Saturday, March 31, 2007

Saragossa, Depor and YouTube

"Santiago Ezquerro is also set to miss the game as he his rested." Rested. Maybe Santi has been doing the garden all week or building a wall and he's knackered from all the manual labour. Or maybe he has a new baby who's keeping him up all night and he'd give anything for a good night's sleep. Rested. Come. Off. It.

In addition to Santi, Barça will be without Eto'o (tendonitis), Motta (insert random injury here) and Belletti (groin strain) for what will be a tough game. Saragossa are a good side, only three points behind Valencia in fifth. Diego Milito has notched up 18 gols in La Liga and they're unbeaten in their last six games in the League. Interupting that run of form is their 1-2 loss to Barcelona in the Copa at the tail end of February. The blaugrana were exceptional that night, really digging out a result. They'll need to show the same steal and resolve if they're to remain two points ahead of Sevilla come Sunday evening. Deco returns with two of his fingers strapped up, as does Marquez, who has been out in the cold for the last few games on the back of some very poor displays.

A Messi!

A quick word on last weekend's 2-1 victory over Depor. I had a whole post on this written but then Safari crashed out and I lost it. Essentially it was about how pre-Hector Cuper and Rafa Benitez Valencia, before Sevilla stopped selling all their best players, that Deportivo were the only team challenging the Real-Barça hegemony (Sociedad were a splash in the pan). It was long and involved and it's time has passed so don't expect to see it any time soon. Instead, what about Messi's gol? Excellent control from 'dinho to jink past Coloccini, a pinpoint pass and a get-in! finish. Sensational.

You Tube and Palacio

Following Chelsea's opening of an official YouTube channel about a month ago, Barça have one of their own. Currently the most interesting thing up there is Ludovic Giuly sticking out his tongue while tying his bootlaces but it's only been up a few days so I'm willing to believe it'll get better. In tamdem with the new website FCB are going all web 2.0 on our asses. More of this I say. Finally, it seems fairly certain that Barcelona will sign Rodrigo Palacio in the summer from Boca Juniors. Palacio's name has come up a lot in the past few months and reportedly the club made a bid for him in the transfer window that was rejected.

But with Saviola on his way, Mallorca likely to make Maxi Lopez' loan permanent and increasing murmurs of Guddy being shipped back to blighty, the deal is back on. I haven't seen anything of the Boca number 14 bar his brief cameo against the Ivory Coast in the World Cup but I hear good things. Right, it's game time. A full report tomorrow.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Slow news day

As all attention is focused on Euro 2008 qualifiers, Barcelona news is very thin on the ground. The major news is that has undergone a complete and long overdue redesign. Considering the squad list on the old site included Patrick Kluivert and Marc Overmars and that you were as likely to seem some asp or sql error as a news story it was about bloody time. The new site is very good, lots of flash and video, more info on Barça B and the youth teams, ticketing, club history etc. A marked step up.

So what else? Barcelona have drawn Getafe in the Copa Del Rey. The first leg is mid-April at the Camp Nou. What else? Some movement on the Saviola front. After Javier's comments about not having recieved any offer of a contract from the club, Txiki Begiristain yesterday evening said that the club will put an offer on the table and seemed to indicate that the blaugrana wanted Saviola to stay. I still reckon it's all bluster and that they'll low-ball him and that he'll leave in the summer. We shall see. And that folks, is that. More later in the week as the Depor game (9:00pm on Saturday night) approaches.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Recreativo Takedown

That's more like it. Barcelona's first away victory in La Liga since mid-November, a comprehensive 0-4 win, with gols from Eto'o (x2), Zambrotta, a fine gol born out of about fifteen passes and fantastic movement and finally Leo Messi with a low drive late on. A fine performance all round. Valdes solid in gol, making three good stops when Barça were only 0-1 up. The defense looking far better without Marquez (his dropping from the squad resulting in a clean sheet, coincidence? I think not) and ditching 3-4-3 for the less crazy and more traditional 4-3-3, with Sylvinho and Zambrotta coming in. The blaugrana completely controlled the game against a side that are seventh, just two points behind Athletico Madrid and who are most definitely in contention for a UEFA Cup spot.

Barça now have a two week break before they're at home to Mini-Depor at the end of the month. Deco is out, suspended after picking up a yellow card on Saturday night. He also injured his hand and will require an operation that will keep him out of the Portugal game in the week too.

What's eating Thiago Motta?

Poor old Thiago. If it's not some freak injury keeping him out of the Barça squad it's a crisis of confidence. Though he apologised on Tuesday and returned to training he's yet to be restored to the squad and hopefully will use these next few weeks to get his head together.

I quite like Motta, he gives Barça a different dimension in the holding midfield role from either Edmilson or Marquez. A good passer and strong plus he's a good taker of a free kick. He can certainly be sloppy at times and ala Patrick Viera seems to attract the refs attention no matter what he does. That said, he's no Guardiola and isn't really up to the standard of those around him (Deco, Iniesta and Xavi). How he recovers from this bout of self doubt will probably determine his future at the Camp Nou. He's certainly expendable and if he doesn't turn in a few commanding turns in the anchor role he could find himself pulling on a Getafe or Osasuna shirt next season wondering what the hell happened. I hope he gets back on the horse.

