Al Jazira look to have finally convinced misfit midfielder Thiago Neves to accept a switch to Al Ahli Jeddah, according to reports in Saudi Arabia. Neves, 30, has under-performed since an €11 million (Dh43.9m) summer move from Al Hilal.
His return of four goals and two assists in the Arabian Gulf League has seen him become surplus to requirements as the Pride of Abu Dhabi reshape a squad which has slipped down to 10th after they were runners-up in 2014-15.
The Brazil international had been reluctant to move to Ahli because of a sense of loyalty to fellow Saudis Hilal and a desire to prove himself in the UAE. But Al Riyadh newspaper stated on Wednesday an agreement on a two-year deal is expected soon. This will free up a space in Jazira’s four-player foreign quota which can be filled by returning Peru forward Jefferson Farfan or the rumoured signature of a new defender.
Meanwhile, controversial Chile playmaker Jorge Valdivia will be able to focus solely on his Al Wahda duties for the foreseeable future after he received a four-match international ban from FIFA.
Valdivia, 31, was sent off in injury time for dissent during November’s fiery 3-0 defeat to Uruguay during the South American 2018 World Cup qualifying process. The suspension is a blow to his hopes with La Roja, but will see him avoid several draining trips to South America.
Bottom-placed Al Shaab have continued their re-fit with the recruitment of recently-released Jazira defender Ismail Al Jasmi. Al Jasmi, 26, has signed until 2019 on a free transfer.
The era of Sam Allardyce and his dour brand of football had come to an end at Upton Park and in his place arrived law graduate, guitar-playing rocker Slaven Bilic. The charismatic new West Ham boss swaggered back into East London and when the high-profile signings of Dimitri Payet and Alex Song followed it wasn’t only bubbles in the air, it was a renewed sense of optimism.
In the circumstances, The Hammers’ loan signing of young Argentine midfielder Manuel Lanzini from UAE side Al Jazira went somewhat under the radar. A slightly built South American who had been playing in a league with a reputation as more of a final payday for footballers rather than a breeding ground for talent was understandably viewed as a signing that would require a little patience.
The truth, however, was that the West Ham faithful needed to wait just three minutes into Lanzini’s debut for a glimpse of his talent. The 22-year-old dropped his shoulder, cut onto his right foot and rifled Bilic’s side in front against Romanian’s Astra Giurgiu in the Europa League qualifiers. Some would argue that impressing against relative minnows and excelling in the Premier League are worlds apart but it wasn’t long before Lanzini answered those critics too.
A second goal in his first start for the trip to Anfield confirmed Lanzini’s presence in Bilic’s midfield for the season but his impact surprised even the Croatian coach, who had been tracking the youngster since his River Plate days.
“I am only surprised that he hit it off straight away,” Bilic said.
“I thought he was going to need more time because he played in the UAE. It is a good level but you can’t compare that with the Premier League.
“He is a phenomenal player, who is very comfortable on the ball, no matter where he is and gives everything in every training session. I know him really well because I tried a couple of times to get him to my previous club, Besiktas, but it didn’t happen.”
Besiktas’ interest in Lanzini whilst at River was well documented but Bilic appears to have seen something in the attacking midfielder that few others did.
Emerging from the youth system of the Argentine giants, which he had joined as a nine-year-old, Lanzini made his first-team debut at 17 and drew immediate comparisons with former No. 10, Pablo Aimar. What both players lacked in physical attributes they made up for in touch and vision and the similarity was not lost on the young Lanzini.
“Aimar was my hero”, explained Lanzini. “He came through the youth ranks in more or less the same position. I watched him often, partly because it was a pleasure – the way he moved the ball and got the team going – and partly because people said we had similar styles. I honed in on him for that.”
Bestowed the famous River No. 10 shirt, Lanzini at times struggled for consistency but endeared himself to supporters with two memorable goals at La Bombonera against bitter rivals Boca Juniors – his header in the 2013 Torneo Final being the fastest scored in a superclásico.
Given the reported European interest and Argentine football economics dictating player sales, Lanzini’s exit was inevitable but it came as something of a surprise when that move was to Emirati club, Al Jazira.
The concern was that Lanzini was taking a sideways step in his career but he and the Pride of Abu Dhabi club appeared confident that his stay in the UAE capital would be temporary.
Liam Weeks, the club’s head of performance analysis, would later say they “knew as soon as he arrived that he wouldn’t stay long”.
It proved to be entirely accurate.
