Monday, August 30, 2010

The rather late and slightly all over the place Barcelona season preview

So Zlatan Ibrahimovic is back in Milan. Little over twelve months after his arrival from the Nerazzurri for €69 million, he's been loaned (!) out to the Rossoneri, who have the 'option' to buy him next summer for €24 million. Yes, you read that right. A player who cost €49 million in cash plus Samuel Eto'o has just walked for nothing with the prospect of clawing back just over a third of what they paid for him. Add in his wages (an astronomical €16 million per year) and you're up to €85 million. With this sort of business being the norm (see Chygrynskiy, Caceres, Hleb, Henrique and Kerrision for further examples of same), it's no wonder the club is almost half-a-billion Euro in the hole. Short of throwing the money into a skip it's hard to conceive of a way they could have burned through so much and gotten so little in return.

On the pitch, Zlatan, while staring like a freight train, struggled to adapt his style of play to that of Barcelona. Dropped in favour of Bojan down the home stretch, the team played far more fluid, incisive futbol without him and though he scored some very important gols (Real, Arsenal, Stuttgart and Mallorca all come to mind), he would finish with just sixteen in La Liga, having a particularly barren spell in the lead up to and after Christmas. Rather than going over old ground and talking about square pegs in round holes, I'll just say this...

He's a very good player and his move to AC Milan immediately turns them into contenders in Serie A, where he has really proved himself. But he was never right for Barça and once the signing of David Villa was completed he was always likely to leave if they could find someone to take him off their hands.

Sid Lowe has an
excellent piece in The Guardian today about Zlatan's move. I recommend reading it.

The great destroyer

Andoni Zubizarreta's outbox was rather full these last few days. In addition to our number nine, disaster prone Uruguayan hot head Martin Caceres has been loaned out to Sevilla (with a Zlatan-style option to buy him at a knock down price of €4 million. He was bought for €15 million...) Victor Sanchez, who I like but who never quite made the grade in a Marc Crosas sort of way, has gone to Getafe. Passing that lot on the stairs going the other way is Javier Mascherano. Previously lonely in Liverpool, staring out at the rain, writing poetry and slamming doors while shouting "I hate you!" at Roy Hodgson, Masch essentially forced Liverpool's hand by refusing to play against City last Monday night.

He completed his
medical today and will be presented at 6pm Barcelona time. I expect he'll get the number 14 jersey, the number 4 still pining for Cesc Fabregas. Mascherano is a fine player, if an argumentative, mouthy sort. I saw him in the flesh for the first time a playing for Argentina at Lansdowne and could really appreciate just how good he is at tackling and reading the game. That said, I'm not sure how much of an upgrade his (if any) on the recently departed Yaya Toure or indeed if he's any better than the constantly improving Sergio Busquets, who had a fantastic World Cup. I'm also curious to see how much he plays and if like Yaya, he gets fed up sitting on the bench because surely if Busquets, Xavi and Iniesta are all fit he won't start.

Kick off

And so to a short preview of the 2010/11 season at the Camp Nou (written before and indeed during last night's 0-3 win at Santander) There are many reasons to approach this season with hope of continued success. Despite the club's precarious finances, the core of the team is the same as last year's record breaking ninety-nine point season. Those who have left (Yaya, Titi, Rafa Marquez and Chygy) didn't play that often and were very much on the periphery of the team. Zlatan has been effectively replaced with David Villa, how is the finest centre forward in La Liga. Guardiola is still in charge and I expect him to have a good relationship with Zubi and Amor. Barça B have been promoted to the Segunda (they started with a fine win on Saturday, 1-2 away to Celta Vigo) and there are quite a few of that team who would be looking to break into the senior side (Fontas and Thiago Alcantara would be my tips). Plus they have Leo Messi.

The only challenge to Barcelona in La Liga will come, as ever from Madrid. Real finally have the coach they want in Jose Mourinho and have once again added significantly to the playing staff (Ozil, Khedira and Sergio Canales are all brilliant signings) and they may still get Maicon, who's been
left out of the Inter squad for their game against Bologna today. Real were just three points shy of Barça last time out and lost both classicos. Much depends on how hard they go after the European Cup. Being dumped out of the Copa Del Rey and the Champions League helped them push Barcelona as close as they did, having only one game per week from mid-March. I think Barça will win La Liga again, probably with about 90 points.

