Ex Arsenal Keeper Praises Celtic Target

Johannes Hopf

Former Arsenal and Swedish international goalkeeper, Rabi Shaaban has heaped praise upon club-mate and rising star Johannes Hopf. Hopf (24) was scouted heavily by Celtic as well as clubs from Germany and Greece after a string of impressive performances towards the end of last season and the glowing words of Shabaan are sure to spark a resurgence in interest.

Shaaban is better placed than most to judge the rise of the young Swede. The former Gunner joined Hammarby back in his native Sweden back in 2008 after stints in England and Norway. He was first choice for the 2009 season, but in 2010 was relegated to the role of back-up by the emergence of Hopf. He hung up his gloves at the conclusion of last season after the form of Hopf played a huge role in saving the Stockholm club from relegation to the third tier of Swedish football. Since then, Shabaan has assumed the role of assistant goalkeeping coach at Hammarby and he has been impressed by what he has seen from his former rival for the starting goalkeeping berth.

“Johannes has an incredible attitude and desire,” said Shabaan reinforcing attributes that were noted by the Celtic scouts. A bid was made with a view to signing him in the January transfer window, but it fell well short of the price the Swedish club want for one of their most prized assets. With Tim Krul now firmly established as first choice for Newcastle, it seems highly likely that Alan Pardew will let Fraser Forster go for the right price and will more than likely join the Bhoys on a permanent basis from next season. Neil Lennon is still looking to strengthen his goalkeeping options and Hopf would represent a reasonably priced option with the huge potential, a view backed up by Shabaan.

“Hopf can go very far. It’s up to him. It feels good to him, I’ve been training goalkeepers a lot in the preseason. He is attentive, listens, and thinks for himself. He will now need to apply it and it will be interesting to see if he can manage it, as I hope and believe,” explained Shabaan in an interview with http://www.fotbolldirekt.se.

One club repeatedly linked to Hopf are Hoffenheim. The German outfit have developed a reputation as a club with an ability to uncover young talent missed by others and Shabaan believes his former team-mate would have little problem succeeding in the Bundesliga or another major European league. “It will suit him and it’s only a matter of time before a big move comes along. He has to keep working and learning with each workout,” he added.

For more on Hopf, here’s a highlights reel of him in action and an interview conducted with him back in October.

Johannes Hopf: Video Update

The other day I wrote about Johannes Hopf, a young Swedish goalkeeper I think has the fundamentals to go far in the game. At the moment he’s plying his trade with Hammarby in the Swedish 2nd division, but I’ve been watching him for a few weeks and his performances have been very impressive. If the scouting networks of clubs around Europe are working correctly, he must surely be on the radar of several clubs. As I say in the piece, gauging a goalkeeper’s level is arguably more difficult than that of an outfield player, so although

Anyway, since writing the piece, I’ve been pointed in the direction of this video. I’m always reluctant to draw too many conclusions from YouTube videos that are doubtless carefully edited to make the subjects look as good as possible, but this one really does provide a good summary of his abilities. Athletic, agile, sound handling, top drawer reflexes, strong technique, good awareness – he has a lot going for him.

He may not be playing at the highest standard at the moment, but he really does stand out as a player operating at a completely different level (the save after 2:06 if amongst one of the best I’ve ever seen). Whether or not that amounts to the sort of transfer he deserves remains to be seen, but Hopf certainly has something about him worth taking note of.

Rising Star: Johannes Hopf (Hammarby)

The Nets Big Thing?

Johannes Hopf

Is a shot in the top flight more difficult to save than in the lower divisions? It’s not the football equivalent of the ‘tree falling in the woods’ philosophical riddle, it’s a question faced by scouts, coaches and managers in leagues all over the world. With outfield players pace, touch and strength can be judged in a more quantifiable way, but assessing a goalkeeper isn’t as straightforward. You may be watching a lower level, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into needing less agility or slower reactions to deal with it.

