Barcelona midfielder Ivan Rakitic and Karim Benzema among world's most underrated stars

Alex Rea 21/08/2019
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Barcelona star Ivan Rakitic

Opinions in football are like strikes at goal: some are dead on, others are well wide of the mark.

By their very nature, there’s rarely any middle ground, it’s one or the other and personal bias can often drive which side of the divide people fall on.

Which bring us to today’s potentially divisive offering.

We’ve picked out five players who for a variety of reasons are underrated. Now, this is not to say these players are not already rated, but that they are deserving of more recognition than what they currently garner, whether from their own supporters or on a more global scale.

After examining five of the most overrated stars, here’s a look at five of the most underrated players in football right now.

KARIM BENZEMA | REAL MADRID

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The top three all-time highest goalscorers in the Champions League are probably names easily guessed. Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Raul are an obvious cast of goalscoring greats, but the man at number four might surprise.

Karim Benzema is indeed the fourth-best marksman in Europe’s top-tier competition with an impressive 60 goals in 112 appearances.

Considering the vast majority of those games were spent as a decoy for the man in top spot, it’s an immense return.

Even beyond Europe, Benzema’s numbers are to be celebrated with his decade at Madrid seeing him reach 223 goals in 465 appearances, spearheading the capture of 17 major trophies.

He’s done so quietly on his part, in a variety of different roles and often under incredible criticism from the Madrid fan base.

When Ronaldo left the club last year, the 31-year-old went onto to enjoy his second-best league scoring record for Los Blancos, plundering 21 times. And yet, despite being Real’s best player in 2018/19, there remains calls to see him usurped by new-boy Luka Jovic.

Only when Benzema is out of the side will people realise what is lost.

SADIO MANE | LIVERPOOL & SENEGAL

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There was narrative which annoyed many last season that Sadio Mane was underrated, but it was mainly the Liverpool fan base frustrated with that assessment.

In their eyes, Mane is the attacking leader of the European champions, a scorer of crucial goals – particularly openers – and a player who embraces multiple positions – he’s Jurgen Klopp’s best option at cloning Roberto Firmino.

But to the wider world, Mane is still considered beneath someone like Ronaldo. The Senegalese was fifth in UEFA’s Player of the Year award with two of his own team-mates ahead of him in Alisson and Virgil van Dijk.

On the basis of last season, Mane was more deserving of a spot in the top three.

Need evidence? He cunningly won the penalty in the Champions League final against Tottenham, scored away at Porto in the quarters and twice at the Allianz Arena versus Bayern Munich in the last-16 – the first of which was a sublime finish.

After an energy-sapping club campaign which saw him share the Premier League golden boot with 22 goals, he then powered Senegal to the Africa Cup of Nations final.

The 27-year-old should have a reputation as the best attacker in the world not-named Messi, but he doesn’t and he should.

MARCO REUS | BORUSSIA DORTMUND & GERMANY

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Mention the name Marco Reus and undoubtedly ‘injury’ follows shortly after, but the mercurial German forward enjoyed one of his finest campaigns in 2018/19.

An inspirational leader for Borussia Dortmund, the 30-year-old powered his side to within sight of the Bundesliga title. His 17 league goals was the third highest in the German flight with a further contribution of eight assists.

Beyond the numbers, Reus is the buzzing heartbeat of Dortmund, integral to the build-up play and high press. Some of his goals last season were delightfully serene.

In transition there are few better players with the ability to turn defending into goals with so few touches.

There were numerous examples coated by his trademark technical skill in 2018/19. Nurnberg, Bayern Munich and Hannover are three prominent cases in which a counter-attack was driven by Reus, before his sharp pass out wide was followed with him ghosting into intelligent pockets of space to then apply a lethal finishing touch when the ball is returned.

Reus is one of the most devastating counter-attacking players on the planet, but his injury record has stopped him from consideration among the very best in the world.

IVAN RAKITIC | BARCELONA & CROATIA

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He helped guide his side to a dominant La Liga crown, was instrumental in inspiring Croatia to a stunning World Cup final and has retained a reputation as a premier playmaker for much of his career.

Ivan Rakitic mirrors his compatriot and Real Madrid rival Luka Modric in a lot of ways, bar one glaring – and glittering – difference. Modric won the Ballon d’Or last year, breaking the decade Messi-Ronaldo duopoly, and yet he probably wasn’t even his country’s best player in Russia.