Outside of the top two, Valencia are certainly weaker than last year but they've held onto Mata, Banega and Pablo Hernandez and the arrivals of Aduriz and Soldado will, I feel, prove to be successful. Sevilla are still very strong though their failure to qualify for the Champions League leaves them looking to sell and Luis Fabiano is first in line to depart. They probably wouldn't replace him either leaving them pretty short up front. I can see Atleti, who have held onto their best players and added Filipe Luis from Depor and Godin from Villarreal, having a run at the top four, they're certainly good enough. After that though, there's a noticeable drop off in quality. Bilbao are a solid side but neither Mallorca, who are broke, or Villarreal, who's squad is very thin, are in a position to scale the heights of last season.

At the other end, Hercules, Levante, Racing Santander, Saragossa and Malaga will all struggle.

Finally, five players I reckon are worth watching and who may have break-out seasons. In no particular order:
Filipe Luis at Atleti
Jeffren at Barça
Michel at Depor (on loan from Valencia)
Jordi Alba at Valencia
Musacchio at Villarreal

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Abyss

With much of the World Cup sapping my interest in futbol, I've taken a bit of a breather. A bunch of stuff has been happening at FCB, some transfers, new contracts signed, enormous amounts of money lost and still no Cesc.

Let's start at the bottom, because that's where we are folks, or at least I hope we are. An audit of the clubs accounts, carried out by Deloitte has uncovered a €77.1 million loss for the 2009/10 season. Yes, that's right, the most recent one. The one where they won La Liga and made it to the Champions League semi-finals. That one. I can scarcely comprehend how the club finds itself in this position. Their debt currently stands at €442 (!) million. No wonder the club have been talking up the youth team of late, they're going to be playing for the first team soon when more players are sold just to keep the lights on. Titi has already made a brand new start of it in Old New York and it seems very likely that he'll be joined by Rafa Marquez, who's looking at signing a four year deal with the 'bulls.

Joining them by the door marked 'Exit' is Brasilian defender Henrique who's being loaned out (yet again) to Racing Santander. Interestingly though, he was named in a very experimental Brasil squad today by their new coach, Mano Menezes. Good for him eh?

So is there any positive news from the edge of the abyss? Well there has been some. Pep Guardiola has signed a contract extension meaning he'll remain on the bench for at least another year. Let's hope he doesn't mind getting paid in magic beans or replica shirts.

Also signing on the dotted line was Andreu Fontas, extending until 2012. In the lead up to this, Fontas had agreed terms with West Ham but the club persuaded him to stay. I like what I've seen of him at Barça Atletic/ B and with Marquez and Chygy leaving I would hope he'll at least play some Copa Del Rey games this coming season.

So what else? Txiki Begiristain has been replaced as Technical Secretary by Zubi. One of the finest golkeepers ever to play for Barça, winning four Liga titles in a row with the 'Dream Team' (in addition to two at Bilbao), Zubizarreta played over three-hundred times for the blaugrana. He'll be joined by another ex-player, Guillermo Amor, who will act as Technical Director of the youth set-up. Txiki meanwhile, is apparently wanted by Chelsea, well so says Sport anyway.

Finally, Adriano. No not that one. Former Sevilla defender Adriano Correia has arrived on a four year deal from the Andalucian club. An excellent player, who will likely feature on the left side of defense, he's been pretty consistent at Sevilla these past six seasons and a good addition to the squad, which, while not quite at Portsmouth levels, is still only twenty-two players and is likely to get smaller.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

"Cash Rules Everything Around Me, C.R.E.A.M. get the money, dolla' dolla' bill y'all"

What the fuck is going on at FC Barcelona? It's like they've had the KLF round to set fire to any bundles of cash they might have. A €150 million loan has been taken out to pay players and other members of staff, who have not received their salaries for the month of June. Rosell has been quick to assert that the club is "not bankrupt" and that the membership need not worry. Of course, why would we? The club, having just had it's most successful two year period in it's history, can't pay it's staff. They're selling players (Chygrynskiy) at a huge loss just to get the cash flow going again (though quite honestly getting €15 million for Chygry after the season he's had is something of a coup). They have a bunch of players who they can't shift (Hleb, Henrique, and Cacares) and who are on massive wages. It's like Nunez is in charge again.