After seeing Johannes Hopf in action, the internal debate continued with renewed intensity. The second tier of Swedish football doesn’t feature highly on most people’s radars, but Hopf came to my attention recently whilst playing for Hammarby a few weeks ago when a string of high quality saves made the difference between victory and dropping points against Varnamo. Every time I’ve seen Hopf since I’ve been impressed and left with the distinct impression that he is capable of performing at a far higher level. The result wasn’t very flattering when his team took on Landskrona, but individually he was superb and his efforts stopped the scoreline having more rugby-style look to it. You may have your own ideas about the differences between various standards of football, but whatever the level, the core requirements of the goalkeepers remain the same and he performs them with absolute aplomb. This is a goalkeeper really capable of going somewhere.

What was so impressive? Well, it feels like a cliche to say it, but the young Swede strikes me as a very well rounded keeper, adept in virtually all the duties a goalkeeper is likely to encounter. He’s got the agility and athleticism to deal with the shot-stopping aspect of the job. He regularly seems to throw his body at the ball, stretch out one of those long arms of his and save a shot seemingly destined for the back of the net. In this day and age, we should be beyond the point of expressing surprise when someone of height also shows an ability for dexterity and movement, but there’s something about the ease with which Hopf does it that seems remarkable. His reflexes are superb and he’s capable of making breath-taking saves in close combat. In one on one he’s aggressive, stays big to give himself the best chance and shows good adaptability to make the save by whatever means possible. His hands are good and he exerts a real command and calmness on his penalty area. He uses every inch of his 6ft 5 frame to great effect to take control under the high ball and it seems to breed confidence throughout his defence. His awareness is strong. He’s not afraid to play the role of sweeper if the situation requires and likewise, he’s alert to the possibilities of setting up quick counter attacks and at times looks Schemiechel-esque with his throw outs. It’s a mightily impressive box of tricks to have at your disposal.

If that’s not enough by way of gushing praise, another major advantage is his experience. He won’t turn 25 until next summer, but already in his short career he has amassed a good deal of experience and he’s already closing in on having made 200 senior appearances. Again there may be those who question the level at which he’s playing, but there’s a maturity to his game that you rarely see in keepers of a similar age. Moreover, it’s encouraging because he has consistently shown a capacity to rise to the top at each of his clubs and establish himself as first choice (most recently usurping former Arsenal keeper, Rami Shaaban) that almost makes the level irrelevant. At the bare minimum it shows this is a young man capable of learning, developing and consistently improving himself.

Physically, he has the height, but he’s also got a certain bulk that should mean he’ll handle the physicality of the British leagues with little difficulty. Technical strength is also in his favour. His footwork is good and he likes to catch the ball where possible and it’s apparent that his style would be suited to the English game. It’s no surprise to hear a move to the UK has been close in the past, but fell through late on in the horse trading. I’ve been told by a very reliable source that Preston and QPR have also made approaches deemed insufficient by his club and Bayern Munich and AEK Athens are amongst the continental clubs who’ve been taking a long hard look at him. In my opinion, his likely fee and ability to progress would be perfect for Arsene Wenger. Clearly the Frenchman doesn’t like spending big and places an emphasis on improving players, so Hopf would be right up his alley.

Maybe the scouts suffer from the same problems of assessing the standards of various leagues around Europe, but at the very least he deserves a chance at a higher level and a small risk now could potentially pay off many times over. Everyone has to start somewhere and it’s folly to dismiss talent on the grounds of not being at the highest level at that particular moment in thime.

Hopf looks to have the fundamentals plus a lot more, so don’t be surprised if you see him making upwards progress in the very near future.

A Rising Star – Rafael Cabral Barbosa (Santos FC)

The Nets Big Thing? Rafael Cabral Barbosa (Santos FC)

Rafael Cabral Barbosa

In recent weeks, we’ve heard a lot out Brazilian goalkeepers. And sadly very little of it has anything to do with good goalkeeping. Last weekend, it was Heurelho Gomes allowing Chelsea to slip back into the title race that caught the eye of the footballing world and not long before that it was Rogerio Ceni of Sao Paulo in the news for scoring a century of goals and in the process giving himself a career haul not entirely dissimilar to Emile Heskey.

