loan to Monaco for the season, in much the same fashion that Fernando Morientes was cast aside last season by Real Madrid.
Getting rid of Saviola may be the only major mistake Joan Laporta has made since he replaced the ineffective Joan Gaspart as Barcelona's club president. His decision-making in the case of Saviola is baffling. In Saviola, Barcelona already had a proven goal machine. Yet a large portion of Barca's summer spending was used on striker Samuel Eto'o.
In Argentina, Saviola had formed a lethal partnership with Pablo Aimar, which carried their club team River Plate to great success. His goals at River made Saviola one of the hottest properties in soccer and were the basis for his $35.7 million move to Barcelona in 2001.
Since arriving in Spain, however, Saviola has found it hard to establish himself as an automatic regular, despite scoring 47 league goals in 105 appearances. It's hard to comprehend why he wasn't the second name on the lineup sheet every week after Ronaldinho.
Saviola possesses all the traits that should endear him to any team manager. He's quick, explosive, can dribble past defenders, has great instincts around the six-yard box and can also create openings for his strike partner.
If there's one constant knock against him, it's his size. The little Argentine stands only 5-6 and current manager Frank Rijkaard feels that he is ill-suited to be employed as a lone front man.
Having said that, Saviola's never really been given an extended run in the team as the undisputed first-choice striker. It's also worth noting that for a short man, Saviola scores a surprising amount of goals with his head.
It's been rumored in the press that the reason Saviola fell out of favor with Laporta is his refusal to renegotiate the lucrative contract he signed under the auspices of the previous Gaspart regime.
It may also be that Laporta sees him as part of the deadwood that Gaspart brought in and just wants to clean house, continuing to build the team around Ronaldinho.
Yet there's no doubt that Saviola was the only successful signing that Gaspart actually made. During the Gaspart era, expensive signings such as Marc Overmars, Emanuel Petit and Philippe Christanval were huge disappointments.
Technically, Saviola is only on loan to Monaco for a year and slated to return to Barcelona next season. However it's hard to see much of a future for Saviola at Barcelona under the current regime. Laporta has invested heavily in Samuel Eto'o, and with Henrik Larsson also onboard, Saviola has inexplicably dropped in the pecking order.
But Saviola has gone to the right team, since Monaco desperately needs him.
Last season's Champions League runners up are a pale shadow of their former selves, having lost playmaker Ludovic Giuly, winger Jerome Rothen and Fernando Morientes among others.
Naturally, Saviola scored on his French league debut and will be relied upon to add the flair that left with Giuly and Rothen. At Monaco, Saviola is finally on a team that will attempt to build its attack around him and maximize his talents. Monaco's manager Didier Deschamps has told reporters that "Saviola is a great player who doesn't get the attention that he deserves in Spain."
Saviola will flourish in France and should be among the league leaders in goals scored; it's just a shame that he won't be doing it alongside Ronaldinho at Barcelona.
The fluidity, passing and flair that Barcelona has exhibited so far have been phenomenal. It's even more remarkable considering the club was without Ronaldinho in its first two league games.
What makes Barcelona unique right now is the scope of its creativity. Barcelona has four playmakers in its current lineup. The big name, of course is Ronaldinho, currently vying with Zinedine Zidane for the title of the world's best player. In addition, in the off-season the club purchased Deco from Porto and Ludovic Giuly from Monaco. Both were also the key playmakers for their respective teams and pivotal reasons why both teams made it to the Champions League final last year. These three in addition to holdover Xavi make Barcelona formidable.
There aren't many teams in Europe right now with one top playmaker, let alone four in the same lineup. The importance of having one has been further underlined by the way both Porto and Monaco have struggled at the start of this season without Deco and Giuly.
Just a couple of seasons ago, Newcastle was looking like a contender for the English Premiership title. The squad was loaded with exciting young talent and Newcastle was playing quite possibly the most attractive soccer outside of Arsenal and Manchester United.
Since then, it's all gone downhill. The squad has underachieved as of late and attacking flair has deteriorated into often listless, lazy play and defensive frailty.
The problem is that in recent years, the club's transfer signings were geared more towards talent without looking at a player's character.