It's most definitely time to worry. Chief among the concerns is Mediapro. Having filed for bankruptcy some weeks ago, the prospect of them fulfilling their television deal with FCB (worth some €150 million per season) would seem slim indeed. More disturbingly, Rosell made pains to point out that the club, unlike oh Real Madrid, Barça only had a "verbal guarantee of payment" which is basically no guarantee at all "verbal contract mate, not worth the paper it's written on..."

Rosell has also said that the membership fee will not increase but quite honestly, even if it were to double it wouldn't come close to making a dent in the clubs troubled finances.

So what now? Real questions have to be asked of the previous administration as to how the club has found itself in this situation. The season before last, when Barça won La Liga, the Copa Del Rey and the Champions League, profits were only €8.8 million, which seems absolutely ridiculous. Where has the money gone? I know there's been a significant investment in players and that contracts have been renegotiated and improved for the top tier (Messi, Xavi, Pique, Iniesta, Valdes) but still, players on big wages have been sold (Eto'o, Ronaldinho, Deco) and the squad is small compared to sides like Inter, Real or Chelsea. You gotta wonder. Bad times ahead I fear. And no Cesc on the horizon either.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

"If you want to see the Thierry Henry of Arsenal, buy a DVD"

After his first season in blaugrana I would have carried Titi on my back to BCN Airport just to get rid of him. Contributing next to nothing on the pitch and grumpy and disagreeable off it, his dream move to Camp Nou had turned into a complete disaster. Frank Rijkaard struggled to fit him into a front three that already had Ronaldinho, Eto'o and Leo Messi. 'dinho, in what was to be his last season at the club was spectacularly off form and falling out with Eto'o. Messi was in and out of the team with injuries and the whole team will still crippled with the malaise that had set in after they threw away the Liga the previous season. Bar Xavi and young Bojan, few players emerged with much credit. Henry was stepping aboard a sinking ship and his attitude did little to steady it. By the time Rijkaard had announced he would be leaving at the end of the season it was clear Barcelona would win nothing, indeed they would even surrender second place to Villarreal in the final weeks. They just gave up.

How different things would be second time around, when the Barça team, reborn under Pep Guardiola, would win everything, beat everyone, lay waste to Real at the Bernabeu. Titi, playing both through the middle and wide on the left formed like Voltron with Eto'o and Messi and returned to his imperious best. There was no need for that DVD. He scored 26 gols, his best since 05/06. What a difference being in a good team makes, rather than one that's fighting with itself. The departures of Deco and 'dinho meant opportunities for Iniesta, Henry and Messi, all of whom were outstanding. It was to prove Henry's last hurrah, his third season a real disappointment. Benched for most it, Pedro asserted himself as first choice on the left side of attack. Henry made some brief cameos (he was fantastic in the second half against Valencia, setting up two of Leo's gols) but he would scored just four times. When he came on as substitute late in Barça's title clinching win at home to Valladolid on the final day of the season, you knew it would be the last time he'd wear the shirt.

And so Titi rides off into the sunset, to wile away his days in the MLS. There has been talk of a return to the Premier League with West Ham but I can't see that happening, he's never play for another English club after Arsenal and he's certainly not going back there.

A man of exceptional talent and grace, peerless at Arsenal, played he could for just one season at Barcelona, but my, what a season. For that I can forgive him everything, even that handball.

When I move, you move

In other transfer news, Joan Oliver, himself out a a job tomorrow, confirmed that Yaya Toure is off to Manchester City (who also signed David Silva this morning). The fee is believed to be in the region of £25 million, which, quite frankly, is ridiculous. Ala Chelsea when Roman Abramovich first took over, there seems to be one price for City and one for everyone else. It's a good deal for Barça, it's much more than he's worth. I wish him well at Eastlands.

Also, as expected Txiki Begiristain will no longer be Technical Secretary. He's done an exceptional job since 2003. He gives a good interview to here. Interestingly, he's made a point of singling out the signings of Hleb and Keirrison. He could add Cacares and Thuram to that list.

