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January 21, 2003

Juventus needs to put Marcelo Salas back onto the pitch

Every year brings exciting new talent to the European leagues as teams give younger players the chance to stake first-team places. But for every Michael Owen, Raul, or Aliou Cisse, we find once excellent players drifting out of the game. Sometimes age or consistently bad form is responsible. Take for example the likes of Hristo Stoichkov or Oliver Bierhoff (how Laurent Blanc has so far avoided this fate I do not know). Other times we see a mixture of injury problems and managerial incompetence robbing us, the football fans, of a wonderful player. Here I will mention the names of just a few such players, focusing on the great Marcelo Salas. For some, there is still time to make a comeback, but for others, time is running out. One can only hope that, for their sakes and ours, their fortune changes soon, especially with the likes of Blanc still playing.

Salas: what a player. I first noticed him on the eve of France '98 during a friendly, which saw England host Chile at Wembley. In the dying minutes of the first half, Jose Luis Sierra played a defense-splitting diagonal long ball to Salas, who was running into the box. It was tough to control--it was coming over his shoulder and there was a defender on him. But without breaking stride, Salas cushioned the ball in his left thigh and then finished with his left foot as David Batty and Tony Adams trailed in his slipstream. He followed that up by earning and converting a penalty shot in the second half as Campbell's frustration at Salas' trickery finally gave way.

A lucky break? Not if you watched the World Cup. The thing about Salas is that he is a complete striker. His volley against England required masterful technique, but he showed he had a true striker's instinct when he poached a couple of goals during the group phases. And that wasn't all--he could head the ball as well. I'm not talking about the sort of free header Owen puts away, I'm talking about out-jumping Fabio Cannavaro and sending his header to just about the only place goalkeeper Gianluca Pagliuca couldn't reach. And off the ball, his work rate is awesome. Salas' ability to be a threat for 90 minutes, not to mention his two-footedness, earned the "Matador" many admirers. S.S. Lazio even forked out a cool $20 million for his services, and he didn't disappoint: 23 goals in his first season helped Lazio secure the last European Cup-Winners' Cup and a further 13 goals in the next season, including the winner in the Super Cup against Man Utd. confirmed his reputation. His excellent international record continued, with 34 goals in 58 games.

So what went wrong? Problems with the coach off the field in the 2001 season hampered his form in front of the goal, and a move to Juventus followed. Juventus purchased him to provide competition for David Trezeguet and Alessandro Del Piero in the aftermath of Filippo Inzaghi's sale to A.C. Milan. Tragedy struck when Salas suffered knee ligament damage at the start of the season. He was to miss almost the entire season, making only a few appearances at the end if one of the other strikers was injured. This season also saw the arrival of Marco Di Vaio, which added competition for places up front. A lengthy layoff for Trezeguet opened the door for Salas, only to have it firmly shut in his face by Marcello Lippi as Di Vaio was preferred. Why, only Lippi knows; but as Andriy Schevchenko will tell you from his experience at Milan this season, it doesn't help when your competition is Italian and you are not. To add insult to injury, Di Vaio's dip in form saw the likes of Marcelo Zalayeta being selected ahead of Salas-- that is, until Trezeguet came back from injury to resume his role as leading striker.

While injury is at least partially to blame in Salas' downfall, managerial incompetence is no innocent bystander. I appreciate that Lippi has won many titles, but Salas is, in my opinion, clearly the best striker at Juventus (since Del Piero is yet to rediscover his form of the mid-90's). And it isn't just blind patriotism that will lead every Chilean to agree with me--it's the fact that they have seen him play and do what he does best--score goals. At 29, Salas' best years have gone but he still has the chance to save his career by leaving Juventus immediately. Barcelona has expressed interest, but I believe his best option is still to go to his long-time suitors Man Utd. Sir Alex Ferguson knows how good Salas is and also knows how to handle top talent. I just hope that such a move happens quickly (or rather, as an Arsenal fan, I hope it never happens!).

Salas wasn't the only piece of wasted talent in the last few seasons. Jari Litmanen spent a couple of seasons at both Barcelona and Liverpool, but made so few appearances for a player of his caliber. I was particularly incensed at how Gerard Houllier kept on playing Emile Heskey as Owen's strike partner when Litmanen was clearly the solution to a host of Liverpool's problems: limited attacking creativity, over-reliance on Owen for goals, and European inexperience. At least he has given himself a chance by returning to Ajax at the right time. Looking a little further back, I remember Daniel Fonseca, another magician left to rot terminally at Juventus. Don't listen to the Juventus fans about him, listen to the Roma ones, as he didn't even get a chance at the so-called "Old Lady" of Italian football. Finally there is Didier Deschamps, who was seriously under-appreciated at Valencia.

However, let us not forget, as I hinted at in the introduction, that for every piece of wasted talent there is also an overrated, over-the-hill, past-it lump of wood playing first-team football week in, week out (are you listening Monsieur Blanc?). I guess the key is to respect reputations without fearing them. Team selection is a fine-tuning act and mistakes are inevitable, but for God's sake somebody give Salas a chance!