The Summer Sales: Benfica, Dortmund and Bilbao amongst those likely to pay for their success

As the summer draws closer and the vast majority of Europe’s domestic leagues are winding up for the summer break and the transfer window that comes with it, rumours are rife about who could go where and why they might seek pastures new.

It is the time of year when all sides who have either performed beyond their means or who have been outgrown by their leading lights fear the most as they head into the year’s most lengthy and protracted period of transfer-related vulnerability.

We have already seen clear examples of what this summer’s transfer window may have to offer as the Bundesliga’s relegation threatened Cologne have lost their talismanic local hero Lukas Podolski to Arsenal for what appears a bit of a bargain. Arsenal have also moved to try and avoid last season’s mad rush for recruits on deadline day by attempting to secure a deal for Yann M’Vila who is also fast becoming too big a fish in the small pond that is Rennes.


Podolski has a fantastic international record

In addition to  players like Podolski and M’Vila shining at their clubs and attracting attention from ‘Big-Time’ clubs from around Europe, there are also whole clubs around Europe who may pay the price for their success and they could be set to lose multiple players over the forthcoming summer.

Benfica, having forced their way ahead of Porto in Portugal’s domestic pecking order for much of the Portugese league season and having entertained en-route to a place in the last eight of the Champions League are now surely set for a summer of fending off interest in their most-prized assets.

Gaitan impressed against United and will have attracted interest from SAF

Arguably the hottest property at the club is their versatile attacking midfielder Nicolas Gaitan who has attracted many potential suitors with his strong performances both in Portugal and in the Champions League. It is the creative talents of the 24 year-old Argentine which have earned himself a now regular slot in amongst Argentina’s rather special attacking contingent in the national squad and that have drawn interest from huge club’s like Manchester United who have been linked more closely with securing his services than any other side.

Another huge talent plying his trade at Benfica is Swiss international Axel Witsel who has this season emerged as one of Europe’s most talented and

Witsel has shone this season and a big club will surely come calling

combative central midfielders. His consistently strong and disruptive performances amongst Benfica’s talented midfield impressed has I’m sure impressed many scouts at the top European clubs, and perhaps never more so than in Benfica’s Champions League group games which resulted in them outdoing both Manchester United and FC Basle.

Benfica’s impressive displays this year may have gone some way towards re-building their reputation and improving their financial outlook but if they don’t manage to hold onto the likes of Gaitan and Witsel then it could well have cost them dear when it comes to the strength of their playing personnel.

Another club who could come under the radar of many of Europe’s top clubs are Borussia Dortmund who have for the second season running overcome Bayern Munich in the Bundesliga title race.

Shinji Kagawa

Kagawa and Gotze both look set to fly the nest at Dortmund

Already it is being said that Shinji Kagawa might have agreed a deal with Manchester United which would be a major loss for the German club and others may well follow him out of the door as Dortmund have failed to cash in on their domestic success with a strong return to European football.

Centre-backs Neven Subotic and Mats Hummels have both impressed greatly over the past couple of seasons and have also become key players in their respective national set-ups and it would be absolutely no surprise if Europe’s major forces tried to recruit either one of them.

The jewel in Dortmund’s crown though is Mario Gotze the diminutive, young attacking midfielder and he again is being linked with a move away having featured regularly in transfer talk throughout much of the past two years. If he were to part company with Dortmund it would perhaps be the greatest loss of them all as he is very much the golden boy at the German Champions and he is the very embodiment of all that has been positive about their re-emergence as a major force in German football.

Another side likely to be the subject of a lot of transfer attention are Athletic Bilbao who have won many admirers during their European adventures this season. Though their Europa League campaign ultimately ended in major disappointment when they lost 3-0 to fellow Spanish side Athletico Madrid, many of their young and talented squad have caught the eye of on-looking scouts and as they are a side struggling to break into La Liga’s upper echelons and into real contention to secure Champions League football they will surely lose a hold of some of their stars this summer.

Iker Muniain Javi Martinez

Bilbao have entertained in the Europa League

The two most sought after members of their squad would appear to be versatile holding-midfielder and captain Javi Martinez and their star striker Fernando Llorente both of whom were a part of Spain’s world cup winning squad in 2010.

