Foreign stars in English football

At Stamford Bridge, things have been going embarrassingly wrong for the Ukrainian striker Andrei Shevchenko and Germany's World Cup captain and key midfielder, Michael Ballack. Both have been hugely expensive summer acquisitions, writes Brian Glanville.

Over a recent weekend, two famous foreign attackers made their debut playing in the FA Cup initially on loan for their new English teams. While two other celebrated foreigners found themselves under a deep dark cloud at Chelsea.

On that Saturday, the 32-year-old Vincenzo Montella, 20 times an Italian international, lent by Roma, played the last 19 minutes at Leicester, where Fulham drew 2-2. The following day, Henrik Larsson, who, leading Celtic and having played for Sweden in the 2006 World Cup, had gone home into what looked like semi-retirement at Helsingborg, instead turned out for Manchester United against Aston Villa at Old Trafford at the age of 35 and quickly showed all the old opportunism was there, by striking a spectacular first goal.

Larsson, of course, was a prolific scorer in recent seasons for Celtic, in that Sargasso Sea of soccer, the Scottish League, and a prodigious figure at Barcelona, where injury eventually put him out of action for many months. His acquisition was certainly a major coup for Manchester United's manager Alex Ferguson, a veteran himself, though it is arguable that with the arrival of Larsson, with all his skills, there may now be an embarrassment of riches in attack. Already, there were Wayne Rooney, Louis Saha and another gifted Scandinavian — in successful action again when his career seemed ended by long-term injury — in the Norwegian, Ole Gunnar Solksjaer, who scored United's second goal versus Aston Villa.

Not to mention the England international Alan Smith, another whose career was blemished by injury and who lost his place in United's attack in consequence, having joined them at a large fee from Leeds United. Looking back, I find I actually saw Montella's debut for Italy, in a very easy 4-0 win in Bologna against a wilting Wales. It was the first of his 20 caps which included one as a substitute against Mexico in the 2002 World Cup. His career is especially interesting, in that it is typical with that of so many Italian stars who originally escaped the trawling net for young, boyish, talent and came through in what you might call the hard way.

In the case of Montella, whose impressive career owes much to speed and skill and little or nothing to physique, his breakthrough came only after five whole seasons in Division Cl, the upper third, with the unfashionable Tuscan club of Empoli, though he himself comes from much further south, near Naples. That fifth season saw him score abundantly and he was even more prolific when Genoa snapped him up and he figured for them in Serie B. Only for one season, though, since Genoa's city rivals Sampdoria pounced and managed, through legal technicalities, to spirit him away. He was with Samp when he won his first Italian cap, then moved south in time to Rome and Roma, where he was in his eighth season when Fulham enterprisingly acquired him.

But at Stamford Bridge, things have been going embarrassingly wrong for the Ukrainian striker Andrei Shevchenko and Germany's World Cup captain and key midfielder, Michael Ballack. Both have been hugely expensive summer acquisitions though Chelsea's billionaire owner, Roman Abramovich, doubtless hardly felt the disbursement. In fact Shevchenko, from Milan, cost over �30 million and though Ballack was out of contract at Bayern Munich, his weekly salary is immense.

Neither, to put it mildly, has flourished. The insistence by the ever-flamboyant and voluble Chelsea manager, Jose Mourinho, that sooner or later Shevchenko is sure to come good seems increasingly hollow.

Indeed, he not only had an indifferent game when Chelsea thrashed lowly Macclesfield at The Bridge 6-0, but earned the contempt of their captain, David Morley, who was obliged to go into goal after Shevchenko had procured a debatable penalty which not only gave Chelsea the lead, but resulted in the 'keeper who had brought the Ukrainian down going red carded off; to Morley's outrage. He insisted that Shevchenko had dived in a way unworthy of so celebrated a player. "He should be scoring goals," declared Morley, "and he isn't. He gets paid �120,000 a week, they bought him for �30 million and he's not doing it. He's saying he needs time to settle in, but how much time do you need?"

For that matter, how much time does Ballack need? Too often, when one has watched him at The Bridge this season, he has seemed uninvolved and indifferent, so seldom showing the dynamism one associated with him in two World Cups; indeed, who knows what might have happened had he not been suspended from the 2002 Final in Yokahama, when the Germans unexpectedly gave Brazil a good run for their money? His own Chelsea colleagues now criticise him, Drogba among them.

Ballack insists that he has not been given a fair crack of the whip at Chelsea, that he has not been able to play his normal, penetrative game, but the fact is that there is a giant imbalance between his vast wages and the amount he has so far done for his new team.

By sharp contrast, Tomas Rosicky that highly versatile Czech international who joined Arsenal in the summer from the Bundesliga looks to be a far less-expensive but infinitely more successful acquisition. The icing was surely put on the cake with his two splendidly taken FA Cup goals on that same weekend for the Gunners at Anfield against Liverpool, who were thus knocked out of the FA Cup 3-1.

Yet, Arsenal's policy of snapping up young talent in Europe means that this season striker Arturo Lupoli, 19, has been scoring goals on loan for Derby and wants to go back to Italy, and full Danish cap, Nicklas Bendtner 19, has, till injured, been getting goals.