This is not to say Rakitic should have been a considered candidate, but the Barcelona midfielder deserves far more credit and respect than he gets. Arguably his best performances in a Croatia shirt came at the last World Cup, while at club level, the 31-year-old has been a standout for Barca ever since recovering from a testing 2016/17 campaign.

Social media is an ocean of opinion, but there is more garbage there on Rakitic than in the world’s debris-filled waters. He’s an absolute monster of a box-to-box midfielder, a technically superb striker of the ball, a brilliant passer both long and short with an outstanding engine.

Rakitic is the complete package, and yet he’s been consistently named as the man Barca want to offload in a deal for Neymar, with even the suggestion of a ludicrous swap for Juventus midfielder Emre Can. The club and sections of its fan base may not know what they had until he’s gone.

CHRISTIAN ERIKSEN | TOTTENHAM & DENMARK

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Spurs thinking they don’t need Christian Eriksen for their fresh era is akin to opening the swanky Tottenham Hotspur Stadium without electricity. The structure is sound and looks great, but without an energy supply it’s pretty pointless.

Eriksen has been Spurs’ creative fulcrum since joining from Ajax back in 2013, contributing to nearly 19 goals per season on average. When the 27-year-old, out of contract next summer, suggested he was ready for a move elsewhere, the club seemed content to cash in rather than offer him terms befitting of his importance to the team.

But the Dane is caught in a weird situation with none of the elite sides he wants to step up to – the likes of Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Juventus and notably Real Madrid – seemingly interested in him, despite Spurs’ relatively low asking price.

Eriksen’s age and consistent output should mark him out as the most in-demand playmaker around, but that simply isn’t the case.

His importance to Spurs was never more obvious than when he entered their Premier League opener against Aston Villa and illuminated their attack.

Perhaps Europe’s elite need to switch on their own metaphorical light bulb before missing out on such a glorious talent.

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Where did it all go wrong for Philippe Coutinho at Barcelona?

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Barcelona shipped record-signing Philippe Coutinho off to Bayern Munich on a one-year loan following a woeful stint at the Catalan club.

The Spanish giants deemed it fit to allow the player to move – with an option for Bayern to buy – after he did not come close to justifying his hefty price tag of €145m in the 18 months since he left Liverpool.

Having made the switch to Barcelona in January last year, Coutinho garnered five assists and eight goals, including a hat-trick in a losing cause against Levante during his first half-season at the club. While these numbers are not extraordinary, they did not necessitate the sirens as it was his first few months at the club and he was settling in.

Last season, however, the Brazilian scored just five goals and created two in the 34 league games he featured in. He peaked when he scored in the Champions League against Manchester United but reverted to the downhill trajectory ever since.

So where did it all go wrong for Liverpool’s best player from the 2016/17 season? We take a look.

Price tag

The price tag of €145m attracts huge expectations and this incites pressure. Once the pressure seeps in and affects performances, recovery becomes an arduous task.

It did not help the 27-year-old that Spanish fans are not the most patient. He succumbed to the immense pressure before ultimately reaching the point of no return.

Valverde’s incompetence

Coutinho

Coutinho was Brazil’s best player in the 2018 World Cup where he played as a left-sided central midfielder in a 4-3-3. He scored twice, set up two more and contributed an average of 2.6 key passes per game.

In the 2019 Copa America, Coutinho assumed a more central role, playing behind Roberto Firmino in a 4-2-3-1. He scored twice, added one assist and was a crucial element of the title-winning team.

Brazil boss Tite brought the best out of the midfielder by employing him in a familiar position and playing to his strengths.

Jurgen Klopp – who is tactically superior to Valverde – could also get the best out of the player despite playing him out of position on certain occasions. Although Coutinho prefers to play in midfield, he did not disappoint when he played on the left wing under the German.

0515 Coutinho Klopp

At Barcelona, it appeared that the coach was not clear about what he had in mind for the record signing. In the first few games, Coutinho played on the right wing, with Lionel Messi very close to him in the half-space. As expected, this set-up did not work out, for this would mean that two players of similar style had to play very close to each other and one of them eventually paid the price.

