The lynchpin of the second best team in Europe has left a hole in the Manchester United squad which Sir Alex Ferguson seems unable to fill. Rarely has the departure of one player made such an impact at Old Trafford. His £80 million move to Real Madrid is reminiscent of Michael Schumacher's move to Ferrari in Formula One. Success was not instantaneous but when it arrived it was lasting. Assuming Florentino Perez' money does not dry up, the Madrid club look set to inherit Barca's mantle as the best team in the World ere long.
Which brings us to this man. By no means the sole reason behind Barcelona's brilliance. However, the little Argentine is a powerful symbol of Catalan dominance in Europe and Spain. In June he must travel to South Africa and carry his Argentine team mates, their comical manager plus the expectations of an entire nation on his shoulders. Will he be up to the challenge?
No-one knows the exact figure but it is said that qualification to the World Cup can benefit a national economy to the tune of tens of millions. In these recessionary times, that's no mean amount. So the impact of that handball in the World Cup qualifying play-off has left the Irish not just brimming with sporting outrage but severely out of pocket (assuming of course that Ireland would have gone on to win the match which is very much in doubt). I wonder if the Irish Government took legal advice about suing the French for loss of earnings?
The Managers / Coaches
It's almost impossible to believe how a team that so comically orchestrated their Euro 2008 demise beneath the brolly of Steve McLaren could transform itself into World Cup hopefuls. For sure the short odds on England winning in South Africa are skewed somewhat by the English public's jingoism and blind optimism in the face of reality. However, the arrival of Capello has made a massive difference to England's prospects. He has good tactical range. He picks players according to tactical necessity rather than star quality. He gives clear concise instructions that even Rio Ferdinand can understand. Add to that he rules the England camp with an iron fist. Not many coaches can intimidate multi-millionaire footballers to the extent that they are frightened to ask if they can have packets of crisps on a plane. Fortunately for England, Capello can and his team are definite dark horses in the World Cup next year.
A former Barcelona midfield starlet, Guardiola spent a short spell coaching the Barcelona 'B' team into a winning unit before doing the same - and then some - with the 'A' team. Filling the boots of predecessor Frank Rijkaard was never going to be an easy task, but Guardiola has made it look exceptionally easy. In his first season, Barca won the treble (league, cup and European Cup) and this season he's added the UEFA Super Cup, FIFA World Club Cup and Spanish Super Cup to the already bulging trophy cabinet. Key to his talents has been his ability to buy and sell the right players as well as manage the existing ones. Tactically flexible, he can inspire players to achieve the sort of greatness many other coaches can only dream of. Barcelona are now the one team in Europe everyone else fears, and it's almost completely down to Pep Guardiola.
Look up 'journeyman' in the dictionary and you'll find 'Guus Hiddink' as the definition. There's a reason for that though: namely that the wily Dutchman can bring success to any team he coaches for. Having said all that, he doesn't *always* bring success as any fan of Real Betis, Real Madrid and Fenerbahce will tell you, but when he gets it right, he gets it VERY right. He turned PSV into a credible member of the Dutch football elite, steered South Korea into the uncharted territory of the World Cup semi-finals and took Chelsea to the Champions League semi-finals. A coach who, despite hitting the occasional flat spot, can turn a team's fortunes around at a stroke... and he's currently available too. Bolton fans - that's your last clue from us...
The Men Upstairs
George Gillett / Tom Hicks
Danny Baker once said that England needs a a strong pound and a strong Liverpool. The Merseyside club is an iron horse of the English game with fans throughout the world. While it has slowly lost ground to its rivals over the last 20 years, Liverpool remains a club with a huge overseas profile and must surely play an important part in the Premier League's marketing strategy. Imagine then the damage done, should The Reds find themselves slipping into mid-table mediocrity or worse - under the ownership of George Gillett and Tom Hicks. For sure, they've made transfer money available to the manager and for sure the manager has not been able to produce the League title that the Kop so desperately want. However, Gillett and Hicks were given the keys to Anfield on the basis that they'd be moving to a much bigger stadium which will allow them to compete with the giants of Europe. Failure to secure the move to New Anfield may have long-term repercussions for Liverpool FC and indeed the very fabric of the English game.
Currently enjoying his third spell as president of Real Madrid, Perez is as responsible as anyone for putting La Liga above the Premier League in order of importance where European football's concerned. Tremendously influential in not just Spanish football but also the media, politics and business, he gained notoriety by unashamedly putting the marketing potential of Real Madrid above its success on the pitch. Buying a whole raft of the world's top players in his second presidential spell brought success up to a point, but the less appreciated members of the squad soon left, taking with them the bedrock of Real Madrid's triumphs. Now wiser for the experience, Perez returns with a new selection of Galacticos and a greater understanding of what makes for a successful blend of squad members. He also remains a shrewd businessman and administrator of the club that knows how to generate a buzz among the fans by bringing in star names. With that kind of knack for giving the people what they want, Perez remains arguably the one man on whom the worldwide appeal of Spanish football rises and falls.
Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan
Anyone that can make Roman Abramovich feel financially insecure can only be good for the game of football, especially as he seems in a bit of a rush to spend a fair bit of his personal fortune. And what a personal fortune it is, at last count estimated to be 'many many billions of dollars'. Even with the current downturn in the Arab financial markets, Man City's favourite Sheikh still has plenty to spend, and in the current transfer window we'll almost certainly see some new players arriving at the City of Manchester Stadium. New manager Roberto Mancini will have as his number 1 priority the need to shore up a creaky defence, and with his influence and managerial credentials, the money will definitely be made available to do so. Gaining success by virtue of having an enormous personal wealth may be crude, but Sheikh Mansour is here and he's influencing the game to his and Man City's advantage - whether you like it or not.
The Men in High Office
Changed the rules to allow the World Cup to be staged in Africa for the first time ever. Say what you like about him but Blatter has made history in 2010. He also will be an instrumental figure in the decision as to where to stage the tournament in 2018 and 2022 this year. While he will not make the final decision, one wrong word from the President of FIFA will influence the selection panel. So be nice!
The former foreign office minister and top Scudamore botherer faces one of the toughest challenges of his career in the next 10 months or so. A skilled politician, Triesman effortlessly kicked the Premier League's plan for Game 39 into the long grass. However, he will need to draw on all his experience to steer England's World Cup 2018 bid through the shark-infested waters of FIFA's selection process. Especially since he runs the risk of getting shot at by so called allies such as...
Sir Dave Richards
Quite how the former Chief Executive of Sheffield Wednesday continues to get a gig is anyone's guess. Not content with mis-managing one of the biggest clubs in Yorkshire during the golden age of English Football, the Premier League Chairman's ham fisted political shenanigans led to his very public resignation from England's World Cup bid committee which may have damaged their chances of hosting the tournament in 2018. Of all the reasons given as to why the Premier League is bad for English football, the continued involvement of this man is surely among the most compelling.
Agree or disagree with any of the above? Someone we've left out, perhaps? If so, why not leave us a comment and tell us your views...