We will do every thing possible too keep Lanzini. dg https://t.co/m1lgPYdUWa— David Gold (@davidgold) January 13, 2016
Marking his debut with a brace, Lanzini’s overall contribution to the Al Jazira attack during the 2014-15 campaign was impressive. Behind centre-forward Mirko Vucinic, Lanzini scored a modest eight but crucially was involved in 70 per cent of his side’s goals.
Not wanting to miss out on Lanzini again, Bilic ordered West Ham to move and a one-year loan agreement with an option to make the deal permanent for £7 million (Dh37m) was arranged. The statistics that Lanzini produced in the UAE are not quite so spectacular in the Premier League but his four goals from twelve appearances fail to fully capture what the 22-year-old has brought to the Boleyn Ground side.
With a pass completion rate of 88.8 per cent, no West Ham regular can boast a higher value and only Payet, in his more advanced role, is more creative.
Bilic has taken Lanzini, the advanced playmaker, and dropped him deeper to play a far more significant role in retaining possession, dictating play and assisting with defensive duties. Where many had seen Pablo Aimar, earlier in his career, Bilic sees more of his Croatian counterpart, Luka Modric.
“I have never seen a player who reminds me of Luka Modric as much as Lanzini,” Bilic asserted after the Argentine scored in the victory over Crystal Palace.
“Luka is my favourite player. He is my prototype of a great midfielder and Lanzini has the same kind of qualities.
“He is making other players better. He always wants the ball and that’s why we put him in midfield. He always makes himself available. If players are in trouble, he comes and gets it. He doesn’t look strong but some players can defy that physicality to impose themselves. Modric is the same and, like him, Lanzini is not afraid either.”
Bilic can certainly take credit for making Lanzini a far more complete midfielder and West Ham look a much better side with the 22-year-old in the starting eleven. These performances have prompted interest from other clubs but West Ham co-owner David Sullivan has already calmed supporters by claiming the transfer will be made permanent before the deadline.
“By February or March, he will be a permanent West Ham player,” Sullivan said. “He could be a top, top, top player. He’s already sensational and he could be as good as any player in the world.”
There is some way to go before this is true but Lanzini is beginning to deliver on his early promise and a bright future surely beckons.
Al Ain’s new hot shot Douglas has vowed to fire in the goals which will see his name held in the same reverence as club legend Asamoah Gyan.
Douglas, 28, was unveiled Tuesday as the latest leading striker at the Arabian Gulf League champions. The Brazilian has inked a two-and-a-half-year deal after a €3.9 million (Dh15.6m) fee was agreed with Japanese J2 League club Tokushima Vortis.
The Boss sold 95-goal icon Gyan to Shanghai SIPG in the summer, with Fenerbahce loanee Emmanuel Emenike failing to replicate his success. The 2015 J League’s 22-goal second top scorer while on a temporary contract at Sanfrecce Hiroshima is confident he has the ability to follow in the Ghana skipper’s exalted footsteps.
“I know it’s a challenge, but I’m willing to show what I’m capable of and willing to struggle and fight to score goals,” Douglas replied when asked about Gyan’s legacy. “I hope the fans will remember my name and I’ll make them happy.
“I hope to pay back all the support the fans are giving me and to play well and get many victories.”
Douglas was highly coveted after his exploits at Sanfrecce helped them secure the J League title.
Initial talks to bring him to the Garden City began two months ago, with the AGL leaders fending off
rival domestic, Qatari, Saudi Arabian and Chinese interest in him.
He said: “I’d like to thank Al Ain, to everyone that gave their effort to complete this transfer. I had different options, but I chose this club.
“I’m confident I’m well prepared and with the help of the other players and the team I’m pretty sure I can achieve all our objectives. I want to have one more title at the end of the season and I hope to win all the games.”
Emenike is expected to head back to Fener or face a new challenge in the Chinese Super League just six months after his arrival. A haul of seven goals in 14 games was deemed inadequate by boss Zlatko Dalic, who has challenged Douglas to improve significantly on that return. He said: “We need a striker who will score 15-20 goals. I’m sure it’s the right choice from our side.
“Thank you to my management for giving my chance again to sign such a player. I’m sure we’ll make a good job.
“Also now I want to say thank you to Emenike and (Netherlands winger Ryan) Babel for the last six months with us. I wish them all the best at a new club – this is football, this is life.
“We’ve had a great half season, I’m sure we’ve had great transfer window and did everything our fans expected of us.”
Douglas has plenty of time to adapt to his new surroundings, with the Boss next in action at home to on-song Al Wasl on January 23.
“We play passing football, but missed a lethal striker,” Dalic said. “We have local players who can do anything, give fantastic passes – we needed this guy.
“We will see how he is for the next game.”