Martinez, who has for a long time been linked with Real Madrid and Barcelona, has starred for Bilbao and has demonstrated great maturity in captaining a side who have impressed under his leadership in spite of his relatively tender age. Not often is one so young placed in such a position of responsibility at a football club but Martinez has led by example providing much of the thrust which has made his Bilbao side such a dynamic force this season. He may be reluctant to leave such a prominent and valued role at his boyhood club but he will also be aware that he must be playing Champions League football if he is to fulfil his ambitions of becoming a regular in Spain’s line-up.

The same can also be said of Llorente who’s sublime volley against Manchester United in the Europa League will live long in the memory. If his talents aren’t also taken onto the next level, which is surely regular Champions League football, then perhaps he will miss out on the opportunity to stay ahead of the likes of Fernando Torres in Spain’s pecking order.

It would be a surprise if Bilbao managed to hold on to both Martinez and Llorente in the wake of their hiccup in the final of the Europa League and their consequent failure to secure Champions League football for next season but perhaps they can be hopeful of holding onto another of their prodigious talents Iker Muniain who is maybe a step behind the likes of Martinez in terms of his development.

The diminutive forward has provided great support for Llorente over the course of this season and though Bilbao have the means to hold onto him for now it might well be beyond their power if he decides that he is already primed for a first crack at Champions League football. There will certainly be no shortage of sides willing to look into the possibility of tempting him away from the San Mames if he does want out so expect rumour a plenty about where his future might lie this summer.

A big factor in Bilbao’s attempts to hold onto their emerging stars could be whether they manage to hold onto their Coach Marcelo Bielsa who has a fine record since taking charge and could perhaps be on the hit list for many of Europe’s top clubs. The club’s directors will though be breathing a huge sigh of relief that Barcelona have turned to Tito Vilanova as Pep Guardiola’s successor as Bielsa was the name on everbody’s lips as soon as the job became seemingly up for grabs.

If Bilbao’s agonising shortcoming in trying to secure Champions League football hasn’t already proved enough for their skipper and other key players, then surely the loss of Bielsa would put the final nail in the coffin in terms of sealing their respective decisions to part company with the Basque club.

It is indeed sad for football that many emerging sides tend to lose the best of their playing crop every time they show any major signs of development and bridging the gap that lies between them and the more dominant clubs in Europe but that is the nature of the modern game. Money talks and so does the opportunity to play at a higher level on a more regular basis, so expect the likes of Benfica, Dortmund and Bilbao to pay for their success and have to fight valiantly in order to hold onto their most prized assets.

Other names to watch out for in this summer’s transfer market:

Radamel Falcao (Athletico Madrid), Hulk (Porto), Papiss Demba Cisse (Newcastle), Cheick Tiote (Newcastle), Eden Hazard (Lille), Loic Remy (Marseille), Gonzalo Higuain (Real Madrid), Dani Alves (Barcelona), Robin Van Persie (Arsenal), Ricky Van Wolfswinkel (Sporting Lisbon), Ola John (FC Twente), Luuk De Jong (FC Twente), Cristian Eriksen (Ajax) Gregory Van Der Wiel (Ajax), Leighton Baines (Everton), Stephane Sessegnon (Sunderland), Didier Drogba (Chelsea), Edinson Cavani (Napoli), Clint Dempsey (Fulham), Ezequiel Lavezzi (Napoli)

Tactical Breakdown: United found wanting in all departments en-route to embarrassing exit

Below is my breakdown of United’s major failings in the Champions League this season and my analysis of just why the varying frailties have caused them to fall so humiliatingly from grace.

1) Lack of fire power up-front:

Throughout the group stages United didn’t exactly set the world alight in terms of either their chance creation or chance conversion and as such they failed to ever really impose themselves on their opposition. When you think of United in their pomp you think of their devastating counter attacks and spells of unrelenting pressure that yield a couple of goals a time but these has been very thin on the ground. I am struggling to recall a time when they have looked less likely to turn their pressure into the priceless commodity of goals.

Last night 90 minutes of majority possession and territory was rewarded with just a single goal, and quite a fortunate goal at that! But this lack of productivity has been the story of their group campaign and wasn’t just limited to last night’s disappointing display. Even against Otelul Galati they struggled to provide a major goal threat, relying on two penalties in Galati and then one horribly deflected strike on home turf against the whipping boys of the group en-route to achieving just four goals from two games against the minnows.

