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.