The Top TEN Premier League ‘Scapegoats’

The football fan is a most loyal specimen. The inherent nature of such loyalty means that hell truly hath no fury like a football fan scorned. I’m not going to pretend that I’m any different. Despite considering myself to be a fair, well-balanced fan, I will frequently indulge in raucous diatribes aimed at those who have the temerity or audacity to criticise my beloved club’s players. However, that’s not to say that I’M not allowed to criticise my club’s players.

Given the time, effort and money invested into the supporting of their club, I believe that it is the divine right of fans to highlight the flaws of the players that aren’t justifying their berth within the club’s starting eleven. However, there are certain players who are more susceptible to the wrath of their own fans more than others, with constructive criticism often transcended by more venomous rage. The following ten players frequently fall victim to such ire, so in reverse order, I give you the 10 most divisive players in the Premier League…

10 – Ryan Babel

A fairly decent run of form towards the end of last season and marked improvement in attitude precludes the mercurial Dutch winger from featuring higher up this list. Signed three summers ago for £11.5m from Ajax, it’s safe to say that Reds fans have witnessed more of the ‘new Bruno Cheyrou’ than that of the ‘new Thierry Henry. His Anfield tenure has been plagued by inconsistent form, bouts of apathy and a series of frustrating performances on Liverpool’s left-flank. What makes it so frustrating for Reds fans is knowing how good he can be when he feels like it. On-song, the winger combines devastating pace and trickery with a ferocious shot, with the former Ajax wideman in possession of all the raw attributes needed to become a top attacking player.

However, after three seasons, many Liverpool fans feel that time has come for the club and Ryan Babel to part. However, a minority of the club’s faithful (myself included) feel that the Dutchman is one good season away from fulfilling his immense potential. It would appear that Babel is on borrowed time at Anfield, and I for one hope that he won’t be featuring on this list this time next year.

9 – Nicklas Bendtner

THAT scuffle with Emmanuel Adebayor. THOSE pink boots. THAT self-proclamation as one of the world’s greatest strikers. There are a lot of reasons for one to dislike Nicklas Bendtner, but his unerring inability to hit the target has certainly failed to help endear himself to the majority of Arsenal fans. However, much like Ryan Babel above, improved form during the second half of the season has prevented the Danish international from appearing further up this list.

For all their pretty little ‘tippy-tappy’ endeavours, the frequent absences of Robin van Persie mean that Arsenal often lack a clinical centre-forward to stick the ball in the back of net. When fit Bendtner has often deputised for the Dutchman, holding the line and providing a target for the odd instances when his side wish to ‘hoof it up the field’. Unfortunately, Bendtner has lacked the clinical edge of his ‘made-of-glass’ team-mate; in 121 appearances for the Gunners, Bendtner has found the net just 36 times.

However, time is on the young Dane’s side, and he has managed to show glimpses of his potential. Following a cringe worthy display against Burnley, Bendtner managed to respond to criticism by scoring a hat-trick in the Gunner’s 5-0 win over FC Porto. Arsene Wenger, noted to for his ability to unearth raw talent, has shown unwavering faith in Bendtner’s ability. The Dane has also shown maturity by admirably playing out of position on the right-wing several times for Arsenal.

8 – Jon Obi Mikel

Despite featuring over 30 times during Chelsea’s triumphant double-winning campaign, doubts still persist over the ability of Jon Obi Mikel, with the Nigerian midfielder often bearing the brunt of the Chelsea fans’ anger. Still only 23, the Chelsea anchorman has suffered for three main reasons.

Firstly, Claude Makelele, the player who filled Mikel’s position prior to the first-team ascension of the Nigerian, is widely credited as being one of the finest defensive midfielder players ever (so much so, that Mikel’s position on the pitch is often regarded as the ‘Makelele role’). Secondly, Mikel ISN’T all-round midfield dynamo Michael Essien, the player regarded by many (yours truly included) as the best player on Chelsea’s books. Thirdly, Mikel was signed having spent most of his prior career playing as an attacking midfielder, and has spent most of his time at Chelsea playing at in a position that is unfamiliar to him.

Chelsea fans harboured great expectations for Mikel after the controversial and drawn-out nature of his transfer to the club, but his underwhelming displays have placed question marks upon whether the Nigerian was worth the £16m the Stamford Bridge side forked out for him. The fact that he featured so many times for Chelsea last season suggests that Carlo Ancelotti has a lot of faith in Mikel, but it will be interesting to see how often he plays when Michael Essien is fully fit.

