Monday, January 28, 2008

From Seven to Nine

Having not seen a blaugrana game since El Clasico before Christmas I've now caught two in a week and I gotta tell ya, woe is me. A turgid 1-0 win at home to Racing Santander followed up by a soul destroying 1-1 draw away to Athletic at the San Mames. The latter, coupled with Madrid's 3-2 win against Villarreal leaves Barcelona a massive nine points behind the leaders and in no way looking capable of clawing that back. If anything one would expect the gap to widen.

The game in Bilbao last night was exactly the sort that Madrid would have won. Tight, edgy, lots of fouls and the pattern of play constantly being broken up, it was made for an opportunistic Van Nistlerooij toe-poke across the line. Instead it was Lillian Thuram, 86, who toe-poked the ball past Victor Valdes late in the second half when under pressure from Llorente. It completely took the wind out of Barça's sails and they never looked like getting back on top in the last fifteen minutes. It reminded me of Betis last year. After taking the lead early they just didn't do enough to kill the game off. Bilbao are a poor side. They're down in fourteenth and while they're unlikely to flirt with relegation to the degree they did last season, when Fran Yeste is your number ten and is more likely to find the carpark with a cross than a team-mate you're in trouble.

So where does this latest disaster leave Barcelona? Nine points adrift of Real, they are still comfortably second and are unlikely to do any worse unless they have a complete meltdown. They have Villarreal, still third thanks to defeats for Athletico Madrid and Espanyol (three in a row now and Tamudo out for at least two months with a broken arm) on Thursday in the Copa Del Rey at the Camp Nou, which they ought win. That would put them into the semis and realistically the Copa is a competition they should be looking to win. La Liga is gone bar some sort of miracle or Iker breaking his arms and legs and Ruud getting deported. The Champions League is still a possiblity but Barça are among about seven teams who could win it. They'll get past Celtic but should they get Inter, Milan or Arsenal in the quarters I wouldn't fancy their chances.

So it's onward and downward. Watching Barça labour against such mediocre opposition this past week has been painful. Deco, back in the side after a long lay off, still isn't right and Vanilla Ice would be a better option instead. Thuram, badly caught out last night, is finished and baring a crisis should not play for the first team again. I'd sooner put Oleguer (a player that Rijkaard seems to have lost all confidence in) beside Puyol if Gaby Milito is out and take the chance rather than see Thuram lumber around, a gol waiting to happen. Henry, gol against Santander aside, has been rubbish and frequently goes missing for long periods. With Eto'o away in Ghana, 'dinho MIA for god knows how long (there's word that he'll be back for the Copa but I wouldn't bet on it) and Messi just back from injury, Henry needs to lead from the front. As it is he's been shown up by a 17 year old Bojan (scorer of an excellent gol last night). Iniesta (who's just signed a new contract), rivalling Damien Duff in the getting kicked out of it stakes, has been playing well but when the rest of the side isn't flowing alongside him then most of his efforts are for nought. Valdes, so often the weak link at the back, has been in good form too, keeping three clean sheets in a row before Sunday night. As for the rest of the side, they vary between poor and merely alright. It makes for depressing viewing.

A few words about transfers before I go. Deco 1nce again is making "I've had it" noises and sounds like he's on his way. He'd be a huge loss. Santi may be on his way to Valladolid after turning down moves to several Premier League sides. He should really make a move, even if it's just on loan.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Henry, not bad as it turns out...

There's about half an hour to go before the Madrid derby kicks of at the Calderon and I have lots to through between now and then. A cracking 4-0 home win against Murcia followed by a solid 0-0 against Sevilla in the Copa, Deco back in the team, Messi fit again to face Santander tonight, Jose Pinto signed to replace Jorquera, Zambrotta staying put, Sammy and Yaya off to the African Cup of Nations for up to six weeks and Roberto Mancini is interested in 'dinho (he can have him).

Let's begin on the pitch. A comprehensive trouncing of Murcia at the Camp Nou last weekend with a virtuoso performance from the new face of Gillette, Thierry Henry. There were also two gols from Eto'o, who left for the African Cup of Nations the very next day. Eto'o, given a standing ovation as he was substituted, has hit top form again and his loss will be keenly felt in the next few weeks.

