Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The well trodden path

Petit.  Overmars.  Gio Van Bronckhorst.  Sylvinho.  Henry.  Hleb (yes Hleb).  Cesc.  Now Alex Song.  The path from North London to Catalunya is a well trodden one.  The Wenger era at Arsenal has seen the club remolded from “Boring, boring Arsenal” to a side that plays and has sought to develop players in the style of Barcelona.  Open, free flowing, expansive, quick passing, emphasis on ball retention rather than launching it up to some big lump, pressing high up the pitch, changing from a 4-4-2 formation to a more fluid 4-3-3, Arsenal are a team very much in the image of the blaugrana.  It thus makes the Camp Nou an natural progression from the Emirates.  Barcelona sign Arsenal players because Arsenal play like Barcelona.  Of the above list Petit, who Barça didn’t want to begin with, and Hleb aside, every player who’s made the move has done so successfully.  Overmars may ultimately have succumbed to career ending injury and Titi took a whole season to get going (he also had the small matter of Ronaldinho in his way) but they delivered.

So what to expect from Alex Song?  Van Bronckhorst-like heights, developing into a far superior player than he was at Arsenal or Hleb-like hows, running down blind alleys, ending up being loaned out here, there and everywhere before leaving quietly via the back door.

First off he’s a replacement for Seydou Keita, who’s joined some Chinese team you’ve never heard of.  Keita is 32, turning 33 in January.  Song will be 25 in early September.  So he’s younger and coming into his prime rather than seeing it disappear off into the distance.  What else?  He’s played almost 150 games for Arsenal and has played a whole lot of Champions League football in the last 5 years.  He brings experience.  Though initially deployed as a defensive midfielder, at the base of three, he’s played a much more attacking role in the past two seasons, particularly last year with Cesc leaving.  He’s not just a shield for the back four but rather, Mascherano/ Busquets-like he can link the play, pass the ball.  His understanding with Robin Van Persie last year, his constant ability to find the Dutchman and power forward rather was very impressive, he’s really evolved as a player, into a more modern midfielder, less defined by the constraints of being a traditional defensive player, the Makelele role, that, once so dominant, now seems incredibly dated (look at John Obi Mikel at Chelsea, a player who promised so much but has completely stagnated at the Bridge).

That said he may not play in midfield at all, instead morphing like Mascherano into a centre-back (where he started his career at Arsenal), slotting in for the creaking Puyol who cannot be expected to play 50-something games per season with his knees.  Certainly that spot is a little less crowded than the centre of the pitch, where Barça are coming down with midfielders, albeit with only one who is over 6 feet tall (Sergio Busquets), which brings us back to Keita.  Song will, hopefully, provide some of Keita’s strength and muscle plus echoes of the brilliant Yaya Toure, bringing a bustle and edge that Thiago, Cesc, Xavi et al don’t have (I was going to say lack but to call any of the blaugrana midfielders ‘lacking’ seems ridiculous).

Overall I’m reasonably happy with Song’s arrival.  He’s not Javi Martinez but then again he didn’t cost €40 million, which Barcelona most certainly do not have.  He’s come in at a good price and has shown at Arsenal that he can develop as a player and that he’ll suit the Barça style.  How much of an opportunity he’ll get really depends on injuries and how much Tito Vilanova comes to trust him.  With everyone fit, he’s not first XI, not even close but then when is everyone fit?  Ideally he’ll be eased in, play maybe half of the games that Barça play this season.  He’ll also, in all likelihood, be off at the African Cup of Nations (what a minute, didn’t we just have one of those?) in mid-January to mid-February so that automatically rules him out of 5 La Liga games, plus maybe 2 Copa del Rey ties.

With regards what Song brings it’s worth reading this piece from David Pleat from the tail end of last season when Arsenal beat City.  He's a big loss to Arsenal (despite all the fairly pathetic "he was a disruptive influence" stuff that they're leaking) and fills a gap that needed to be plugged given there were no real options at Barça B (dos Santos, Bartra, Fontas and Muniesa are far from the finished article) and they've got him for less than €20 million.

Monday, September 05, 2011

On to the next one

I must admit I was skeptical. Of course I wanted him back, who wouldn't? He's our boy after all, Barça born and bred. The number four jersey has been vacant for over a year now. Word was that it had been given to Thiago Alcantara. What?! Does this mean he's not coming? I can't go through all this again next summer. Will he? Won't he? Should he? After another crippling end of season collapse at Arsenal it became clear that yes, absolutely he should. Things had come to a complete halt at the Emirates. It was time.

