Summer Striking: Bellamy and ...?

Posted by Paul Tomkins on June 20, 2006, 11:31:02 AM

Weaselly and rat-like in appearance, Craig Bellamy is one of those players opposing fans love to hate. But judging by the comments made by Newcastle and Blackburn fans on their various fora, he's a player fans love to have in their team.

Most fans have in mind the kind of idealised character they'd like to see at Liverpool. However it's also true that we cannot expect all footballers to be saints. They are often flawed individuals, like a lot of young men.

It's notable that Benítez has bought players like Xabi Alonso and Peter Crouch – dedicated professionals, and men no one has a bad word to say about. Good, honest people. But Rafa also brought back Robbie Fowler, whose reputation in his younger years was certainly not saintly. Has Fowler matured? It certainly seems so.

And that's the crux: players mature – mentally and emotionally, and in terms of talent. Frank Lampard was not pulling up trees at 24; nor, to be honest, was Jamie Carragher. Peter Crouch wasn't even on the radar.

Bellamy has always been an exciting player, but he has finally become a very potent one. A very good footballer has turned top-class. It happened to Lampard and Carragher at a similar age – 26 – and while I'm not saying Bellamy is quite at their level, he's about to play in the best team he'll ever have experienced, and under the best manager. His level should go up another notch.

He was a foolish young man, but no man should have to be judged on what they were like as a youngster for the rest of his life – unless the crimes were unforgivable. The evidence appears to show that Bellamy is maturing, and causing less friction wherever he goes, but he's never going to trouble the entry panel at MENSA.

Beggars cannot be choosers. Liverpool are not cash struck, but the Cissé injury massively complicates the summer spending. Available for just £6.5m, turning down an effective attacking force like Bellamy – a Liverpool fan, to boot – would be like looking looking a gift horse in the mouth (and no, this is not a reference to a cut-price Ruud van Nistelrooy).

Liverpool need pace in the attack, especially with Cissé first due to be sold, then laid up with a second horrific leg break. What Bellamy offers – and which too often evades Cissé – is control of the ball when running at pace.

He's also better at using his pace in tight areas, from a standing start. When breaking, Bellamy can move through the gears without either leaving the ball behind or having to knock it 40 yards ahead. While he doesn't enjoy playing there, Bellamy is also good in wide areas; that doesn't mean he has to be there for 90 minutes of a match, but can drift out there, like Thierry Henry.

Bellamy is a winner. He's a niggardy bastard, a little runt who looks absolutely no fun to play against. Like a lot of winners, he can go too far; he gets carried away. But Man United didn't do too bad in the '90s with Cantona, Keane and Gary Neville: winners I absolutely detested.

Most importantly, Bellamy will complement the two main strikers already at the club. Between them, the £13m Rafa will have spent on Bellamy (if it goes through), Crouch and Fowler gives the manager goals, pace, height, skill and 'game intelligence', and does so at great value for money. None can be considered a world-class individual – at least not since Fowler was in his pomp – but it's about combinations that exceed the sum of their parts. And it's about effectiveness.

I still think Crouch is a 20-goal-a-season player. Not necessarily 20 league goals – that's reserved for the real predators – but his record in recent years suggests he's edging up to 20 in all competitions. And that's more than enough, if he's helping Gerrard to bomb forward and score 20+, and if he's partnered with someone who can score different types of goals, and do so in abundance.

The difficult start Crouch had at Liverpool will not be repeated. He might have barren spells, but the first barren spell is always the hardest to break, as it's the one where you are having to prove yourself. His England goal ratio is up there with the best in the world; okay, it's on a very limited sample, but six in nine is not to be sneezed at.

Crouch gets compared to Emile Heskey – that Liverpool striker who never quite weighed in with enough goals – and yet it took Heskey 43 games to get his six England goals. Heskey had one prolific season in a red shirt, but Crouch has a bit more nous in his finishing.

I can't wait to see what shape Robbie Fowler will be in after a summer spent looking after himself and a pre-season being put through his paces by Pako Ayesteran. Fowler's missed so much football over the years, but then that could be a blessing – had he played as regularly as he was doing in his late teens, he may be burned out, and his knees a mess from all the added impact.

For me, Fowler could yet be the biggest bonus of next season. While you can rely on him for goals if chances come his way, you (surely?) cannot rely on him for 90 minutes over each of 60 games. He's an unknown quantity in that regard. He's missed too many pre-seasons in his time, and that's the one part of the year a player cannot afford to miss. But fit and raring to go, who knows how close he can get to the player we all adored a decade ago?

The summer's events seem to leave space for one more striker, but if Bellamy is added, that will cover all the important 'bases' with regard to the qualities that any strikeforce needs. That will leave more flexibility in picking the final striking addition.

But it's too early to say who will be first choice; for a start, Rafa rotates. Sometimes he plays one up front, other times two. Then there's the form of the players, and the opposition in question.

What's clear is that he now has 'possibilities'...

© Paul Tomkins, 2006

June 20th marks the 'official' retail release of 'Red Revival'. Signed copies are available from www.paultomkins.com, while www.Amazon.co.uk and www.Play.com are offering their usual competitive prices


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