BEST OF THE REST: PICKING AN XI FROM EUROPE'S 'OTHER' LEAGUES
Imagine if all the leagues that are forgotten about by fans from Germany, England, France, Spain and Italy could pool their resources, and put together a one-off team, which we’re calling the Valetta Vultures. Obviously, this will never happen, at least, not until the European Super League inevitably changes football forever. But that’s a whole other conversation.
If the ‘other’ leagues had to form a team, with one player from each country, to take on Man City, Bayern or any other heavyweight team, who would they call upon?
GK – Uğurcan Çakır (Trabzonspor)
Çakır’s case to be chosen for the Vultures was helped massively by André Onana’s 12-month ban for doping that he was given in February. Even if Onana was available, Çakır would have still given him stiff competition for the gloves. Trabzonspor have the joint-best defensive record in Turkey, and the only reason they aren’t challenging for the title is a lack of goals. Obviously, that is out of Çakır’s hands, but his performances between the sticks has meant that they should comfortably qualify for next year’s Europa League at least.
Çakır is a safe pair of hands to put behind our defence, and has earnt his place as the most valuable player in Turkey, according to Transfermarkt. Of course, his inclusion means that Mesut Ozil doesn’t feature in our lineup. This team is put together largely on this season’s performance’s, and with only a handful to measure Ozil with, it didn’t seem fair to pick him over the other candidates, who we’ll get to later.
Left-back – Douglas Santos (Zenit St Petersburg)
Our pick from Russia is Brazilian defender Douglas Santos, who has helped his side to the top of the table, on course for their third title in a row. Santos may be relatively unknown to fans of the major leagues, but he is a very intelligent player, who balances his defensive duties well with forward runs.
He has 9 goal contributions in the league this season, and brings a dash of South American flair to our left flank. Essentially, he’s a cut-price Marcelo.
Central Defence – Rúben Semedo (Olympiacos) and Josko Gvardiol (Dinamo Zagreb)
Despite a disappointing performance in a favourable Champions League group this season, Olympiacos are enjoying a bumper lead in their domestic league, and Semedo is a crucial cog in the spine of this team. He is part of a defence packed with recognisable names, including Rafinha, Kenny Lala and Sokratis, but gets the nod over his Greek partner simply because he has had a better season.
The Portuguese defender made his international debut last October, at 27, showing just how much he is rated by the setup there, even when playing down in Greece.
His 19-year-old partner for the Valetta Vultures may be joining Leipzig this summer, but at this moment in time he still plays his football in Croatia, so he qualifies for this team. He’s a very rounded player, with enough speed to recover mistakes and chase down counter attacks, plenty of strength in the tackle and in the air, and is very capable on the ball.
Although he started life as a left back, and has played there for much of this season, the centre of defence is his home, and he is a superb pickup for this side. He may have missed both opportunities to play Spurs in the Europa League due to injury, but if he had been fit, things could have been even worse for Mourinho’s men.
Right-back – James Tavernier (Rangers)
What a season for Rangers. Ending Celtic’s immense run of titles in style, led by their captain Tavernier. From right-back, Tavernier has the joint-most goal contributions in the Scottish Premiership, tied with striker Odsonne Edouard for that crown. He has a similar attacking record in the Europa League, helping his side to a quarter-final place.
However, he does not shy away from his defensive duties, and is the perfect choice to complete our defensive line. England may have enough quality right-backs to fill a bus, but Tavernier should be added to that list, and is a wildcard option going into the Euros.
Central Midfield – Teun Koopmeiners (AZ Alkmaar) and Marek Hamšík (IFK Göteborg)
The Eredivisie has a wealth of talent right now. Dusan Tadic, Steven Berghuis and Donyell Malen all call this league home, but our pick from the Netherlands doesn’t play for Ajax, Feyenoord or PSV. He is the captain of AZ Alkmaar, who are currently in 3rd place in the league. Koopmeiners is having a stellar season himself, with 15 goals to his name from his deep midfield role.
As well as getting his name on the scoresheet, Koopmeiners is one of the most promising No. 6s in Europe, and with many big clubs in need of a player like him, he will be in high demand this summer. It also makes him a good partner with his teammate in the Vultures’ midfield.
Napoli legend Marek Hamšík may be a little older than he was when he left Naples for China, and his legs may be a little more weary, but his midfield mind is still there. In January he left Super League side Dalian in a strange move to Swedish side IFK Göteborg, who are trying to repair their team after a disappointing 2020.
Hamšík is yet to play a game in Sweden (the Allsvenskan starts this weekend), so his inclusion might seem slightly contradictory to our earlier justification for not playing Mesut Ozil. But he’s a legend, the Vultures’ captain (with Tavernier as a vice-captain), so if you want to argue with it, take it up with the man himself. If his career in Sweden is a flop, then we’ll take it all back.
Attacking Midfield - Pedro Gonçalves (Sporting CP)
Sporting have had a superb season in Portugal. They have blown a good Benfica side Champions League quarter-finalists Porto out of the water in Liga NOS, and 22-year-old Gonçalves has been integral to their title push, which, if successful, would be their first in almost 20 years.
Bought for around €5m in the summer, Gonçalves has played a part in 40% of all of Sporting’s goals so far this season. There were plenty of options to choose from Sporting for this team, and also from Porto who have impressed on the European stage, but Gonçalves pips them all to the post, and will be the heart for many of the Valetta Vultures’ fictional attacks.
Left-wing – Théo Bongonda (Genk)
The Belgian league is pretty much sewn up this season. Club Brugge are runaway leaders, but high scoring Genk are in the fight for second place. Bongonda has been a crucial part of their attacking trio, as they employ a tactic of outscoring anyone they come up against.
He has 13 goals for this season coming off the left, and has chipped in his share of assists as well. He claims his place in the team ahead of Brugge winger Noa Lang, who couldn’t be selected because he is technically an Ajax player, on loan in Belgium. At the Valetta Vultures, he can cut inside, allowing Santos to overlap him to fire in a cross.
Striker – Patson Daka (RB Salzburg)
The heir to Erling Haaland in Austria, Zambian international Daka is a fast, powerful forward with an eye for goal. He has a very similar mould to the Norwegian, and has a similarly stunning production rate. In the league this season he has 23 goals and 5 assists in 19 appearances, firing Salzburg to the top of the Austrian Bundesliga table.
In our team, he will relish the opportunities set up for him by the likes of Tavernier, Gonçalves and Hamšík, and help them to punch well above their weight. The ‘other’ leagues are bursting with thrilling forwards, like Hložek, Haller and Núñez to name a few, but Daka really is the cream of the crop, and soon enough he won’t be eligible for this team because he’s playing for one of the heavyweight teams this side is meant to challenge. But that’s not a bad thing.
Right-wing – Tetê (Shakhtar Donetsk)
Tetê is another in a long line of Brazilian talents who have passed through Donetsk on their way to European stardom. He played the full 90 in both of Donetsk’s victories over Real Madrid in the Champions League group stage, and played well.
On the face of it, his statistics aren’t outstanding this season, but this team is packed with goalscorers, it doesn’t need another. What it needs is a creative spark who can see a pass that others might miss, and produce the pass-before-the-pass before the goal, and that is where Tetê comes in. He can release Tavernier on his inside, pick out Daka in the centre, or play Gonçalves through the middle.
At the start of this experiment, we were trying to build a team to tackle the best Europe can offer, but even with the players on offer here, they may still fall short of the pinnacle of world football. The Valetta Vulture could take the Europa League by storm though. And what better prize can you ask for than that.