But how would this work out. How as Cesc Fabregas going to fit into what was already the best midfield in the world? He's not better than Xavi or Iniesta (not yet anyway) Would he he cooling his heels on the bench, getting frustrated? And what of Thiago, sensational in the U-21 European Championships and now promoted to the first team from Barça B? We don't need Cesc, we have Thiago was the talk, indeed I was one of those saying it.

Well, four weeks in and Fabregas' impact and seamless integration into the team (coupled with that of Thiago) has proved I hadn't a bloody clue what I was talking about. Cesc has been nothing short of exceptional. Gols in both the SuperCopa against Porto (a real thing of beauty) and Villarreal (plus two for La Roja against Chile on Friday night), his understanding with Leo Messi is such that you'd think they grew up together playing futbol or something... Their movement, Cesc bringing something that Barça lacked last season, a midfielder that who powers forward into the box and gets on the end of things, and interchange of positions has been a joy to watch. I know it's only been two games (he barely featured in the second Madrid game but did show Beckham-like awareness in being the first to celebrate the winner with Messi, ensuring he was on the front page of every newspaper in Spain) but crikey, the evolution of this Barcelona team and his part in it, well, don't go booking your flights to Munich in May just yet but it's hard to see any other side coming close.

Real have definitely improved (Ozil will, if he's fully trusted by Mourinho, will again excel) but ten so have Barça. Alexis Sanchez is a huge upgrade on Bojan and Jeffren and fits perfectly into the 3-4-3 system that Guardiola is currently employing (though I suspect it'll be rather fluid over the course of the season bearing in mind the return of Pique, Puyol and most significantly, Dani Alves.

Basquing in their reflected glory

It's Sociedad away at the Anoeta this weekend and even the Barça website has flagged how flat FCB can be coming back from the International break. On the plus side, the Spanish and Catalan players haven't had to travel too far (Geneva and erm, Lagrono) but Leo and Mascherano have been on the moon or wherever that ridiculous friendly against Venezuela was played so I wouldn't expect either to start. Barça lost away to Sociedad last season in a match that was smack bang in the middle of the Clasico Survivor Series and looked to be heading for a draw had it not been for some ridiculous defending, needless showboating and an injury that was pretty much the end for poor Gaby Milito. Barcelona completely lost their heads and in the space of ten minutes threw the match away. As it happened it counted for nought as Madrid also lost (at home to Sporting Gijon). Even factoring in the post-international come down I'd expect a much more professional performance this time and a win, though not a very comfortable one.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Luis and Ivan go to Roma

In his own quiet way, Luis Enrique has success at Barcelona B has been almost as impressive of that of Pep Guardiola with the senior team. Enrique succeeded Guardiola at the Mini Estadi and in three has taken the team from the Segunda B to third in the Segunda Liga, which, were they a regular team and not Barça’s reserve side, would have seen them in the playoffs for promotion to the Primera Liga. This is all the more noteworthy as Barça B is a team of young lads, most of them 18, 19 or 20, that regularly has it’s best players unavailable because they’ve been called up to dine at the grown-ups table. Thiago Alcantara, Jonathan Dos Santos, Andreu Fontas, Marc Muniesa, Sergi Roberto and Nolito have all been shuttled between the two squads. Injuries, Copa Del Rey games, playing well for Barça B can all mean the lungs being torn out of a side that still has to field a full team every Sunday.

On the back of this, Enrique’s move to Roma is an interesting one. During the season all the talk had been of Getafe, a well run but poorly financed (though this may change with their purchase by the Royal Emirates group) and supported team. It would have been a stepping stone, as it has been for Quique Sanchez Flores, Bernd Schuster and Michael Laudrup. Expectations are modest, avoiding relegation is pretty much the limit of their ambition.

Contrast this with the pressure cooker that is AS Roma. Despite being relatively successful (2nd place finishes, 2 Copa Italias and some decent results in the Champions League) under Luciano Spalletti and Claudio Ranieri, their most recent scudetto was 10 years ago when Fabio Capello was in charge. Since then they have excelled at snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, blowing the title on more than one occasion.