Coutinho2

Valverde shifted Coutinho to the opposite wing, a relatively familiar position. In theory, this should have been a good move as it would allow the player to stretch play and cut-in for his trademark long-range shot that have hit a fair few nets in the Premier League.

But the defenders in La Liga were better prepared for what awaited them and closed him down comfortably, reducing his impact from the half-spaces.

With Jordi Alba – one of the most attacking full-backs in the world – marshaling the length of the flank on one side and Messi playing central, Coutinho was tied to space in between with very little freedom.

Summing up, Valverde was terrible at incorporating Coutinho to the squad. The Brazilian had to play in an incompatible system and had his talents wasted.

Coutinho’s lack of confidence in front of goal

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The player himself deserves a chunk of the blame. While tactical frailties can be attributed to the incompetence of the manager, Coutinho has only himself to blame for some aspects of his game.

The Brazilian underperformed his xG (expected goals) last season. He scored just five goals in the league at an xG of 7.84 – which means, all things being equal, he should have scored at least three more. Never in his Liverpool career has the midfielder ever scored fewer goals than what his xG would suggest.

Position, system, and tactics mean very little in front of goal and it’s up to the player to make it count. Coutinho failed to do much justice to the chances he was presented with.

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A bad result next weekend could be the limit for Barcelona boss Ernesto Valverde

Andy West 17/08/2019
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Ernesto Valverde

And so it begins.

With the new La Liga season barely two hours old, Barcelona manager Ernesto Valverde was already on the receiving end of vicious criticism following his team’s opening night loss at Athletic Bilbao.

If you want to see how unloved Valverde is in cyberspace, just type two words – Valverde Out – into the Twitter search function and you will be assailed by a barrage of angry opinions, with everyone from Torquay to Timbuktu furiously lamenting Valverde’s inability to lead the squad and fervently demanding his immediate firing.

So far, the group of fans who will really decide the cautious coach’s fate – those who actually attend games – have stayed largely on his side.

A few half-hearted whistles echoed around the Camp Nou during his pre-season speech before the friendly against Arsenal a couple of weeks ago but on the whole Valverde remains, among the majority of Barca fans, if not exactly loved then more or less tolerated.

That, though, could soon change. Just like those raging bulls on social media, the club’s members and season ticket holders will judge Valverde not only on the basis of what happens this season, but through the prism of his back to back humiliating failures in the Champions League.

Those local supporters may be rather more forgiving than their cyberspace brethren, and place more value in the consecutive La Liga titles gained under Valverde, but they are also finding it tough to move on from the team’s European exits and their remaining patience in the current coach is rapidly running out.

This is Valverde’s problem: he has no credit left in the bank. All the trust that he earned through his successes on the domestic front were instantly eroded when his team succumbed to their 4-0 capitulation against Liverpool in May. Where there was once respect, now there is suspicion. Where once there was a willingness to overlook the occasional bad result, now there is an eagerness to jump onto any setback as proof that he must leave.

Ever since he was rather surprisingly retained by president Josep Maria Bartomeu during the summer, the criticism he is facing now was inevitable. It was only a matter of when Valverde would find himself besieged, not if. He is living on borrowed time, with even the most loyal and forgiving of fans starting to turn against him.

The words ‘Roma’ and ‘Anfield’ will continue to haunt Valverde throughout his Camp Nou reign, or at least until he has the chance to lift the big trophy aloft in celebration. The question is, though, whether he will survive for long enough to make that happen, and the coming weeks will be crucial.

The next test for Barca comes with their first home outing of the league campaign, against Real Betis on Sunday evening.

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Already, that game is assuming the look of a must-win encounter for Valverde, who would be hard pressed to survive the furore that would inevitably result from being left with zero or one points after two games, at least five points off the lead.

It is common wisdom within footballing circles that manager’s fates are decided by home games. Away defeats are witnessed in person by far fewer fans and are therefore leave less impression, and Valverde is significantly helped by the fact that nearly all Barca’s bad results under his leadership have been inflicted on their travels.

Next weekend, though, roughly 80,000 expectant Barca fans will be gathered in their own cathedral, and expectant is the word: they will expect victory, they will expect it to be delivered in style and they will expect consequences taken if those outcomes do not materialise.

Valverde might be on safer ground in real life than he is on the Internet, but even the Camp Nou crowd will only allow themselves to be pushed so far. A bad result next weekend could well be the limit.

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