Michael Essien

Michael Essien is a hard-working central-midfielder for Ghana and Chelsea in the English Premier League.  He has been described as the ‘heart-beat’ of Felipe Scolari’s Chelsea side and the Blues seriously miss him when he doesn’t feature.  Essien has the ability to play in any position on the pitch, but is at his best in defensive positions, where his lung-busting work-rate and determination can help destroy the opposition’s attacks.

Essien was born on December 3rd 1982 in Accra, Ghana, and learnt the football basics whilst playing on the dusty streets – often getting tips from passers by who stopped to watch him play!  He was educated at college, helping the team to new heights, and was then signed up by the Ghanaian side Liberty Professionals.  His performances for them ensured him a spot in the Ghana national youth side, effectively putting himself in the shop-window when he played for the young Black Stars in New Zealand in 1999.

It was the French club Bastia who realised his potential first, signing him in July 2000.  As a young 18 year old he was given a chance to settle in at the club, playing mainly as a substitute in left and right-back positions, but he was finally given his chance in the centre of midfield, and received some rave reviews.  With his tough-tackling and conservative passing winning him plaudits, and comparisons to Patrick Vieira, Essien was soon on the radar of many of the big clubs in France, and Europe.

Michael opted to play for Lyon, in spite of offers from Paris Saint Germain, because he thought he had more chance of playing games there.  Aged just 21, Essien was installed into the championship winning side, and led the team to another two titles in Le Championnat before agreeing to a big-money move.

Michael Essien became the most expensive African footballer on August 19th 2005, when Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea paid Lyon £25m for him.  Manchester United were also interested but couldn’t match Chelsea’s offer.  It wasn’t long before Essien had made himself one of the ‘untouchables’ in the centre of Chelsea’s midfield – taking the place of Claude Makelele as the defensive midfielder.  He was Jose’s favourites and was also acknowledged by the fans as one of their key men – he was voted their Player of the Year at the end of his second season in 2007, in which he added the English Premier League title to his haul.

Essien remains a key component of Chelsea’s team.  He has been used in all the defensive positions across the back line by the Blues, but is missed whenever he doesn’t play as Chelsea’s metronome in the middle of the park.  Felipe Scolari would love to have Essien back to full fitness, but it seems that Michael will miss most of the 2008/09 season with a cruciate ligament injury he picked up whilst playing for Ghana.

Michael Essien was first given his chance of a move to Europe by his participation in the 1999 Youth World Cup, and he has since played at all levels for Ghana.  He won praise for his performances at the Youth tournaments, and was called up to the full squad when he was just 20 years old, in the African Nations Cup 2002.

Essien helped Ghana to the World Cup 2006, and excelled at the 2008 African Nations, when he captained the Black Stars for the first time on the way to a successful run to the Semi Finals.

Dimitar Berbatov

Dimitar Berbatov is a striker for Bulgaria and Manchester United in the English Premier League.  Whilst his languid style has caused some to believe that he is a ‘lazy’ player, Berbatov is anything but when the ball enters the goal area – often scoring poachers goals that need ultimate speed, awareness and sharpness.  As captain of Bulgaria he is hopeful of leading them to a major finals.

Dimitar Berbatov was born on 30th January 1981, in the Bulgarian capital of Sofia.  Born behind the Iron Curtain in communist Bulgaria, Berbatov had a difficult start to life, but that has seen him appreciate what he has now even more.  He still sends money back to his first football club, and to prove he is still the same person, he still sleeps on the sofa when he goes home to visit his mother.

His father, Ivan, was also a professional footballer, which opened doors for Dimitar, enabling him to make a join up with his father’s former club CSKA Sofia at just 17.

Dimitar Berbatov was used sparingly by the coach at first, playing just 11 games in his first season, and scoring three goals.  It was his form in the second season, as the team’s main striker (14 goals in 26 games), and his awesome strike-rate throughout the first half of the following season that prompted Bayer Leverkusen to make a mid-season bid for the young Bulgarian.

His career in Germany started slowly whilst he tried to adapt to closer man-marking and more organised defences.  Berbatov struggled to impose himself on the first team, who finished as runners up in the Bundesliga in his second season at the club.

Berbatov was handed the first team spot following Michael Ballack’s departure for Bayern Munich, which freed up an attacking spot, and was an integral part of the side in 02/03, even if he didn’t actually score that many goals in the season.  It was only in the summer of 2003, when he was 22 years old, that Berbatov became a prolific scorer for Leverkusen – notching up 57 goals in 90 league games over the next three seasons, and topping the goal-scorer charts.

When Tottenham Hotspur offered Berbatov an opportunity in the best league in the world, Dimitar took it with both hands – though Leverkusen also profited by almost £11m.  At Spurs there was no messing around – he scored just 2 minutes into his debut at White Hart Lane, and continued to bang them in all season – winning a place in the Team of the Year after some sublime strikes.

Another season of goals followed, as he helped Tottenham to the League Cup – their first trophy in years, and formed a fantastic partnership with Robbie Keane.  During the summer of 2008, Keane was sold to Liverpool (for £20m) and Berbatov was consistently linked to Manchester United.

Spurs insisted that Berbatov was not for sale, but eventually backed down, allowing Dimitar to sign for United with just twenty minutes of the transfer window remaining.  Having arrived for a club-record fee of £31m, big things were expected of Berbatov in Manchester.  He struggled to net many goals at first, whilst his team-mates got used to playing the ball into his feet rather than over the top of the defenders as they had done for the pacier Louis Saha.  At the turn of the year, the Manchester United machine started purring, and Berbatov scored some memorable goals as the Reds contested four trophies.