Conceding last-minute equalisers, ludicrous penalties, multiple sendings off, needless yellow cards that see their best players suspended for big games, ridiculous collapses against hopeless opposition, Roma are a team that always seem likely to beat themselves as much as the opposition in front of them.

So what have Enrique and de la Pena (more of him later) let themselves in for? Firstly they take on a squad where most of the players are 30 or over (in some cases waaay over) Vucinic, De Rossi, Borriello and Menez are the only top class players at the club that are in their 20s and two of them, Vucinic and Menez look almost certain to leave. There’s also the goalkeeping situation, which rapidly needs addressing. Their 3 keepers, Julio Sergio, Doni and Labont are prone to such comical errors and lapses of judgement that there’s a good chance of one of them showing up at Arsenal soon. Doni used be very good but he’s gone to pieces in the last two seasons and is on his way out the door.

On the plus side, De Rossi is brilliant and Borriello has signed permanently from AC Milan. French lunatic and sometime defender Philippe Mexes has left (for Milan as it happens) so instances of on-pitch madness should be well down on last season. Juan and Nicolas Burdisso are a solid central defensive pairing. Taddei and Pizarro are very tidy midfielders and the clubs new owner, Tom DiBenedetto looks like he might buy a few players and more importantly, leave Enrique and his coaching team to it (he’s a partner in the Liverpool and Red Sox owning NESV, who have a good ownership record).

Inevitably a laundry list of Barcelona fringe players and almost the entire Barça B squad have been linked with a move to the Stadio Olimpico. Of the players available they could do with one or all of Bojan, Jeffren and Soriano, though one of them is likely to be included in the deal that brings Alexis Sanchez from Udine to the Camp Nou. Enrique will probably play the same 4-3-3 at Roma and with an existing forward line that includes a 35 year old Francesco Totti, it’s in desperate need of upgrading with some young, mobile players. As for the rest of Barça B, the noises the players have been making, particularly Martin Montoya, would suggest they’ve got no interest in been pushed out the door.

One final word about Ivan de la Pena, the other ex-blaugrana at Roma and Enrique’s assistant. A player of immense talent who got shunted out of Barcelona by Louis Van Gaal, making a disastrous move to Lazio, one his career never really recovered from. Though he did do very well at Espanyol following a second (and very brief spell at Barcelona), he was much better than that. A fabulous passer and the lungs of that Espanyol side, he retired in May and this will be his first coaching role. I wish him all the best.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Season review

Now that I've had a few weeks to digest and recover from the Champions League Final (and Primavera for that matter), I'm finally getting to a season review and a look toward the summer (transfers etc) Now this is happening.

Pep Guardiola described the 09/10 season as "fucking barbaric". The same and more could be said of the 62 games of 10/11. With the pressure and intensity ramped thanks to the arrival of Jose Mourinho at Madrid, the five clasicos would come to define the season. La Liga, the Copa del Rey and the Champions League, all funneled into five games, starting with a band in late November and ending in bitterness, whinging, diving, lying, cheating and marked perhaps a low point in the always fractious relationship between Barcelona and Real.

Let's start with the 5-0, the zenith, the peak, the performance by which all will now be measured (that's about as grandiose as I can get). Madrid brutally exposed and torn apart by Xavi, Iniesta, Alves and el puto amo Leo Messi. It was a result and display that would set the tone for the first half of the season, where Barça regularly knocked 4, 5 or 6 (and occasionally 7 or 8) gols past the opposition. After January, the swagger wasn't quite so pronounced, David Villa's form dropped off a cliff and 1-0 or 2-0 became the norm.

The upshot of this mauling was that when the teams faced off against each other months later in the Survivor Series of clasicos, Madrid sharpened up their studs, elbows and gamesmanship, and those who bought into the hype and expectations that we were in for more glorious displays of total futbol were to be sorely disappointed.

Baring Messi's mazy run and gol in the first leg of the Champions League semi, these four games were shocking. A pathetic display of negative tactics from Madrid coupled with a race-to-the-bottom slagging match between the clubs off the field, I had always feared it would turn out this way for this is what Mourinho teams do. And with four games in the space of twenty something days, the strain (these were after all Liga deciding, Copa del Rey final and CL semifinal games after all), the saturation of coverage, the intensity of two teams who were absolutely sick of the sight of each other ultimately made for a painful three weeks. Over the years I've grown to dread Barça-Madrid matches and the bullshit that surrounds them. Next season starts with them playing each other twice in the Super Copa. Ker-ist.