There are several contributing factors to the lack of a genuine goal threat but the most significant has been that no one has stepped up and taken on the responsibility of being chief goal-getter. Rooney has scored a few in the group, though as mentioned two were spot kicks, Hernandez has failed to accumulate a strong tally, Berbatov has found his opportunities severely limited and Danny Wellbeck has spent too long on the sidleines with niggles to have a serious impact. Just like in international football, you simply must take the limited golden chances that come your way and United simply haven’t.

2) Limited creation and no natural holding player in central midfield:

It was reported all summer that Sir Alex was flirting with a pricey move for Wesley Sneijder and boy how they could’ve done with him throughout the group stage. United’s ability to unlock the door with the midfield has always been a strong-suit of theirs with the likes of Paul Scholes providing the creative instinct, but, since Scholes’ retirement United have struggled to find a suitable replacement from within the camp and haven’t brought anybody else in to fill the void.

Against Basle last night it soon became clear that United are desperately lacking in terms of central creators and as such they were only having joy out on the flanks. In the first half Nani was in electric form and was being given plenty of the ball due to United’s inability to create chances through the middle, but as soon as Basle cottoned onto this they were able to swamp Nani and provide extra cover out wide, thus negating his previously constant threat. The angle of attack, as it has been in several games, was far too predictable and it all stems from their inability to emulate the likes of Barcelona and create from the central areas of the pitch.

Another worry for must be their absence of a natural holding midfield player. Michael Carrick and Darren Fletcher are both decent at playing from deep and can both be fairly combative but they don’t quite fulfil the sort of role that Sergio Busquets or Xabi Alonso do for Barcelona and Real Madrid. We even saw Chelsea’s fortunes dramatically improve in their Champions League tie on Tuesday night courtesy of Oriol Romeu’s very successful inclusion in the defensive midfield role. United must act quickly to find their greatest fit to this role, and with Nemanja Vidic’s potentially very serious injury it appears that Phil Jones is going to be needed in defence and therefore won’t be a particularly viable option.

3) Defensive fragility:

United’s inability to keep clean sheets in the group has been a major theme in their downfall. It is very unlike one of Sir Alex Ferguson’s sides to be so fragile at the back and arguably the two games against Basle provided the greatest examples of this weakness. In the home game against Basle they managed to slump from two nil ahead to a losing position within the space of about 20 minutes and in this period the defending was horrific. Last night witnessed Basle very much on the back foot throughout, but every time they did venture forwards United looked unstable. Xerdan Shaquiri’s strong running on the flanks and through the centre struck fear into the United defence and they continuously backed off from him allowing to roam further. Very rarely did Basle muster up a goal scoring opportunity in the game, but they still somehow managed to net twice and come out on top, this speaks volumes about the uncertainty in United’s defensive ranks at present.

It is worth mentioning that injury problems have compounded the defensive issues with the likes of Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, Chris Smalling and the Da Silva twins all having spent periods of the group stages on the sidelines. The spate of short term absences in United’s defence have led to great levels of unavoidable inconsistency in selection and as such the performances at the back have tended to follow suit.

4) Problems in goal:

Another contributing factor to United’s defensive uncertainty has been the unconvincing displays in goal of David De Gea. In the opening game of the group United faced Benfica and Sir Alex opted to play Anders Lindegaard in goal ahead of De Gea and he impressed in this outing. Since though, Ferguson has tended to go with his number one De Gea and has been left a little let down by his young Spanish stopper.

Last night’s problems began with United conceding the early goal and De Gea was certainly partially at fault for this. When Shaquiri fired in his stinging cross De Gea opted to deal with it using his legs when getting his upper body in the way probably would have been more appropriate, and this hasn’t been his only blunder of the group stages. Against Benfica he over-estimated his undoubted ability when it comes to playing and distributing the ball and attempted the sort of cute delivery that you might see Xavi and Andres Iniesta attempt in the attacking third for Barcelona. Needless to say this ball was cut out and led to the equaliser which killed United’s momentum and effectively lost them two points, which of course would have seen them avoid their embarrassing early exit from the competition.

In essence, Manchester United spent far too much time failing to make the most of their possession and territory in attack and then looked incredibly vulnerable when defending against the opposition’s counter-attacks, and it has cost them their place at European football’s top table. Sir Alex Ferguson must take serious note of his side’s weaknesses and must act quickly to try and remedy the many frailties that have been so damagingly exposed on the continent thus far this season. At least the Europa League will be fun… my mistake…