A few days later Barcelona produced an unusually accomplished defensive performance against Copa Del Rey holders Sevilla to hold out for a 0-0 draw, enough to put them through to face Villarreal in the quarter-finals. While there was more than one "oh my good god" hands-on-head last ditch defending, Sevilla, despite pouring forward couldn't put the ball past Valdes (okay Navas managed it but that was offside). It was more the sort of result you'd expect from Milan or Juve.

Cash Money

Onto transfer news now and Celta Vigo 'keeper Jose Pinto has arrived on loan until the summer. Celta will be paid €500,000 and the blaugrana have the option to make the deal permanent in the summer should Pinto impress or should they just wish to ditch Albert Jorquera. I seen a fair bit of Pinto at Vigo and I can't say I've been all that impressed with him. Now he's unlikely to see much action so long as Valdes stays fit but I would have rather they take a punt on Oscar Ustari at Getafe. Pinto will wear number 13.

Casting an eye over to Serie A, Gianluca Zambrotta will definitely not be joining Milan in the transfer window but will leave the blaugrana in the summer. So says Silvio Berlusconi. Joining him at the San Siro but wearing the Nerazzuri shirt could be Ronaldinho. Roberto Mancini, clearly having hit his head before the press conference, talked up Inter's chances of signing 'dinho come the end of the season. Lord know's why. Perhaps he fancies a challenge.

Finally, the squad for tonight's game has been announced and the good news is that Leo Messi, out since before Christmas is back in the game. A la Mess, a la Mess!

Friday, January 11, 2008

It's Illmatic

Having spent much of this week coughing and blowing my nose it's taken me until now to get it together. In that time Barça have hobbled through two games, a convincing 0-2 win away to Mallorca and a 1-1 draw at Sevilla in the Copa. Edmilson, just back from a knee injury that's kept him out for the last seven months, tore his left thigh at the Ramon Sanchez on Wednesday night. Deco and 'dinho remain on the sidelines, the former likely to be included in the squad to face Murcia tomorrow night. Yaya Toure is off to the African Cup of Nations and Samuel Eto'o will be joining him on Sunday. Marc Crosas is out on loan, though not to Real Sociedad as has been mooted, but, rather surprisingly, to Lyon. Messi is still out and with seemingly little progress being made on signing a new golkeeper to replace Albert Jorquera, turning up at the Camp Nou with a pair of boots on match day may well earn you a spot on the bench.

So what else has been happening? It appears that both Santi and Gianluca Zambrotta are staying, though I can see Zambrotta slinging his hook in the summer, possibly to Milan. Santi will of course be out of contract by then and there is zero chance of him signing a new one. Ezquerro has said that if he were to leave Barça he'd want to go to another big club, which is fair enough I suppose, if somewhat fanciful. He's thirty-one now and hasn't played regularly for almost three seasons.

I'm curious to see how Crosas will do at Lyon. I've never seen him play but I've heard good things. It's a better move than Sociedad only if he sees some playing time, which considering OL have and abundance of midfielders, seems unlikely. We shall see.

That's about it in the round-up stakes, I didn't see either game this week and will probably miss Murcia on the weekend too but I'll cobble something together on Sunday.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Madrid cabron

New years resolutions are such bullshit. "I'm going to get fit this year" "I'm going to start my novel" If you were actually resolved to do it there wouldn't be any grand declarations of intent, you'd just do it. To that end I'm not going to say anything about my lack of blogging in the last month, I'm just gonna get on with. And my there is much to get on with; el Clasico, Albert Jorquera's injury and the possible signing of Canizares , Santi Ezquerro's impending departure, 'dinho's fall from grace, Rijkaard's future and the Champions League draw. As Delia Smith would say, "let's be 'aving ye!"