The rise of Rafael Cabral Barbosa however gives us a welcome opportunity to look at a Brazilian making headlines for the right reasons. After a few sporadic appearances for Santos, he finally made the number 1 spot his own around twelve months ago and since then has generally showed the type of form that marks him out as one for the future. Already he has kept 10 clean sheets this calendar year (including 4 in his last 4 games) and in such an attacked minded team as Santos in such an attack-minded environment as Brazilian football, it’s no mean feat. As impressive as that may sound, it should be qualified with the clarification that the typical Brazilian top flight team have a lot of games and not always against the highest standard of opposition courtesy of their State Championships and Copa do Brasil. It’s still good however and when talking about someone so young performing so admirably it’s especially eye-catching.

I’ve watched Rafael several times towards the end of last year and the start of this year, but the performance that prompted this piece came against Club America in the Copa Libertadores earlier this week. The Brazilian side took a narrow advantage into the second leg of their last 16 tie in Mexico City and with a place in the quarter-finals hanging in the balance. As they game came to a close, the Mexican side threw everything they had at Santos and time after time, Rafael kept them at bay. [Watch the highlights here]

It’s not the first time I’ve seen such amazing agility from Rafael. He regularly shows the type of explosive spring that propels him across the goal in an instant to save seemingly unstoppable shots. He’s got genuine raw talent, but there is more to him than the clichéd ‘good shot-stopper’. For the most part he has good hands and he’s remarkably quick in addition to his athleticism. He recovers rapidly from making the initial save and he’s very sharp off his line and combined with his natural bravery, he is good at getting down to an opponents feet in the blink of an eye. In one v one situations, he’s somewhat unorthodox, but generally very effective. Manuel Neuer is another young goalkeeper you could say the same thing about and it works out well for him. Not following the textbooks precisely is perfectly acceptable as long as you’re getting the job done and so far Rafael is performing with aplomb.

If there is one minor criticism – and I acknowledge this is verging on the hypercritical – it’s to do with the extravagance of some of his saves. Every South American player grows up knowing that the big money is in European football and the notion of impressing the scouts can’t ever be too far from a young man’s mind. I think – possibly understandably – he plays up to the cameras a little too often. Sometimes he throws himself at the ball to make a save seem more spectacular than it is when maybe staying a little more static and making a straightforward catch or parry would have been more beneficial to the team. In this respect, he reminds me a lot of Julio Cesar of Inter Milan and for reasons other than of shared nationality. Cesar is an exceptionally agile goalkeeper, but too often he makes medium difficulty saves look harder than they are by not catching the ball. Catching the ball isn’t absolutely essential every time a goalkeeper gets a hand to a ball, but when it’s possible, it’s nice to see it happen. For all his talent, I don’t think Cesar would go down well in England simply because he refuses to catch the ball often enough and I fear that many a Premier League scout would balk at the similar tendency from Rafael.

As a rule of thumb, European clubs are attempting to snap up you South American out-field talent at an ever younger age so they can include them in the ‘homegrown’ quota (his team-mate Neymar being an obvious example), but the trajectory and development of a goalkeeper’s career is such that haste isn’t a necessity. With his 21st birthday looming, the ‘home-grown’ ship has already sailed for Rafael, so maybe clubs are more inclined to watch from afar in the hope his current form is something more than beginner’s luck. One possible option could be a move to Portugal, when he could acclimatise for a season or two before – if all goes well – making the step up to one of the Big 3 European leagues.

Whatever path his career takes, don’t be surprised if this Samba Boy goes on to become the main man for the Selecao between the posts in the future.

Szczęsny stars as Arsenal beat Barcelona


It didn’t quite turn out to be the 90 minute tornado of movement some had anticipated, but the latest meeting of Arsenal and Barcelona swung, undulated and thrilled. The tempo of the passing from both sides was unbelievable. Barca generally managed to do it with more accuracy, but overall it was simply a pleasure to watch football being the way it should be. Having had a front row seat for Barcelona’s passing exhibition for much of the game, the Gunners showed they’re no slouches when it comes to moving the ball and they showed tremendous resilience to come away from the onslaught with a win.

