Writer: Tim Stillman
Date:Saturday June 16 2007
With the hustle and bustle of deadline day transfer activities last season drawing focus primarily on the arrivals of William Gallas and Julio Baptista, a young Brazilian crept in the back door somewhat unnoticed. Most of us, if we are honest, pobably momentarily thought we had purchased the Betis showpony of 1998 World Cup fame (currently in the Guinness book of World Records for 'Most amount of unnecessary stepovers before the defender gets bored and puts you on your arse'). Once we had heard that we had in fact signed the Brazilian U-21 captain for a cool Ł3.5m, we waited impatiently to see what this kid could do. Afterall, captaining a country with a footballing history as illustrious as Brazil, even at youth level, brings with it a certain weight of expectation.
The words 'Brazilian midfielder' also put one in mind of the Kaka's and Juninho's of this world. However, Brazil does have a rich history of producing world class defensive midfielders too (try and name me a consistently successful side who did not have a world class 'screening' player), current Brazilian coach Dunga points heavily to that tradition, the contemporary Brazil squad has our own Gilberto, Emerson, Edmilson who can do that job. Denilson had apparently begun to make waves at his club Sao Paolo and began to make an impression on the first team, even coming on as a substitute in the World Club Championship Final against Liverpool. When he was awarded the squad number 15 (the number vacated by Fabregas), we began to feel that perhaps this was a player who would be expected to make an impression on our own first team. But personally, I had not seen him play and wondered what kind of midfielder we had got.
As ever, it was the Carling Cup where our young prodigy was given his chance to shine. I must admit that when the P.A announcer at the Hawthorns called out his name in the starting line up, I felt some trepidation. An 18 year old Brazilian making his debut away from home on a wintry Wednesday night against a very physical West Brom side? I need not have worried. Not only did Denilson look instantly equipped to take the hustle and bustle of a meaty 50-50, but he actually seemed to relish it, crunching into tackles with a snarl rather than a grimace, he was most un-Brazilian. Or so I thought, until I saw his array of long and short passing, he had an assurance on the ball that belied his tender years and reminded those in attendance of another young central midfielder I won't name. Denilson had passed his first test with flying colours.
But it was his next game that would be the real test. Away at Everton in the Carling Cup would see him teseted against opposition equally as physical, but technically superior to Championship West Brom. With perennial ankle biters Phil Neville and Lee Crasley scouting the midfield looking for fresh, young prey, Denilson and Song stood firm. While Song quietly went about his business with assurance, Denilson was the picture of molecular vibration, thundering into challenges with hunger. He seemed to have a knack of finding himself space in the midfield humdrum, whether it be with intelligent movement or his poise on the ball, he just looked impossible to tackle. Unfortunately, he went off injured that night, typically after crashing into a 30-70 with Pistone. But nobody who saw the game would disagree that Denilson was man of the match.
The young midfielder's zenith came in January, after performing comfortably on the left in the 6-3 mauling of Liverpool at Anfield, the two legged North London derby would see the hype increase. Whereas before, Denilson's sparkling performances had occurred in front of a small band of travelling support, he would get the chance to strut his stuff in the white hot arena of a local derby. He did not disappoint. South America is renowned for its hotly contested local derbies and Denilson relished the stage of a partisan crowd at White Hart Lane. The second leg would well and truly cement his reputation as he simply took Tottenham to the cleaners in an all action display of grit, flair and kinesis, ripping poor Zokora and Jenas to shreds. Laughably, the Spuds tried to bring on their own 'one to watch' Tom Huddlestone. They simply did not bear comparison. Denilson was once again awarded man of the match, and for all his skill and youthful appetite, he showed he had the composure to handle the big occasion.
The manager obviously saw this too, as he became involved with the first team. Starting away at Bolton in the Fifth Round cup replay, Denilson passed the most brutal and thorough physical examination of them all, using a dazzling combination of body strength and nimble feet to escape the hacking boots of the Orcs. Denilson demonstrated a nifty ability to shield the ball with his body, crudely sticking his backside out to ward off predators before letting his twinkling toes wriggle free of the bully boys. His neatest cameo came in the build up to our first goal that night, after sublime skill from Alex Hleb, Denilson danced past two Bolton players by cutely running his studs over the ball in a manner more commonly seen in a Caporeira class. His display alongside Fabregas and Diaby in a Carling Cup Final our midfield dominated gave a tantalising glimpse into our future. His stock continued to grow as he began games against PSV in the Champions' League (also demonstrating a rarity in Wenger's Arsenal, someone who can deliver a wicked set piece) and at home to Chelsea at the tail end of the campaign. Gilberto was moved to centre half as Diaby and Denilson were entrusted with patrolling the centre. Part warrior, part craftsman, we have a silky Brazilian who likes a tackle. His acceleration into stardom drew praise from skipper Thierry Henry who was moved to comment that he had never seen a player acclimatise so quickly to the rigours of the Premiership. Following the sale of Patrick Vieira, central midfield once looked to be our weak link, but with Fabregas, Diaby, Denilson, Gilberto and Song inhabiting our squad, we might just have found what the world is waiting for.LD.
Date:Saturday June 16 2007
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