Beyond the vortex of the clasicos, it's been an incredible season. 96 points, a European Cup, some of the finest futbol ever played. A full injury-free season for Andres Iniesta, Eric Abidal's recovery from cancer of the liver to lift the Champions League trophy wearing the captain's armband, David Villa's seamless integration into the team, Pedro continuing to score crucial gols, Xavi and Leo Messi (53 gols in 62 games) standing apart from all others, another Zamora for Valdes, who is (and has been for about 3 years) the best 'keeper in Spain, yes, even better than Iker. The success of Barça B in the Segunda under the newly confirmed coach of AS Roma, Luis Enrique (they were third), was also a joy, as were the promotions from the B team of Thiago Alcantara, Jeffren and late on Andreu Fontas and Marc Muniesa. Javier Mascherano, going from an initial rocky start to an essential member of the team, his game winning tackle on Nicklas Bendtner in the CL a real coming of age moment, as was the standing ovation he was given minutes later.

Personal highlights include the aforementioned Arsenal game, Andres Iniesta's gol against Valencia (the only two games I got to this season), being in Barcelona for the CL Final and going to the Camp Nou to greet the team the following day, the Villarreal game at the Camp Nou, Pep's anti-Mourinho rant and Sid Lowe's fabulous interview with Xavi.

There weren't all that many lows to speak of. Puyol missing nearly the whole second half of the season with a knee injury and Pique's subsequent unsteadiness is one, the Qatar Sponsorship deal another, the prospect of next season being Guardiola's last and the minor frustration of losing the Copa del Rey final to a Ronaldo gol are about it.

On to the next one

So where are we at for the summer? Well, the club is no in a far better situation financially and there's €45 million in the coffers to spend on Cesc (yawn), Gigi Rossi or Alex Sanchez. Depending on what sports rag you read, Bojan is off to Udine or Roma and Jeffren may follow him out the door. Cacares (Sevilla), Nolito (Benfica) and Victor Vazquez (Club Brugge) have already left which leaves the (previously on loan) quartet of Hleb (dear gawd Hleb), Henrique, Victor Sanchez and Kerrison to deal with, assuming of course that overpriced IKEA wardrobe Zlatan Ibrahimovic stays at AC Milan, one expects he will.

I'd be sad to see Bojan leave. He's still only 20 and a great talent. I thought the run he went on toward the end of the 09/10 season, when he benched Zlatan, would see him really push on this year, but the arrival of David Villa in the sumemr and Afellay in January saw him slip further down the pecking order. In order to develop as a player he probably needs to go and play week in, week out. I think he'd light it up in Serie A. He's quick, strong, mobile, positionally aware and a good passer of the ball. He just needs a coach with some real confidence in him.

On the signings front, I'd rather we didn't go all out for Fabregas given the fact that he wouldn't play ahead of Xavi or Iniesta. His arrival would also surely stifle the progress of Thiago Alcantara, who has been brilliant every time I've seen him. No, the priorities are another centre back (Milito is probably on his way), maybe a left back if Maxwell leaves and Cote doesn't sign from Sporting Gijon and a forward who can mix it with the current holy trinity of Leo, Pedro and Villa. At centre back I'd like to see someone like Simon Kjaer at Wolfsburg or Zapta at Udine. I also really like San Jose at Bilbao (what on earth happened to him at Liverpool? Fantastic at underage level at Athletic, goes to Liverpool, turns to shit, comes back, is fantastic again) Left back, both Adriano and Abidal are options there but I would have liked to see Monreal come in form Osasuna (he's signed for the ever improving Malaga and I think he'll prove to be an excellent addition, much more so than the 100 year old Ruud Van Nistlerooij).

And so to a summer free of futbol. I intend maybe dipping into the U-21 tournament in Denmark over the next few weeks, particularly to see Spain, and the U-20 in Romania in late July, for which Ireland have qualified, but the Copa America will mostly go unwatched, given the time difference and the fact that I need a break. Ideally the first full match I'll see will be the opening weekend of La Liga. One final word on La Liga, or rather Sky Sports coverage of it. After six years in the anchors chair, Mark Bolton is leaving. He's a very good presenter , knowledgeable and clearly a real fan of Spanish futbol. He made Revista de la Liga an unmissable show and Sky will have a tough job replacing him.