And lastly, Barcelona Atletic defender, Alberto Botia, on loan last season at Sporting Gijon, has joined them on a four year deal. He leaves on a free transfer.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

What lies ahead

It's less than two weeks until Sandro Rosell takes over from Joan Laporta as president of FC Barcelona. On the pitch the club is in brilliant shape, having won La Liga with a record 99 points, coming within a hare's breath of making a second Champions League Final in a row and losing just four games all season. The squad is young, only Puyol, Marquez, Henry, Abidal and back-up 'keeper Pinto are over 30 and most of them are signed to long term contracts. Added to this, the core of the team (Valdes, Pique, Puyol, Xavi, Iniesta and Messi) have come through La Masia. The signing of David Villa (scorer of two gols for Spain last night against Honduras) to an already potent attack is incredibly exciting. Pep Guardiola is one of the finest coaches in the game and he's pure blaugrana.

So what does Sandrusco need to address? In particular order, here are seven issues that our new President will have to get to grips with.

1. The debt

According to Rosell, Barça's debt is more than €500 million. Given the on-field successes of the Laporta era coupled with a relatively modest outlay on players (up to the signings of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and David Villa), this is quite a worry. If they're this much in the hole while the teams beats all around them, what is the financial situation going to be like should they fail to win either La Liga or the Champions League in the coming seasons? What does it mean for new player acquisitions or even keeping hold of the ones we have?

For one it means that club cannot afford any more expensive mistakes like Chygrynskiy, Hleb or Cacares (more of that rabble later) or wild punts on flavour of the month Brasilian youngsters (step forward Kerrison and Henrique) only to loan them out here, there and everywhere before finally flogging them for a massive loss. So perhaps this millstone around their necks is a good thing.

It also means the proposed Norman Foster restyling and renovation of the Camp Nou will not go ahead. I'm in favour of this for a few reasons. The stadium doesn't need to be any bigger (the capacity was to be increased to 106,000, ridiculous considering it only sells out five or six times a year). Seats in the top tier are already closer to the moon than the pitch and the Camp Nou already as a five star rating from UEFA. It's no Emirates or Bernabeu in terms of luxury but nor is in bad shape. Rosell has said that he plans to revamp the stadium but has been short on specifics. Doing up the gaff can wait.

The biggest consequence of the debt is that the issue of shirt sponsorship will once again be on the table. Before the deal with UNICEF was signed the club were very close to an agreement with (who would go on to sponsor Real Madrid and AC Milan). I'm really against there being a shirt sponsor. Not to get all Més que un club about it but I think it matters. Barça is about more than promoting beer or cars or fucking internet betting. Seeing the UNICEF logo on the blaugrana shirt makes me proud of my club. It's unquestionably a good thing, not just for the money they donate (a drop in the bucket of UNICEF's budget) but for the awareness it raises and the example it sets (look at Aston Villa and Acorns) I'd rather go without.

2. Cesc

Not since the Apollo 13 mission has their been a bigger mission undertaken to bring our boy(s) home safely. More tedious than a Dan Brown novel, I've made my thoughts on this clear before. Let's just get it done eh?

3. Don't let the door hit you on the way out

Why oh why did Barcelona ever buy Alyaksandr Hleb? Shocking average in his first season, farmed out VFB Stuttgart for his second, he's back again and with two whole miserable years left on his enormous contract. Hleb's not a bad player but he's not a very good one either. His head-down, running at defenses is completely at odds with Barça's style and he looked like a square peg in a round hole any time he played. Getting close to the €17 million paid for him will be nigh on impossible but he has to go.

Other players out tray are calamity prone hothead Martin Cacares (€15 million), mediocre right back Henrique (€8 million) and the semi-retired Titi Henry. Henry has one year left on his contract but he'll be let go on a free to whoever will have him. Post-match hugs and reminiscing about the good old days with Becks in the MLS beckon. Ex-Palmeiras forward Kerrison looks like spending another season on loan at Fiorentina though this may change given Cesare Prandelli is taking over as coach of the Azzurri after the World Cup and being replaced by Sinisa Mihajlovic (who did a very good job at Catania, getting the best out of ex-blaugrana Maxi Lopez).

