PSG's reluctant hero Thiago Silva earns applause but eyes the door
Is Thiago Silva the best defender in the world Ã¢ÂÂ or better than that? Ahead of PSG's second leg at Barcelona, French football expert Jonathan Fadugba examines the brilliant Brazilian
When Fabio Cannavaro became only the third defender in history to win the Ballon D'Or for European Football of the Year in 2006, he put his inspirational form at that year's World Cup down to three simple reasons. "Eating well, getting plenty of sleep and having sex Ã¢ÂÂ these are all important things."
Having moved that summer to Real Madrid from Calciopoli-relegated Juventus, Cannavaro was quick to praise his former club upon receiving the coveted award. "Of course I will take this trophy back to Madrid but I would also love to take it to Turin," said the Italian. "It is thanks to Juventus that I have been able to show my qualities on the pitch. I want to thank my Juve team-mates and all my colleagues from the national team."
Deference to a former club and a genuine claim to being the world's best defender are just two things that Cannavaro had in common with a man who could one day succeed him as a Ballon D'Or-winning defender: Paris Saint-Germain's Thiago Silva.
In recent weeks, the Brazilian international has been described as, among other things, "the Messi of defenders", "faultless" and "a ladyboy", the latter by chief stirrer Joey Barton.
The 28-year-old is a vital component of 'Project Paris', world-class not only in terms of performance but also in reputation Ã¢ÂÂ a valuable commodity when your owners are trying to establish their club as a global brand.
Captain, natural leader and magnificent defender, Thiago Silva is the type of player every club dreams of; after his performance against Barcelona in the first leg of their Champions League quarter-final, his claim to being the best defender in the world has never been stronger.
Leading the way against Barcelona
A rock at the heart of PSG's defence in that 2-2 draw, Silva was subsequently lionised, with people around the world chiming in to champion the breathtaking ability of this gentle yet fierce Brazilian.
Le Parisien declared him "already a legend." Alain Roche, a former France centre-back who won the European Cup Winners' Cup with PSG in 1996, called Silva 'the Lionel Messi of defenders.' "The question is no longer if he is the best defender in the world," said Roche, "because he is quite simply one of the best players in the world Ã¢ÂÂ better than Cannavaro when he won the Ballon D'Or." Ricardo, another Brazilian centre back who played for and coached PSG in the 1990s, simply dubbed his compatriot "a monster."
His display against Barcelona was remarkable. He was in the right place, at the right time, nearly all the time. He made more interceptions than any other player on the pitch as well as his fair share of tackles, blocks and clearances. He was also decisive at the other end of the field, his towering header clipping the post for PSG's opening goal before Zlatan Ibrahimovic, PSG's other big money signing from AC Milan, tapped in.
Defensive work v BarÃÂ§a, as assessed by our free Stats Zone app
For Thiago Silva to be one of the standout performers in a match that involved Messi, Xavi, Iniesta & Co. will come as no surprise to many, however. The 28-year-old has been at the top of his game for years now, going back to his time at Milan, where he was lured from Fluminense in 2008 by Leonardo, then Milan technical director.
Thiago Silva's influence on Milan was huge. He won the 2011 Scudetto and was named Serie A Defender of the Year. In his final two seasons at San Siro he helped keep 33 clean sheets and in 2011/12 he was the most accurate passer in Serie A. His stamp on the club was indelible as Ibrahimovic, his teammate then and now, attests.
"I have played with many fantastic central defenders Ã¢ÂÂ Thuram, Cannavaro, PiquÃÂ©, Puyol Ã¢ÂÂ but Silva is like all of them put together. Perhaps fewer have noticed because he's Brazilian and Brazil is not known for good defenders, but he's the best in the world."
His reading of the game, distribution of the ball and aerial ability are all phenomenal. Current boss Carlo Ancelotti raves about him too. "No one has the concentration, the speed, the heading or the sense of anticipation he has. He's on track to become the next Maldini." With such glowing personal testaments, it's little wonder PSG eventually stumped up the Ã¢ÂÂ¬42m necessary to take him to Paris.
Knowing me, knowing you: With Carlo Ancelotti
But despite all this, does Thiago Silva really want to be in Paris?
His transfer from Milan was murky, a high-stakes poker game between Qatari billionaires and the erstwhile Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Despite additional interest from Barcelona, he wanted to stay in Milan and signed a new contract in the middle of the negotiations, before being told to pack his bags just a few days later after an improved offer was accepted.
There's no doubt he was deeply sad about his exit: "I did not want to leave Milan, and neither did my family" is a stance he has repeated several times since, much to the chagrin of PSG supporters who read his words with gritted teeth.
In December Thiago Silva again reiterated his yearning for Milan in an interview with Sky Sport24. "I cannot deny that I miss Milan," he commented. "They will always remain in my heart because after Fluminense they are the club that helped me become known on the world stage. I would like to go back there in the future because it's a massive club. If the opportunity ever arose I would be pleased to return."
As if that weren't bad enough, ahead of the Barcelona second leg the Brazilian has also been quoted extensively by Catalan newspaper Mundo Deportivo waxing lyrical about his boyhood heroes and apparently leaving the door open for a future switch to the Camp Nou.
"There were conversations with my agent, but we had given our word to Leonardo, who I knew from Milan," the Brazilian is quoted as saying. "Once I gave my word, it was difficult to pull back. But you never know what might happen in the future. People dream. I have always been a Barca fan since I was a boy, when they had Romario, Rivaldo, Ronaldo... I am their No. 1 fan. After Wednesday, I will continue to be.
"I am happy at the moment at PSG, and I hope to keep helping this project. I have just arrived here, I am not thinking about that, my agent looks after those things. But the people know that such bureaucratic things can be resolved in some way. When you sign a contract, you expect to fulfil it, but this depends on a lot of things. You never close the door as you do not know what might happen. I am happy now, but you can never speak about the future."
August 2012: PSG unveil their man
Such statements are glossed over by PSG but must sting, given they come at a time when the Parisian club yearns to portray itself as naturally capable of attracting the world's finest. For now he remains in Paris, the 'monster' at the heart of defence and undoubtedly Ligue 1's best defender.
"He is already among the best defenders in the history of Brazil, alongside Mozer, Julio Cesar and Aldair," Ricardo told Le Parisien recently. "If he wins the World Cup next year he will become the greatest of all time. He is already the best defender in PSG's history."
A bold claim, but one supported by another legendary French defender: Laurent Blanc. "He is already in the category of Baresi, Sammer and anyone else you want to name. Ultimately what he wins will decide where he ranks, but his qualities make him stronger than all of them."