Arsenal’s swift attacking play ultimately snatched victory from the jaws of a 2nd leg dead rubber, but were it not for the remarkable performance of Wojciech Szczęsny we would be facing a return leg in which the North Londoners would merely be trying to save face. Making his Champions League debut, Arsenal’s rising star looked assured and commanding whilst at the other end, the much decorated Victor Valdes assumed the role of the struggling novice. True, Szczesny didn’t turn in a performance packed with reflex saves or TV friendly full length dives, but he did all those little things that add to something more substantial in up a game defined by coming out on the right side of narrow margins.

What was perhaps most remarkable was the fact in two of his most notable contributions to the Arsenal cause, he didn’t even touch the ball. In the first half he found himself in the sights of Lionel Messi. We’ve surely lost count of how many times when faced with an enthusiastic on-rushing keeper, the best player in the world calmly dinks the ball over the already committed keeper’s head, but on this occasion Szczesny held back slightly, remained as upright as he could and forced Messi into a rethink. There was a moment when Messi clearly wanted to attempt his trademark dink, but the Pole’s technique meant in wasn’t on. He took another touch and in the end skewed his shot narrowly wide. It won’t go down as a save, but it was as important a piece of goalkeeping as Arsenal will likely have all season. In the second half there was a similar situation and once again, Szczesny’s body position and clever use of his legs clearly obstructed Messi’s preferred route to goal. Again the Argentine had to go to plan B and thankfully for Arsenal, plan B ended up in the side-netting. The keeper again didn’t touch the ball, but had a huge influence on Messi missing a straightforward chance.

Throughout the night, Szczesny was alert, commanding and confident. For the Barcelona goal, he only allowed the slightest gap to appear and even then only for a nano-second, but that nano-second probably felt like an eternity for a striker of Villa’s quality. Aside from his non-save saves, Szczesny also made the more conventional saves expected of him. He was good in 1 v 1 situations – getting a vital touch in the Messi goal that was ruled offside. He was quick off his line to defuse dangerous situation both inside and outside his box and was brave when it was called for too.

It probably be his most spectacular of evenings in what is shaping up to be a very promising career, but it was absolutely vital to keeping Arsenal in the tie. Now comes the easy part – repeating the trick at the Camp Nou in a few weeks.

Iker Casillas Sending Off And Antonio Adan

Real Madrid have often been accused of being on the right end of some favourable decisions in the race for La Liga down through the decades. A lot of the time those accusations tended to emanate from the Catalan region, but there’s no doubt that during much of their history, they have been rewarded for being distinctly more Spanish than their biggest rivals. They had a special place in the affections of General Franco and were afforded decisions often for no reason other than it would upset los Cules.

Such favouritism has long since disappeared as witnessed by the fact they were the victims of a harsh – possibly not incorrect – decision on Sunday against Espanyol. More specifically, it was Iker Casillas who was dismissed less than 2 minutes into the game. It was harsh, but after several replays, it looks like there was contact and although Jose Callejon could possibly have stayed on his feet, such behaviour is now the exception rather than the rule in the modern era.

He may have been a little hard done by, but the decision to sprint out of his penalty area wasn’t the best of his career and the Real captain left himself in a very vulnerable position. In the short-term, Real recovered to record a win in a potentially tricky away tie, but there may be a longer lasting headache. He’ll now serve a suspension and thanks to other events over the weekend, any prolonged absence could have a bearing on the Special One’s admittedly slim chances of landing the La Liga title in his first season at the Bernabau.

It assumes significant mainly because although the Barcelona players look like more than mere mortals, they’re still not quite Gods and the hard work of Sporting Gijon did more than most to halt the breath-taking momentum. Having racked up an awesome sequence of wins, they could only manage a draw at Gijon. In the end, the two points dropped may mean nothing more than a smaller margin of victory, but it’s a timely reminder that this could yet turn into a title race. With another league Superclassico to come before the season ends, there is a chance to close the gap, but it’s likely to require near perfection from Real.