Belletti signs a new deal

Ropey right back Julio Belletti has signed a new deal which will keep him at Barcelona until mid-2009. Playing second fiddle to Zambrotta these days, Belletti is a decent player who doesn't much care for defending. We can look forward to his blazing attacking runs and hopeless lunges for a few seasons to come.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Over and over

Gol! Gol! Gol! Messi! Messi! Messi! (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)

A week that began with a whimper and ended with a bang. Knocked out of Europe on Tuesday night despite a 0-1 win at Anfield and staring down the barrel of a 2-3 home defeat on Saturday to a functional but rather unspectacular Real Madrid side, Leo Messi's late late show, securing a draw and his hat-trick may just have saved Barcelona's season. After eighty-nine minutes at the Camp Nou things were looking pretty grim. Down to ten men for all of the second half thanks to Oleguer's gross stupidity (giving away a penalty before a needless foul on Gago that earned him a second yellow and an early bath) and trailing to a Sergio Ramos header, with Sevilla playing lowly 'nastic the next day, the wheels had well and truly come off.

Never have I seen Frank Rijkaard so agitated, pacing up and down the touchline, his face a picture of despair. Rijkaard's 3-4-3 formation, the new black in Barcelona these days, with Oleguer, Thuram and Puyol at the back and everyone else powering forward was ruthlessly exposed by Liverpool on Tuesday, a game they ought to have put beyond the blaugrana well before half-time, and again against Real, with Ruud van Nistelrooy, Guti and Robinho all exploiting the space out wide against a hopelessly narrow Barcelona.

As the seconds ticked down toward a defeat Messi ran onto a Ronaldinho pass (just about his only contribution of the evening), beat two Real defenders and smashed the ball past Casillas. 3-3.

A Frank assessment

Taking a step back from the heroics of Victor Valdes in gol and Leo Messi up front, there was much to lament about the blaugrana on Saturday night. 'dinho was off the pace, Marquez sloppy, Thuram played like he'd suffered a blow to the head and the midfield got bossed out it by Guti and Gago (just quickly a mention of Diarra, who is a load of bollocks, doing little bar fouling and getting in the way. I've seen him play about ten times this season and he's been dire every time) Eto'o, taken off at half time in order to bring on Sylvinho, was decent but he's still not sharp enough. 3-4-3 will surely be given the heave-ho on the back of this, with the team looking totally unbalanced and wide open at the back.

Still, there was much to be positive about, especially after Tuesday night's limp performance, the team only coming back into the game when Liverpool took their foot off their throats, having been besieged by the Reds in the first half. Messi was amazing, Valdes, despite conceding three gols, made crucial stops from Ruud and Higuain. Belletti and Sylvinho shored up the defense when they came on and Iniesta was positive throughout.

Barcelona now have a week off to get their shit together before a trip to the oldest club in Spain, Recreativo Huelva on Saturday night. I'll post up a short postmortem of the Champions League debacle in the next few days, I really didn't feel like it at the time.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Critical beatdown

How did they lose this? 0-1 up thanks to 'dinho getting a head a Zambrotta cross after fourteen minutes. On twenty eight minutes Aitor Ocio was sent off for a professional foul on 'dinho and the blaugrana were awarded a penalty. Stepping up to take the kick himself, 'dinho's shot was saved by the legs of Andres Palop and the chance to bury Sevilla was gone. For the majority of the first half Sevilla were useless, offering absolutely nothing going forward, Kanoute (the new Diego Forlan - Brian Scanlan © 2007) fouling everyone in sight and looking more like West Ham Freddie than the new Andalucian model and lacking bite in midfield. Dani Alves was the only player who looked like doing anything. And yet again Barcelona failed to convert their complete dominance into a second gol, and ala the Liverpool game they let Sevilla in, with Kerzhakov turning Marquez and shooting past Valdes to tie the match just before half time. Despite their numerical advantage, 1-1 was hardly a disaster. Sevilla were sluggish and rarely threatened. It merely seemed that Barcelona would have to bide their time, continue to punt the diagonal ball down the right for Giuly and Zambrotta to run on to, keep control of midfield and boot Alves up in the air. How things done changed in the second half.

Without Eto'o the attack again lacked a focal point and Sevilla were happy for the blaugrana to pass the ball around amongst themselves only to balls it up 1nce they got close to the eighteen yard box. Sevilla's second gol was a thanks to some bloody awful golkeeping from Valdes. Alves freekick was dead centre and Victor just flapped at it was it went in. About a minute later Barça had the stuffing knocked out of them completely when Giuly was sent off for pretty much no reason at all. He and Alves (gets around doesn't he?) had a very slight tussle off the ball, there were no arms raised, no shoving, they were just standing beside each other. Alves got a yellow for his part in the non-incident (no I don't know why either) and Giuly walked off looking utterly bemused. The club will surely appeal.

