Wednesday, May 27, 2009 ESPNsoccernet: May 28, 12:34 PM UK
New kids on the Bloc Jon Carter
With the rise of UEFA Cup winners Shakhtar Donetsk (and Zenit St Petersburg before them) as a force in European football, attention that has long been focused on the West is now turning East.
Russia's Andrei Arshavin drew a lot of attention at the European Championships, but a number of Eastern European players from smaller nations have caught the eye across the continent this season.
It is no surprise that, given the problems in the countries which make up the former Yugoslavia in recent years, young players have sought their fortunes in the various European leagues. Their domestic competitions may have been tarnished by corruption, racism, declining attendances and a crumbling infrastructure, but the wealth of talent continues to develop.
In the German Bundesliga, two Bosnia and Herzegovina strikers have leapt to the public consciousness with their goalscoring exploits. Wolfsburg's title charge has been led, in no small part, by the 26-goal haul of Edin Dzeko; while surprise packages Hoffenheim were carried by his fellow countryman, Vedad Ibisevic, for the first half of the season.
Still only 23, Dzeko hammered 13 goals in his final nine games to fire the club's title charge, including a hat-trick against Hannover. He formed an incredible partnership with Grafite up front - netting over 50 goals between them. Rumoured to be on the shortlist of Chelsea targets, his good form has also attracted interest in Italy where he has drawn comparisons with Inter's Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Bosnia are truly blessed up front, as they also have the 24-year-old Ibisevic, who was unlucky to have missed the second half of the Bundesliga season with a serious knee injury. His 18 goals in 17 games initially put him at the top of the goalscoring charts and it is telling how much Hoffenheim missed him as their title push faded dramatically. Once he is fit again, his partnership with Dzeko for his national side will no doubt help their ambitions to play at the World Cup, as they currently sit in second place in their qualifying Group Five - four points clear of Turkey.
Elsewhere, Slovakia have impressed in Group Three as they sit second behind Northern Ireland. Slovakia's most recognisable player, Martin Skrtel, might be plying his trade in England with Liverpool, but it is Napoli who have turned midfielder Marek Hamsik into a future star in Italy. Having first made his name in the Italian league with Brescia, Hamsik moved to Naples in 2007 and has bagged nine goals and six assists this season, raising his profile to the extent that Inter Milan and Juventus have been tracking his performances. Despite being only 21, he has already proved that he has the quality to succeed at the highest level and is expected to make a move to one of Europe's elite this summer.
Also in Italy, Macedonian Goran Pandev has had a good season, with nine goals. After arriving at Lazio in 2004, he is now established as one of the best strikers in the league and is attracting the attention of Tottenham, Pandev was awarded the Medal for Service to the Country for his promotion of the tiny Republic, who have done well to stay off the bottom of Group Nine.
Following in his footsteps is young Stevan Jovetic, who carries the hopes of Montengro on his shoulders. The Fiorentina striker is just 19 and was plucked from Partizan Belgrade, where he had an impressive goalscoring record, in 2007. A founding member of the Montenegro national team upon their split from Serbia in 2006, Jovetic was given the captain's armband aged just 17 and although he has yet to fully establish himself as a first-team player for his club (he has made 10 sub appearances this season), he has been hailed by Italian legend Luigi Riva as a great talent for the future.
He already has 25-year-old striker Mirko Vucinic (who made his name with Lecce before signing for Roma) alongside him in the national side, so the future of the Montenegrin team looks assured, at least up front, even if they fail to make much of an impact on Group Eight.
Some nations, however, are not in need of such help. Croatia have done enough in recent times to cement their place in the European hierachy and, if stopping England from qualifying for the 2008 European Championships was not enough, then the movement of stars such as Luka Modric, Vedran Corluka, Niko Krancjar and Eduardo to the English Premier League has raised their profile. Paired, once again, with England, they look certain to make the play-offs from Group Six, barring a shock surge from Ukraine.
Serbia, too, have gained prominence from the arrivals of Nemanja Vidic, Zoran Tosic and Adem Ljajic at Manchester United. Vidic has done, and won, more than anyone by forging a successful partnership with Rio Ferdinand and elevating himself to become one of the best defenders in the world. Others have attempted to follow in his footsteps.
Branislav Ivanovic starred for Chelsea against Liverpool in the Champions League and Dejan Stankovic has done well for Inter Milan in recent seasons. It certainly cannot be understated what an impact playing at one of Europe's top clubs can have; and this is shown by Serbia's impressive World Cup qualifying form that has seen them jump to the top of Group 7, two points clear of France.
The Serbs are not short of players in other leagues too. Only three of their last squad of 25 were based in their home country and players like Nikola Zigic, Marko Pantelic and Ivica Dragutinovic have paved the way for young stars to make moves. By contrast, their successful U21 team has the majority of their players based at the likes of Vojvodina and Red Star Belgrade. They will surely follow the lead of star players like Miralem Sulejmani and Milan Smiljanic in seeking their fortunes elsewhere in Europe.
If the minnows of the former Eastern Bloc continue to impress, there could be a few shocks as the race for South Africa reaches its finale and, with the surge of talent from the smaller nations in Eastern Europe continuing to develop in the continent's top divisions, it may not be long before the most recent to declare independence, Kosovo in 2008, find themselves a footballing figurehead to lead them into a World Cup qualifying campaign.