Another potential departure is slow-motion-replay-but-in-real-time defender Dmytro Chygrynskiy. Next to useless last season, making just twelve appearances (he was mercifully cup-tied and thus played no part in the Champions League), his agent has been making noises about his wanting to stay (the "learning Catalan" line always plays well at Barça). I don't know what to make of Chygrynskiy. He may improve (his is after all only twenty three) but with Puyol, Pique, Marquez and the resurgent Gabi Milito ahead of him, I don't see a way into the team for him. Maybe a loan elsewhere would be good for him but we all know where that leads...

4. Zlatannnn!

What do you do with your €69 million number 9 when you've just bought a player who effectively replaces him? There is a lot of talk about Ibra leaving what was an underwhelming first season. Left out down the stretch (Bojan was preferred and the team was much more fluid and quicker) and more often than not out of sync with the two other forwards, he's been labeled an expensive flop. This is not something I agree with and while one could quite rightly epect more from a man who cost almost €70 million, he did okay, better than okay in fact. Gols against Real Madrid, Arsenal (two of them), Stuttgart and Mallorca were hugely important and his overall play was more effective than he was given credit for.

Whether this means he's staying or not is another matter. For a start there are only two or three clubs afford him. AC Milan have been heavily linked but they don't have any money and he's not over the age of 33 so that's probably not a flyer. I'd like to see him stay but the potential for a Rooney/ Berbatov situation, where your first choice centre forward and his replacement have such completely different playing styles that the team is dysfunctional when your main man is out. Villa is unquestionably more suited to Barça's system than Zlatan and more to the point, Barça hardly ever change their style of play to suit Zlatan (balls over the top like those he ran onto against Arsenal are very rare) so he's left high and dry.

My feeling is he'll stay another year if only because selling him would be a huge admission of failure and would see them take a financial hit they just can't afford.

5. La Masia

Rosell made some curious statements in the run-up to the elections about Barça's youth system. Firstly that it wasn't producing enough players (!) and secondly that the underage teams were chock full of Africans and the local lads weren't getting a look in. He's dead wrong with both of these. Let's look at some of the players that have come out of La Masia in the past few years. Messi, Pique, Fabregas, Bojan, Pedro, Jeffren, Gio dos Santos, Sergio Busquets and Fran Merida. Five play regularly in the first team, another is (currently) captain of Arsenal and one of the finest midfielders in the world. As for the others, Gio, though he has struggled at club level since he left the Camp Nou, is playing fantastically well for Mexico at the World Cup, Jeffren has made huge strides forward this year and Merida has just signed for Atleti from Arsenal. What more does he want?

Now, on to the coming-over-here, taking-our-jobs racist stuff. I've seen a few underage Barça games this last season (not to mention Barcelona Atletic, who have one Nigerian guy. One) and I can think of about four of five Africans out of about fifty or sixty players. In any case, who cares? Why wouldn't these lads be at the club? We're not Athletic Bilbao. Traditionally West African players have ended up in France or Belgium but I don't see why the next Drogba or Toure couldn't come through the ranks at La Masia rather than Le Mans or Beveren. Speaking of Toure, that neatly takes us on to...

6. Ya, ya, ya, ya, ya, ya, ya, ya (to be sung to the tune of Crocodile Rock)

He's going isn't he? Probably to City of all places, where they can barely move for defensive midfielders. Yaya would be a big loss. Strong, dynamic, driving through the heart of midfield, linking well with Pique, Puyol and Xavi, versatile enough to play in the centre of defense as well as anchor the midfield, he's the complete modern futboler. So what on earth are we doing letting him get away? Seeing his playing time dramatically reduced this past season, injuries and the form of both Busquets and Keita leaving him sitting on the bench, the arrival of Cesc would only see him pushed further down the pecking order so I can understand his desire to leave. He's in the prime of his career (he's 27) and he wants to play. It's just a real shame it'll no longer be at the Camp Nou. I'll miss him.