Finally, my team of the season:

Valdes - FC Barcelona

Alves - FC Barcelona
Abidal - FC Barcelona
Ballesteros - Levante UD
Marcelo - Real Madrid

Borja - Villarreal
Xavi - FC Barcelona
Iniesta - FC Barcelona

Messi - FC Barcelona
Rossi - Villarreal
Ronaldo - Real Madrid

Monday, May 02, 2011

Grown so ugly

Well this has been most unpleasant. The fourth and final clasico really can't come (and go) quickly enough. A gradual amping up of whinging, cheating, diving, fouling, fighting, name calling, shoving and play acting over the first two games went nuclear in one of the most embarrassing displays I have ever seen on a futbol pitch from both sides. Every decision contested, every contact exaggerated, milked to the fullest. I haven't seen such a display of histrionics since the Porto-Celtic UEFA Cup final in 2003, which, coincidentally, featured a Mourinho coached team doing their best to destroy the game of futbol.

I always feared it would end this way, with two teams sick of the sight of each other, with Barça being dragged down to Real's level, with the constant fouling inevitably leading to constant over-acting and waving of imaginary cards at every opportunity. I saw a quote from Xavi this evening that sums all of this shit up well; "I'd rather talk about football, all this other stuff is lamentable." Both sides are to blame, Mourinho for his vicious, negative tactics, his baiting of Guardiola and down-right ridiculous claims in the pre and post-match press conferences and Barça for their shameful haranguing of the referee and diving around like they'd been shot (Busquets, Alves and Pedro were the worst offenders) The whole thing was as depressing as it was inevitable.

As it turned out all my pre-match worries were completely unfounded as Real played like a team hoping to strangle a 0-0 draw by making almost no effort to attack bar the odd free kick or shot from distance that invariably went no where near the gol. They had nothing, nothing before the sending off of Pepe, nothing afterward. They were hopeless.

As I write this Aitor Karanka is giving the pre-match press conference and the mud slinging continues. Rather than giving it rest he's stirring it up further ahead of tmrrw night's game which I expect will be a dire affair with Madrid kicking Barça up and down the pitch. But at least that'll be the end of it for the time being. Until we have to go through this all over again at the start of next season of course with the Super Copa and another two of these fucking games and all that goes with them.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Are we there yet?

It's half time in this marathon of Clasicos and I gotta tell you, I'm not full of confidence for the upcoming Champions League games for all sorts of reasons. In no particular order, here's what I'm feelin'.

1. David Villa

After going on a Zlatan-style late season slump (no gols in eleven games for Barcelona), Villa finally hit the back of the net against Osasuna on Saturday night. The blaugrana number seven has looked a shadow of his usual self down the stretch, frequently substituted (as he was again on the weekend after only 57 minutes) and was absolutely awful in the Copa del Rey Final on Wednesday, caught offside with Pippo Inzaghi-like regularity, diving around, whinging and generally contributing nothing. He should have been hauled off well before the start of the second half of extra time.

This very much parallels Ibrahimovic's stuttering finish to his one and only season at the Camp Nou. Unlike last time out though, there's no one like Bojan on a hot streak (he knocked in six in the last eight I think) to step into the team and replace him. Bojan is injured and won't be fit again before the season ends. Afellay has barely played since joining from PSV in January, limited to late substitute appearances and starts in dead rubber Copa games. Jeffren, who managed ninety minutes vs. Osasuna (and who's cross set up Villa's gol) has been plagued by injury and only played a handful of times. None of the Barça B forwards seem to be under consideration, Nolito had a few fruitless run outs earlier in the season but back to the Segunda he went (his contract is up in June and there seems to be no appetite to renew it).

The upshot of all of this is that Villa has continued to labour away, playing rubbish with no one stepping up to the plate to put any pressure on him or take his place. His level of play has been a big factor in the side scoring far fewer gols of late (the 5-1 victory over Shaktar an anomaly rather than the norm as it was earlier in the season).

2. The squad and injuries

The Villa problem is somewhat symptomatic of the of a wider problem that has been thrown into stark relief in the last two months; the size of the squad and it's inability of cope with injuries. For a club as big as Barcelona the squad is tiny. Not counting B team players like Fontas or Alcantara who regularly get promoted to the 1st team match day squad, there are just twenty (20) players on the books at the Camp Nou.