Dimitar Berbatov was given his first international call-up by Bulgaria in November 1999, aged just 18, and is now the team captain after almost 10 years of top-level international football.  Bulgaria continue to struggle to produce quality footballers, so have failed to make the major tournaments – though Berbatov is hopeful of firing them into a major Final in the near future.

Pepe Reina

Jose ‘Pepe’ Reina is a goalkeeper for Spain and Liverpool in the English Premier League.  Though he has mainly been the substitute goalkeeper for Spain, behind much-lauded keeper Iker Casillas, he played one game in the Euro 2008 Championships as Spain ran out as victors.  Reina is a talented shot-stopper, and an extremely solid pair of hands, and has broken various records with his clean-sheets in his time with Liverpool.

Jose Reina was born on 31st August 1982, in Madrid.  He is the son of former football player Miguel Reina, who was also a goalkeeper – playing for Spain, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid.  In spite of being born in Madrid, he chose to take his goalkeeping apprentice with Barcelona, and was soon working his way up the Barcelona youth teams.

Pepe Reina made his debut for the Barcelona B team when he was just 17, and was immediately handed the number 1 shirt after some stunning saves in his first game.  A spectacular start to his second season led to promotion to the Barcelona first-team.  With a young Iker Casillas excelling between the sticks at arch-rivals Real Madrid, Barcelona were keen to have a young goalie to prove they had great youth-team players coming through the ranks too.

Reina performed admirably to see out the end of the 00/01 season on a high, but with Rustu Recber returning to fitness, Jose lost his place midway through the 01/02 season.  Whilst other young players would be content to sit and wait for their next chance, Reina decided that he needed first-team football, and joined Villareal at the end of the season.

With Villareal, Reina was involved in a relegation dog-fight – no doubt aiding his shot-stopping skills and helping him to build his mental strength.  As Reina grew and developed, so to did Villareal – finishing 16th in his first season, then 8th, and then pushing for the title with a superb season that ended in third position.  Reina had finally made his mark.

Jose Reina joined Liverpool in July 2005, arriving amidst Liverpool’s Champions League celebrations.  Jerzy Dudek had proven to be the hero when Liverpool beat AC Milan on penalties, but that didn’t mean that the Polish international would keep the number 1 spot – Reina immediately went into the first-team, with coach Rafael Benitez hailing him as ‘Spain’s best goalkeeper’.

Success followed instantly, along with his first Spain cap, with a European Super Cup and FA Cup victory.  He also broke the record number of consecutive clean sheets – going 11 matches without conceding.  Reina now competes with Charles Itanje and Diego Cavalieri for the first-team spot, but the three-time Premier League Goalkeeper of the Year looks far from troubled.  He is a key component in Liverpool’s Premiership and Champions League campaigns.

Jose Reina has had to make do with playing second fiddle for the Spain international side.  With Iker Casillas battling Jose for the same spot, it’s easy to see why it’s been so difficult for Reina to pick up caps.

He made his debut in August 2005, some five years after Casillas, and was called up to the World Cup 2006, playing the final game in the group against Saudi Arabia.  At Euro 2008 he was, again, on the bench, though he played an important part in their win against Greece, which ensured that Spain had enough confidence in the depth of the squad to go on and win the tournament.

Robin van Persie

Robin van Persie is a striker who plays for the Dutch national side and Arsenal in the English Premier League.  He has been used as a left-sided winger by both Holland and Arsenal, but is at his best when he is playing as a centre-forward, alongside a target-man team-mate that he can form an effective partnership with.  He has had his share of controversy, but has started to show maturity to match his undoubted ability.

Van Persie was born on 6th August 1983 in Rotterdam, Holland.  He enjoyed a loving childhood alongside his two sisters and was encouraged to express himself through art by his sculptor parents – though he chose football as his art.  At the age of 15 it became clear that Robin had a special football talent.  He initially signed up with the Excelsior youth team, but fell out with the coach, so signed for rivals Feyenoord instead!

Robin first played first team football for Feyenoord as a seventeen year-old, whilst he was still on a trainee contract.  Feyenoord won the UEFA Cup that year, giving Robin his first taste of success.  In August 2002, van Persie signed his first professional contract, and became a key player for the Dutch club.

Whilst his goals were appreciated by the coach, his attitude and temperament weren’t, and van Persie soon found himself out of favour.  Another season as second-choice followed, in spite of his 8 goals the previous season, and Feyenoord made it known that they were trying to rid themselves of van Persie, who had told the club that he would sit out his contract and leave on a Bosman free transfer.

Arsenal signed Robin van Persie in May 2004 for a fee of £2.75m, with very little competition for his signature because of the rumours about his attitude.  Van Persie had a great chance to learn from Thierry Henry and Robert Pires.  Whilst he arrived at the Gunners as a winger, Wenger believed he would be more effective further up the field.

Injuries and competition for places resulted in van Persie failing to make many more than 20 appearances a season for Arsenal in his first four seasons, with world-class players competing for the striker role and various broken metatarsal and knee injuries keeping Robin on the sidelines.

He started the 2008 season as the established first-choice striker, alongside Adebayor, and has developed a knack of scoring important goals for the Gunners.  He is brilliant from set-pieces, and specialises in spectacular volleys.

Robin van Persie made just one appearance for the Dutch U21 team before he got the call-up to join the full squad.  He made his debut in 2005, in qualifying for World Cup 2006, and was part of Holland’s World Cup and Euro 2008 squads – establishing himself in the first team when Ruud van Nistelrooy decided to retire from international football.