7. The new Txiki

Finally, a word about Director of Futbol Txiki Begiristain, who is almost certain to be replaced. He's done a fantastic job under Laporta but I feel both his closeness to the outgoing President plus the number of duff signings in the last two years really count against him. Rosell will want to install his own man, though I have no idea who. I think Marc Ingla and Ferran Soriano are possible candidates to succeed Joan Oliver as Director General but as for the new Txiki, we shall see.

Monday, June 14, 2010

In from the cold

It's been a long road back for Sandro Rosell, who'll become the 39th President of FC Barcelona on July 1st. Part of the 'Elefant Blau', he was Joan Laporta's right hand man when Laporta came to power in 2003. Hugely instrumental in the signing of Ronaldinho from PSG (Rosell was formerly in charge of Nike in Spain and Portugal and good friends with 'dinho) and the club's revival, he grew disillusioned with Laporta's overly authoritarian style of of management/ was pushed to the sidelines and eventually resigned as vice president in June 2005.

Since leaving he's been fiercely critical of Laporta (indeed his book didn't help relations between the two) so it's was nice to see them embrace last night/ this morning after Rosell's victory (he romped home with just over 61% of the vote)

I'm very happy with Rosell as President. He was far and away the best candidate and his expressed desire to get a handle on the club's huge debt can only be a good thing. He was however the least committed of all four in bringing Cesc Fabregas back to the Camp Nou. He's set for talks in the next few days with both Guardiola and Laporta about Cesc (and all manner of other things too one expects, such as what the hell to do with Hleb, Cacares, Chygrynskiy... and the future of Director of Futbol, Txiki Bergiristain and who'll replace General Manager Joan Oliver).

I'll put up a longer post during the week on how I expect the club to change under Rosell and what needs addressing but right now I think his win is a very good thing for the club.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

This is happening

This entry was going to be all about David Villa (and mostly it will be) until I read this. It would seem that Xavi had the heads up, given what he was saying this morning at the Spanish training camp. No details yet on how much Barça have offered the Gunners but that will leak out over the course of the day. I don't know if I buy Joan Oliver's line about negations not beginning before June 1st thanks to the transfer window in England, quite a few players have changed clubs in the Premier League since the end of the season. It's just more bluster. Anyway, I've made my thoughts on Cesc known, so onwards to Barça's new number 7.

Los Che watch it all fall down

You feel it can go one of two ways for Valencia. Either the departure of David Villa from the Mestella will keep them afloat with the money it's bringing in or it'll be catalyst for four or five players to jump ship, leaving the team, broke and shorn of their best attacking talent (and Nikola Zigic), in serious trouble come the start of next season. With David Silva all set to follow Villa out the door and rumours of Juan Mata also wanting to leave, the latter is certainly a possibility.

Making the Champions League does at least guarantee them revenue/ tv money for six games and unless they get drawn in a particularly tough group, even with the players they've lost, they ought make the last 16. Added to that, those most likely to attract bids (the aforementioned Mata and Ever Banega, who's had a sensational season) are young and tied into long contracts. Silva will definitely leave, he's on high wages and with City interested, will command a fee of at least £30 million. I like Silva a lot but he's more replaceable than any of the others, Pablo Hernandez, Chori Dominguez and Joaquin are all options out on the wing or behind the main striker, whoever that turns out to be (I wouldn't at all be surprised to see Dani Guiza make a return to Spain from Fener. Things haven't really worked out for him at all there and he's one of the few proven gol scorers in La Liga that Valencia could afford, the likes of Llorente and Soldado would be much too expensive).

It's the other side of this deal that I'm really concerned with though, what Villa's move will mean at the Camp Nou. Villa is a phenomenal striker, a player who led from the front at the Mestella. I read some Opta stats that Valencia had won 63% of their games when Villa played and a mere 17% when he didn't. And while I don't expect him to have anything like that impact at FCB (they're a much better team who don't rely on one player to win games by himself), he's the sort of player that should both push them over the 100 gol mark and get them back to the European Cup Final.

He's also a much better fit in the fluid attacking three that Barcelona play with. Zlatan, for all his talent, is the wrong player for the blaugrana where as Villa's movement and style of play is far more suited to Barça's quick movement and passing game. If Zlatan doesn't leave in the summer I can foresee him spending a lot of time on the bench, getting more and more frustrated and all the time diminishing in value. Maybe the best thing would be to take the hit on him now and flog him to City (soon to be home to just about anyone who can kick a ball it seems) or Chelsea.