With Jerzy Dudek still injured presumed basically retired, Real are now likely to turn the man who played the remaining 88 minutes on Sunday – Antonio Adan. They are arguably the biggest glove to fill in the world – especially so when you’re 23. I’ve said countless times that what stands out about Casillas is not just superb athleticism, but a remarkable ability to concentrate and make saves at crucial times – tipping a game from ‘the the balance’ towards Real’s grip. Plus there’s the more intangible benefit of defenders knowing they have Iker Casillas behind them to bail them out should things not go exactly to plan.

Emulating Casillas won’t be an option in the short-term, but Adan is more than capable of doing a job. Although largely a reserve for much of his time at the club, the system of allowing La Liga reserve teams to compete in lower divisions has meant he has been able to amass decent amount of first team experience – albeit away from the pressure of top flight football. Having watched him on the few occasions when he has got a first team run out, the has the tools to do well. His hands look good and he has no problem throwing himself at the feet of attackers.

This relative unknown could yet be the biggest factor in deciding whether or not we see a title race in Spain.

Thibaut Courtois (Genk)

Thibaut Courtois

The Nets Big Thing
Belgium. A nation famous for enjoying a beer, the odd chocolate and some Belgians not liking another slightly different type of Belgians. I’m sure I’ve offended someone in that intro, but the point is it’s the country so inoffensive that no-one’s even bothered to come up with some decent stereotypes. It’s the jack of many minor national stereotypes, master of none.

One thing the country may become known for in the near future is an unrelenting production line of young footballing talent. Vincent Kompany. Thomas Vermaelen and Marounne Fellani have all made impressive starts to their careers in the Premier League and behind them there’s another generation of players set to grace some of Europe’s top teams in the not too distant future. The highly sought after Romelu Lukaku of Anderlecht and Eden Hazard of Lille are amongst the most high profile of the younger generation, but there’s a depth to this wave of talent that has the potential to transform Belgium into one of Europe’s top nations.

Genk are a club producing a lot of this young talent and in the early part of the Belgian season, they were blazing a surprise trail at the top of the Juliper League. Since then they’ve been leapfrogged by defending champions, Anderlecht, but breathing down the neck of the reigning champions isn’t a bad showing considering their oldest player is the 29 year old Thomas Buffel and there are 18 teenagers in the squad, most of which play on a regular basis. One starlet that stands out that stands out in a galaxy of starlets is the goalkeeper, Thibaut Courtois. That’s a picture of him at the top of the page and it looks strange because it’s desktop wallpaper taken from the club website – I’m a fan, but not enough to make my own wallpaper of him.

Aside from a very youthful appearance, one thing immediately strikes you about Courtois – his colossal size. It’s not just impressive height, he also seems to fill the goal horizontally in a way you don’t often see in young goalkeepers. Not long after noticing his presence, you’ll surely notice how he moves his frame around with such apparent ease. His speed combined with a huge stride make it look like he’s positively eating up ground when he runs. He does a bit of running and that’s thanks in large part to his good attitude. He really throws himself around the penalty, even in pursuit of an apparently lost cause.

He doesn’t do badly in more general categories either. His reflexes look really sharp and he has the spring to bring a genuine agility to his large frame. His shot-stopping is excellent and his hands look reliable, particularly considering this is a teenager who has played only a handful of senior games. It that wasn’t enough, he is generally assured when dealing with crosses and he’s shown a bravery and a willingness to throw himself at the feet of an attacker when the situation requires. It’s quite an all round package from a young man who won’t turn 19 until next May.

If there is one area of obvious weakness, it’s his general judgement. Since I’ve been tracking him, there have been several occasions when he’s gone for a cross or shot he’d be well advised to leave alone. There have been times when he’s saved shots that were going wide – and not shots that were going narrowly wide and he needed to intervene to be sure – shots that with good positioning and awareness, he should know aren’t a threat to his goal. It is however only a minor complaint and something he will surely improve as he gains more and more experience.

Courtois is an excellent prospect and although they don’t boast any giants of the European game, the Belgian league isn’t a bad place to be learning your trade. Admittedly certain Premier League clubs traditionally used it to get around UK visa laws, but it has developed to become a strong learning ground in it’s own right. A couple of seasons at home mixed with some type of European experience would put him in good stead for a move further up the food chain.

Courtois has the potential to be amongst the next generation who put Belgium on the footballing map.