After that it all fell apart. Eto'o and Saviola came on to little effect, Zambrotta was sent off for collecting two yellows in the space of a minute (the first one was justified, the second was a joke, but he should know better). Despite all the sendings off it was a dirty game at all. Kanoute ought to have been booked for persistent fouling but he played rubbish so we'll let him off. Barcelona didn't roll over but they didn't create any guilt edged chances either while Sevilla missed two sitters at the other end. It finished 2-1. Sevilla are now top by a point.

Down the straight

So where to from here? Looking the run ins (linked) for Sevilla, Barcelona and Valencia (I'm leaving Madrid out of this because I really can't see them winning the title, they're just not good enough), none of them have it particularly tough. FCB hardest games are against Madrid next Saturday, away to Saragossa in mid-April and away to Atletico in May. The rest are all against teams outside the top six. Sevilla are much the same, away to Real and Valencia and at home to Saragossa. Aside from that it's pretty straight forward. The question is of course whether they have the bottle. It's hard to say on last night's evidence, they didn't look great at all but they got it done. Valencia have Sevilla, Saragossa at home and are away to Real (any of this sound familiar?). Valencia though are more likely to drop points against the weaker sides, they laboured to a 1-0 win over Celta last night and needed Santi to make a great save in the final minute to get the three points.

I'm still very optimistic but Barcelona have faced two of the top four sides in the last two weeks and lost to both of them. Hardly the form of champions. El Classico on Saturday will be crucial. Not to sound defeatist but there's a fair chance that Liverpool will have dumped them out of the European Cup at that stage so they'll need to get their heads straight. Sevilla have 'nastic, the worst team in the league at home next weekend so failure to win would see them open up a three or four point gap. Los Che are in Navarra to play Osasuna. Between now and then there's the small matter of pulling it out of the fire at Anfield. This is a big week and it's gotten off the worse possible start.

Before I go a quick mention of the Lillian Thuram interview in today's Observer Sport Monthly. Worth a look.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Get out the way

The next seven days will pretty much define Barcelona's season. Tomorrow night they play second placed Sevilla, fresh from beating Saragossa 1-2 away in the Copa del Rey, eeking through on away gols and with their name in the hat for the semi-final draw, along with Villarreal, Osasuna and either Betis or Sevilla (more on that later). Tuesday they travel to Anfield, looking to overturn the 1-2 defeat in the Camp Nou which was unquestionably one of the lower ebbs of the campaign. Then it's the small matter of El Classico. Win all three of these games (even a draw in Sevilla and wins in the other two) and the bandwagon can get rolling again. Lose 'em, especially the game tomorrow night and they're looking at being in second or third place going into a European Cup tie few expect them to pull out of the fire.

Up until this week I would have been one of the naysayers. Barça had lost two important games on the bounce, were playing poorly and airing their dirty laundry in public. Things were falling apart. Then they played Bilbao off the pitch, beating them 3-0, Sammy came back, scored and looked sharp and Saragossa, a team that has knocked the blaugrana out of the Copa three times in the last four years, were dispatched with a cracking away performance. From being a shambles, lurching from draw to defeat to narrow unconvincing win they've turned it around and are starting to look like the team that beat all comers last time around on their way to a Liga and European Cup double.

The squad for tomorrow's game is as expected, Eto'o is back after sitting out the Copa but Deco, Thuram, Motta and Belletti don't make the trip, with an eye to all four starting on Tuesday I would imagine. Sevilla are missing Fabiano, who's suspended and combatative midfielder Enzo Maresca. Otherwise they're at full strength. Their coach, Juande Ramos, should have recovered from being knocked unconscious after being hit by a bottle thrown from the crowd at the Lopera on Wednesday night. Betis, who had the sheer audacity to claim it was an "isolated incident" have been hit with a three-match stadium ban, which they are of course appealing. They have some neck.

Crowd violence and racist chanting to beat the band seems par for the course in both Spain and Italia. Anytime efforts are made to stop it, the clubs, always so vocal in deploring such actions, are quick to call any measures to increase security or dole out some form of punishment "knee-jerk" and "reactionary". The gall of Betis to appeal their stadium ban, of Madrid to appeal (successfully) their fine for racist chanting, of Presidents up and down Iberia to spout shite about the problems being the actions of the few or isolated angers me greatly. Real Betis should be turfed out of the Copa and ordered to play all their remaining home games behind closed doors. Then they might do something about it as opposed to huff and puff. Clubs who allow racists to wave their banners and make their monkey noises like it's the 1800s should be docked points. There's no other way. Racism and violence is a problem that clubs in La Liga can ignore because there's no incentive not to (hi there double-negative!). The Spanish FA is spineless. This is a matter UEFA should be dealing with. It's a Europe-wide problem that requires a Europe-wide solution. Rant over, views aired. I'll be back on Sunday.