Friday, May 28, 2010

And on it goes...

There's one every summer. Last year it was Ronaldo to Madrid. The year before it was Ronaldo to Madrid. The year before that Henry to Barça. The year befo... oh who cares? The long, drawn out, seemingly interminable, "I am very happy here at X but of course it is an honour to be linked with a club such as Y" bore-a-thon that is the summer transfer saga. This time, it's Cesc.

Stories about Fabregas' return to the Camp Nou have been doing the rounds almost as long as he's been at Arsenal. Given that he's from Catalunya, it's not a hard one to write. This time though, it seems to be for real. With the signing of David Villa wrapped up unusually quickly, all talk is now of when, not if, the prodigal son will return. Thus far though, that's all it's been. Talk. Barça have yet to formally approach Arsenal. The Gunners say they don't want to sell him and er, that's it.

Yet the stories of Arsenal wanting anything up to £40 million, of Barça offering Zlatan, Yaya, a house in the Hamptons or a ride on the Space Shuttle in exchange one used midfielder, slight damage to the fibula, continue to spew forth like oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

I'd love to see Cesc back, he's a fabulous player who would improve any side. The pace, drive and positioning, accuracy with corners and free kicks plus his ability to shoot the ball from outside the box and open up suborn defenses would give the team something different. But can we just get it done. It'd rather not go through several months of this, having to listen to Clive Tyldesley and the like drone on about it during Spain games at the World Cup... "Xavi. To Fabregas. Is that a combination we'll be seeing next season at the Camp Nou? Barcelona fans would certainly...." zzzzzzz. Please stop. Let's bring our boy home.

More from La Masia

In other "Catalan midfielder leaves Arsenal and returns to Spain" news, Fran Merida has signed for Atletico Madrid. Merida, 20, never really did it at Arsenal, barely getting a look in to the first team beyond Carling Cup games and spending much of the season before last on loan at Real Sociedad. I think he's a tidy player if a bit lightweight. He should do well under Sanchez Flores at Atleti, their central midfield is sorely lacking in creativity and he ought inject some dynamism.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Messi, Zlatan, Xavi and all that...

Considering all this free time I have on my hands, I thought it would be somewhat amiss for me not to write a review/ assessment of the team this season. So here it is.

Given they won everything bar the Super Bowl and the Stanley Cup last season, it was always going to be difficult for Barcelona to hit the same heights this time out. Though the only real change to the squad was exchanging Samuel Eto’o for Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the team evolved quite a bit from the all conquering model of 2008/2009.

Golkeeping and defense

Victor Valdes had his finest season in a blaugrana jersey and was easily the best golkeeper in Spain. Upping his concentration levels, cutting out silly mistakes, improving his distribution (no more kick outs going straight to David Villa) and pulling off phenomenal saves (this one against Mallorca is some Matrix shit), he has rightly made the World Cup squad (though his chances of getting a run out are slim to none), he backstopped a defense that conceded just twenty-four gols in La Liga and took the Zamora trophy for a third time.

In front of Valdes, Gerard Pique and Ironman Carles Puyol were again outstanding and Maxwell really impressed at left back, benching the calamity-prone Eric Abidal (who, to be fair, had an excellent start to the season). His passing and incisive attacking play complemented the always brilliant Dani Alves on the right.

The middle

In midfield the dynamic shifted quite a bit with Sergio Busquets being preferred to Yaya Toure and Seydou Keita seeing a lot more playing time given Iniesta’s struggle with injuries. I’m no fan of Busquets, his constant diving around and his fondness for needlessly getting ‘involved’, coupled with a propensity to misplace passes, I think Toure is a much better player ( would argue otherwise). Furthermore, Toure gives the team much more drive in midfield, he’s big and powerful and advances with the ball much more than Busquets (Messi’s first goal against Valladolid being a perfect example of this).

Xavi, rather incredibly, continues to improve. His range of passing, his ability to dictate the pace of a game with almost all of Barcelona’s play flowing through him is astounding. