I think it was Xavi who said that Real Madrid and Barcelona are like opposing forces. If one is doing well, then the other must be in crisis, that is just the way it is. With that in mind, I’m more than a little apprehensive about the coming season, which began with a 3-2 win for Real over Depor on Saturday night and kicks off for Barça on Monday, at home to Sporting. Barcelona are coming off their most successful season ever, winning the treble in infattic fashion, playing Manchester United off the pitch in Rome to win their third European Cup, completely dominating La Liga (walloping Madrid 6-2 in the Bernabeu was a particular highlight and regularly notching up 4, 5 and 6 gols per game, sometimes before halftime) They played the best futbol, Xavi, Iniesta and Leo Messi were simply incredible, and won everything. There is, one suspects, only one place to go from here and it is not up. I can be a bit meloncolic when it comes to FCB, having had my heart broken so many times, seen Ligas thrown away thanks to last minute equalisers, Europeans Cups lost to the likes of Steaua Bucarest, seen the club mis-managed into a enormous financial hole... so here we go, this is how I think it’s going to go down in the next nine months.
The moves at Real Madrid over the summer have been nothing short of astonishing. Bar Ribery and David Villa, who inexplicably remains at Valencia, they’ve bought just about everyone, even some players that they actually needed like Xabi Alonso and Raul Albiol in addition to the front three of Tom Cruise, Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods or whoever it was they bought. There are plenty who see this second galacticos era ending in complete disaster. I’m not one of them. Manuel Pellegrini is a very good coach and given that last year, by sheer force of talent, they snapped at Barça’s heels for most of the season before the classico smackdown and subsequent collapse, it’s hard to see them not picking up more points this season than last and not being so reliant on Iker Casillas to perform heroics week in, week out.
Add to this the changes at FCB, principally the sale of Samuel Eto’o to Inter and his boots being filled by flat trap bully Zlatan Ibrahimovic. It’s hard to overstate the importance of Eto’o to Barcelona and what his loss will mean. The third highest scorer in the clubs history in just five years, scoring in two European Cup finals, coming up with big gols time and again. His ability to switch position, playing anywhere in a front three with Messi, Ronaldinho, Henry, Giuly, as willing to graft and drift out wide as he was to thunder through the middle like a battering ram, his tireless teamwork. Quite simply he’s become the best striker in the world in his time at the Camp Nou. And he’s been replaced by a lazy tosser who has failed to deliver time and time again against big teams in Europe or in Serie A (both for Inter and Juve)
Ibra is unquestionably very talented and but for him Inter would not have won the last three scudetti. He can pull it out of the bag as the team are drifting toward a drab draw with Chievo or Siena. Inter have not been particularly good but thanks to Roma being more than capable of beating themselves, Juve’s rebuilding following their relegation to and subsequent promotion from Serie B and Milan’s staunch refusal/ ability to buy any one at all, they’ve just had to be good enough. Ibra has been the one bright spark in a fairly plodding team. And I think that Inters mediocrity has made him look somewhat better than he is. He was no shakes at Juve and I wonder just how much he’s developed. Calling him overrated is somewhat of a lazy criticism but I’m going to use it anyway because he is. How he’ll fit into a dynamic front three and a team as fluid as Barça’s I just don’t know. I don’t see him pressuring fullbacks out on the left wing or making all that many tackles (unless Rafael Van Der Vaart is involved) or passing as much as he should. Add to that he’s used to being the main man and is rather fond of extolling his own virtues and speaking about himself in the third person. To mouth off like he does he’d want to deliver and I just don’t see him putting up the kind of numbers he did at Inter. Nothing would delight me more than being proven wrong.
As for the rest of you
Now that that Zlatan rant is over, on to the rest of the squad, which is a little thinner than I could like. With the African Cup of Nations taking Kieta and Yaya for a month, the midfield is going to be very stretched should Iniesta or Xavi pick up an injury so they could probably do with buying someone (though that’s likely to come in January given that today is the last day of the transfer window and Cesc shows no signs of leaving Arsenal. Another forward wouldn’t go amiss either. The defense is pretty strong, especially with the signing of that Ukranian lump from Shaktar. Valdes is still in gol and with his recent contract extension, shows no signs of leaving/ being replaced. He’s alright but they can do better. Sebastian Frey from Fiorentina for one would be a huge improvement but not going to happen so I best forget about it. But the short of it is, it’s pretty much the same squad as last time out and that’s no bad thing.
So how is all of this going to go down? Between a tougher challenge from Real this time out (not to mention Sevilla, Villarreal and Valencia), more games (that stupid World Club Mega Superbowl thing for a start, played on one of the moons of Saturn in December) and a small squad means that there could be a lot of tears come next May. Barça, if Ibra gets it together are definitely good enough to win either La Liga or retain the European Cup. If he doesn’t score at least 20 gols and should injuries keep Xavi, Iniesta or Messi out for anything other than a game or two they’ll win nothing.