Right now, Newcastle resembles something similar to the NBA's Portland Trail Blazers, a squad full of talent and potential but lacking in character. Ironically, it may have been the on-field success of one player, Craig Bellamy, notorious for several off-the-field incidents, that made Sir Bobby turn a blind eye to character in his transfer dealings.
Currently the Newcastle squad has several players of dubious attitude. Lee Bowyer, Kieron Dyer, Craig Bellamy and even Laurent Robert are not the most coachable players, and Bowyer in particular has been involved in several off-the-field transgressions.
Making matters worse was the club's one big-name signing this past off-season, Patrick Kluivert. The Dutchman, once among the world's best strikers, is now more famous for his lackadaisical attitude and constant nightclub sampling than he is for scoring goals.
Newcastle's recent appointment of noted disciplinarian Graeme Souness to replace Robson is probably a belated acknowledgement that a firmer hand is needed to guide the current squad at Newcastle.
In my opinion though, Souness alone won't be enough to cure Newcastle's ills. They'd be better off selling malcontents like Dyer and Bowyer and spending the money on players more committed to playing for the team.
I thought I'd delve into my email bag for the first time since I've been getting a fair amount as of late. Rather surprisingly, I've had more email relating to Zinedine Zidane's retirement from international football as opposed to Michael Owen. In response to my opinion that Zidane along with Michel Platini and Just Fontaine are the three greatest French players ever,
- Dan from Miami writes, "Raymond Kopa was the playmaker who made Fontaine and also had a much more illustrious career. BTW, I'd take Eric Cantona in his prime over Zizou also."
In regard to Kopa, you make a valid point. Kopa was a great player and certainly had a far more illustrious career than Fontaine, but part of that is also due to the fact that Fontaine had his career tragically cut short by injury. For a short time, Fontaine shone brighter than Kopa. His individual haul of 13 goals at the 1958 World Cup is a record that may never be beaten. To me, Fontaine was the better player when both were at their peak, but we're probably splitting hairs. Choosing between Kopa and Fontaine to me is like choosing between Shaq and Kobe.
As for Cantona, I have to strongly disagree. There's no doubt that Cantona was an excellent player in his own right but he pales in comparison to Zidane. All of Cantona's achievements were at club level with Manchester United, and he wasn't even part of the 1999 treble-winning squad.
Furthermore, it can be argued that the talent and competition level in the Premiership during Cantona's era wasn't close to the level it is now. Cantona was one of the earliest foreign players to make a huge impact in England, and back then United did not have rivals the caliber of Arsenal or Chelsea now.
Finally, in my opinion, in order to become a truly great player, one needs to make a mark on the international stage, something Cantona never did. Granted some of that was due to his premature retirement from international football with France, but even while playing with the national team, he never did much of note. Let's also not forget that Cantona was a key part of the much-maligned 1993 French squad that failed to qualify for the 1994 World Cup.
"Being from Algeria I am a bit biased when I consider Zidane in the top three players that ever played football along with Maradona and Pele. Who are your top three? - Merouane from Princeton
Reading Merouane's email reminds me of watching the exciting Algerian team in the 1982 World Cup, and especially Lakhdar Belloumi's epic winner vs. Germany.
Anyway in response to his question, in my opinion Zidane is still currently the world's best player, although Ronaldinho is pushing hard for that title. In terms of where he ranks all-time? It's hard to make that call since I'm not old enough to have watched certain players such as Pele, Cruyff, Di Stefano, Eusebio, Beckenbauer, Garrincha and George Best, live or in their prime.
However based on players that I have watched play extensively, I would rate my top 4 as follows:
1. Diego Maradona - unequivocally the best I've seen.
2. Michel Platini - as great as Zidane is, he can't match Platini in terms of goal scoring and playmaking ability. Platini carried the 1984 French team to the European Championship in astounding fashion, scoring a tournament record nine goals in five games, which is astonishing for a midfielder.
3. Zico - absolutely brilliant playmaker for Brazil
4. Zinedine Zidane
Jen Chang is the U.S. editor for ESPN Soccernet.com. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org