Of those twenty, just one is a right back (Dani Alves), and of the twenty, six, five defenders and Bojan, are currently injured. The defence that finished the game against Osasuna consisted of Dani, two defensive midfielders (the only two), Busquets and Mascherano, and a crocked Maxwell, in for a crocked Adriano. While Pique will be back for the Madrid game, Masch or even Jeffren at left back seems increasingly likely. Quite the patchwork quilt eh? All this while a plethora of players have been loaned out everywhere from the Brum to Santander.

Now it's easy to be all Captain Hindsight in these situations and quite frankly I'd rather see Cacares and Hleb loaned out or sold altogether as opposed to having the around gumming up the works at the Camp Nou. But still, compare the Barça and Madrid benches from Wednesday. Where the blaugrana featured Fontas, Alcantara and a unfit Carles Puyol, Madrid had Higuain, Benzema, Adebayor and Kaka. And while it's true that los blancos have near unlimited resources to construct such a squad and Barça are sinking in debt, the point still remains, there are not enough players at FCB and it's at the business end of the season when this really starts to tell.

3. Madrid (Cabron!)

They're pretty fucking good what? Stoic in defence, reinvigorated in attack (putting 6, SIX! past third place Valencia on Saturday night and supremely skilled in the Jose Mourinho school of rotational fouling and excessive diving. Madrid's 80 points from 33 games would see them top any other league in Europe (by seven in England, nine in Serie A, eleven in Germany and a massive twenty one in Ligue 1) Instead they remain second with five games to go and baring a meltdown from Barça of well, Barcelona proportions, second is where they'll stay. As was noted last year, the problem isn't Madrid, it's Barcelona. Barça are definitely better over 38 games. Over two, I just don't know.

I worry that Madrid, having been able to rest more than half of their first team and still rack up an ice hockey score versus Barcelona, having to bring on Messi, Andres and Xavi in order to close it out against Osasuna, have the edge. Thus far, in 210 minutes of clasico futbol, Barça have scored just once, a penalty. 5-0 seems a very long time ago. Scoring an away gol at the Bernabeu is essential in order to avoid the crippling heartbreak of last year when Mourinho's Inter ground out the most artless of 0-1 defeats.

4. The positives

You know, such as there are any... Despite all this doom and gloom Barça remain eight points clear with five games to play and lost the Copa to a solitary gol in the Final, they weren't dumped out in the first round.

The form of Andres Iniesta and Dani Alves has been encouraging. Both have been exceptional of late. Leo Messi just hit fifty, like 5-Oh gols for the season. Valdes has been fantastic and despite the constant rotation of the defence, it's been pretty solid and Puyol should be back for the match on Wednesday night (he'll certainly make the return leg). They're definitely good enough, they're playing well enough (the second half in Valencia was brilliant) and they should do this but I expect it'll be by a last minute Andres' gol at the Bridge-type margin. *takes deep break*

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Like Iron Man Starks...

Four games in 18 days. La Liga. Copa del Rey. Champions League. The home game with Osasuna breaks the run, almost ruining the poetry of it but I'll be glad of the break. I love and hate the clasico in equal measure. It really is the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. Losing to Madrid is awful, gut wrenching, their bloated arrogance, their galling sense of entitlement, their preening, diving and whinging, they're like some fusion of the Yankees, Emperor Palpatine from Star Wars and the Republican Party.

And so the nxt two and a half weeks are going to be hellish. Marca. Mourinho. Valdano. Perez. All mouthing off. Each game bringing the prospect of defeat and never hearing the bloody end of it. You would think that with Barça playing the best futbol they've ever played, with them being eight points clear of Madrid, with Messi, Xavi, Iniesta in concert and absolutely unstoppable that I would be confident, even a little cocksure, going into this World Series run of games. Sadly I'm afflicted with a dreadful pessimism (or maybe it's just realism), in the back of my mind are European Cup losses to Steaua Bucuresti, Liga's thrown away to last minute draws against Betis and Espanyol, countless games where defeat is snatched from the jaws of victory. I don't revel in these games, I dread them.

That said, I was filled with confidence to hear of the return of Iron Man Carles Puyol, back after nearly four months of injury lay off. He's the glue that binds the defense together and his calmness and authority have been sorely lacking in his absence. No word on whether he'll start yet but it's not like they needed to rush him back for this game, I don't think they're doing an Arsenal. If he's in the squad then he's fit to play.