White Christmas

Watching el Clasico in my dreadfully hungover state (yes I know it was on at six in the evening, I was in a bad way) was a painful experience, and not just because I felt like I'd just been kicked in the stomach. Barça were incredibly poor, their passing wasn't as crisp or an incisive as it needed to be, they were slow and ponderous going forward, shaky in defense and no one bar Iniesta and Bojan, who came on for the last ten minutes showed any zip or guile. It was as if all the air had been let out of the team. That said, and to give Madrid credit they put in a very good away performance; strong at the back, breaking up the midfield well and scoring a fabulous breakaway gol. Diarra, Pepe (all €30 million of him) and Canna did a top job of stopping Barça playing and when called upon, Superman Iker Casillas did what he always does.

Madrid are now seven points clear of a Barcelona team, who, should they continue to play like they did on the 23rd, have absolutely no chance of catching them. Sid Lowe, The Guardian's La Liga columnist has said more than once this season that Madrid, while not setting the world alight, have no discernible weaknesses while Barça have them in abundance. As much as I'd love to see this blaugrana side roar back after the Christmas break I just don't see it happening.

Watching Ronaldinho huff and puff, continually give the ball away and play like he'd been given a dose of Adriano before the kick off was distressing. His overly-elaborate play and lack of pace completely slows the team down. Lightening quick counter-attacks become laboured and frequently break down. The pass is never played, he's always trying to beat three or four players and score some wondergol like it was two seasons ago. Having sat out the Valencia game and been on the bench against Espanyol after a string of hopeless performances, el clasico was probably 'dinho's last chance to convince Rijkaard, the cules and the board to keep him at the club. And he ballsed it up in remarkably mundane fashion.

So where to for 'dinho and when? Milan seems to be his most likely destination, they're definitely making all the right noises. Whether this will be as soon as the next few weeks or will in fact happen in the summer is hard to say. Given that 'dinho has lined out for Barça in the Champions League he could only play for Milan in Serie A which is something of a lost cause for them, having fallen to 12th place (albeit with games in hand) after the derby defeat to Inter. That and the fact that a transfer of this magnitude (probably something in the region of €25 million) takes time to negotiate we'll all have to put up with that look of exasperation when he loses the ball, his lack of fitness and all round uselessness now that he seems to have given up until the summer.

January Sales

Not hanging around that long and on the first plane out of BCN will be the long suffering Santi Ezquerro. Having been out in the cold since his move from Bilbao he finally seems to be on his way, either to the Premiership, where Bolton, Everton and 'boro are all reportedly interested in him, or to bonnie Scotland (both Celtic and Hearts are keen). Santi is better than all that lot but at this stage of his career he needs to be playing and after wasting away on the bench at the Camp Nou for two-and-a-half years now I think it's a case of 'anywhere will do'. Ideally he'd sign a short term contract, put in some decent performances and a good team would come along for him in the summer. I have a lot of time for Santi and was a big admirer of him at Athletic. If he goes I wish him well.

At the other end of the pitch Barça are will be signing a new golkeeper on the back of Albert Jorquera's ruptured ankle ligaments. He sustained the injury playing for Catalunya against the Basque Country over the Christmas break. He'll be out for at least six months. His most likely replacement is another Santi, Santiago Canizares. Cast out by Ronald Koeman (along with David Albelda and Miguel Angulo) he's looking for a new club and would be available on either a free transfer or on loan. At 38 Santi is very much nearing the end of his career and from what I've seen of him in the past two seasons he's nothing like the 'keeper he was five years ago when Valencia were beating all around them and had the tightest defense in La Liga but as a short-term fix he's a good bet. All being well he's not likely to see much action anyway with Valdes in pretty good form thus far.

That will in all likelihood be the sum total of the ins and outs in January unless Marc Crosas is loaned out to Sociedad. I can't see anyone else leaving or coming in and that includes Frank Rijkaard, who will stay until the summer.

Glasgow kiss

Finally, before I go to bed, a word about the blaugrana's next opponents in the Champions League. Next to Fenerbache I don't think they could have gotten an easier draw. Celtic, while stubborn at home, are absolutely hopeless away and Barça ought give them a good going over. More on that closer to the time. G'night now.