7 – Dirk Kuyt

Much like Lucas Leiva, Dirk Kuyt has suffered the wrath of Liverpool fans simply for being one of manager Rafael Benitez’s ‘favourites’. Although lauded for his tireless work-rate and commitment to the Reds’ cause, Kuyt has been equally derided for his lack of skill, technique and cutting edge.

Originally signed as a centre-forward after a prolific spell at Feyenoord, his unconvincing first-season tally of 14 goals and the arrival of Fernando Torres saw Kuyt shoehorned into the position of right-winger. Bereft of the pace and trickery of conventional wingers, the Dutchman’s Duracell bunny-esque energy has posed opposing defenders with a different sort of threat. However, his inability to dribble and take the ball past defenders often leaves those on The Kop with their heads in their hands.

Despite his obvious flaws, Kuyt is lauded for his commitment and for being known as a ‘big-game player’. Game after game, the Dutchman will be seen harrying down defenders under the final whistle. Despite his profligacy, Kuyt is known for scoring goals at crucial times, having scored in key Champions League games, and having scored winners in two Merseyside derbies.

Continued on Page TWO

6 – Abou Diaby

Branded ‘Abou Diabolical’ by his detractors, the man also known as ‘The Enigma’ is the epitome of the frustration that comes with being an Arsenal fan. Dazzlingly brilliant one game, and woefully inadequate the next, the 24-year-old has taken over the Emirates’ ‘love/hate’ mantle from the previously maligned Emmanuel Eboue.

Like other characters on this list, the source of frustration with regards to Diaby is knowing how good he can be. When on song, the Frenchman can dominate Arsenal’s midfield with box-to-box displays reminiscent of Arsenal legend Patrick Vieira. On the other hand, Diaby is just as likely to aimlessly wander around midfield, losing the ball with unbelievable frequency and failing to display the strength and resilience to win the ball back.

Around the middle period of last season, Diaby seemed to have added more consistency to his game. The French international ended the season with a respectable tally of seven goals, and finally looks to have lived up to his early promise.

5 – Salomon Kalou

Upon thinking about who would feature in this article Salomon Kalou was one of the players whose recent good form was threatening his berth within the top ten Premier League scapegoats. Perpetually mediocre, a recent hat-trick against Stoke City and a threatening display against Liverpool at Anfield made me realise for the first time that the Ivorian might actually be a decent footballer. However, THAT incredible miss in the FA Cup Final forced me to realise that no such list would be complete with Salomon ‘Hasungotta’ Kalou.

A pacy individual, Kalou has been one of the most inconsistent performers at Stamford Bridge during his time at the West London club. Signed on the basis of his prolific form at Feyenoord, Kalou has failed to hit the back of the net with such regularity at Chelsea, with his poor finishing habitually invoking the ire of the Stamford Bridge faithful. Often deployed on the left or right side of an attacking trio, Kalou has also suffered as a result of replacing the much-loved Joe Cole. Cole’s fans’ favourite status serves to hide his on-field indiscretions, whereas Kalou’s errors and shortcomings are prone to criticism.

However, this aforementioned blossoming towards the tail end of last season was crucial to Chelsea’s successful title tilt. Kalou appears to have the faith of senior figures at Stamford Bridge, with manager Carlo Ancelotti stating that, “Salomon is an important player for this club. He is always well motivated and works hard at his game. Because of this, I’m sure he will become an even more important player for us in the future.”

4 – Michael Carrick

Previous readers of my articles will be aware of the feelings I have towards Michael Carrick, and it seems that these feelings are being shared by an increasing number of the Old Trafford faithful. On-form, Carrick is a fantastic passer of the ball, with the ability to dictate the pace and flow of the game. However, these displays are few and far between (an assertion further backed up by his performance for England against Mexico last night).

Carrick is now just as infamous for characteristically insipid and toothless performances in the middle of the park. Bereft of presence and too easily outmuscled, Carrick struggles against dominant midfield opponents. The sending-off of Rafael aside, Carrick was blamed by many for Manchester United’s Champions League exit at the hands of Bayern Munich this year, pushed aside far too easily for Olic’s opener and unable to retain the ball in the company of Mark van Bommel and Bastian Schweinsteiger.

Rebuilding the centre of Manchester United’s midfield will be a key issue for Sir Alex Ferguson this summer, and it remains to see whether the former West Ham man will be a part of The Red Devils’ bid to reclaim the Premier League title.

Continued on Page THREE

3 – Manuel Almunia

There are many imposters within the modern game. For example, Joey Barton often tries to convince people that he is a well-mannered, mature individual. Michael Carrick frequently pretends that he is an international quality midfielder. However, the worst of all is Manuel Almunia, who has somehow managed to provide the impression that he is a Premier League quality goalkeeper.

Having a solid, reliable goalkeeper is considered to be a must for any title-challenging team, and the absence of such a custodian at the Emirates has severely hampered their quest for silverware. Almunia lacks the presence to dominate his box and his decision-making is often very questionable. Aside from indecision, the Spaniard is also highly prone to mistakes, with a late own goal against Birmingham City last season leading to two dropped points for the Gunners.

What makes it even more painful for Arsenal fans is knowing that the only alternative to the Spaniard is the equally as woeful Lukasz Fabianski. The Emirates faithful have long urged their manager to sign the top-class goalkeeper needed to sustain title challenges, and it seems probable that Wenger will heed their calls this summer.

2 – Lucas Leiva

Missing out on top spot by a hair’s breadth, Brazilian Lucas Pezzini Leiva may be the most divisive player to have played for Liverpool in living memory. Lucas’ rapid rise to Merseyside enemy number one has been influenced by a range of unfortunate factors; the 23-year-old has been chastised because he ISN’T Xabi Alonso, because he isn’t as good as a holding man as Javier Mascherano and because his ascension to first-team regular has coincided with Liverpool’s worst season in ten years.

Murmurs of Anfield discontent over the Brazilian’s inclusion within the starting eleven first surfaced during Liverpool’s drab home draws of 2008, most notably during a 0-0 clash with Fulham. Contempt for Lucas heightened following his dismissal during Liverpool’s 1-0 FA Cup defeat to fierce rivals Everton in early 2009, with this red card preceded by the giving away of a penalty in the side’s game against Wigan Athletic.

Despite a relatively poor strike and assist return rate last season, Lucas’ continued exposure to first-team football has certainly improved his game. Undoubtedly a hard-working and committed player, Opta statistics show that the Brazilian finished the season with the fourth highest number of tackles and the fifth highest number of successful passes (but of course, these stats fail to highlight the number of sidewards and backwards passes Lucas is prone to play). Much like Jon Obi Mikel, Lucas has been forced to play in a more withdrawn, defensive role than he is used to. However, Lucas has shown incredible courage to slowly change the opinion of Liverpool fans, with his consistent displays culminating in being named Liverpool’s Young Player of the Year for 2009/10.

1 – Dimitar Berbatov

Well, who else could it possibly be? Branded as lazy, ungracious and undetermined, it’s safe to say that the Old Trafford faithful have yet to see the Bulgarian justify his £30.75 million price tag. Heralded as the heir to Eric Cantona on account of his languid yet visionary style, Berbatov has struggled to live up to the weight of expectation of playing for such a big side. A disappointing return of 26 goals in 86 appearances since moving up north from White Hart Lane has been exacerbated by the free-scoring form of current United idol Wayne Rooney.

After a satisfactory first season at Old Trafford, the departures of Carlos Tevez and Cristiano Ronaldo were supposed to act to up the Bulgarian’s game, with Sir Alex Fergon’s decision to avoid replacing both players indicative of his trust and belief in Berbatov’s ability to step up to the plate. Whilst Wayne Rooney has used the opportunity to develop into a truly world-class centre-forward, the Bulgarian has disappointed with his efforts, particularly when leading the line on his own. His inability to contribute a substantial number of goals in the absence of England’s leading marksman was blamed by many Old Trafford for their failure to retain their Premier League crown.

Conjecture denotes that the Old Trafford hierarchy will be looking to bring in attacking reinforcements, thus placing doubts over Berbatov’s future at the club. However, Sir Alex Ferguson recently indicated his intention to retain the Bulgarian this summer, thus allowing the former Bayer Leverkusen forward one last chance to prove his worth at Manchester United.

Follow me on twitter at www.twitter.com/zarifrasul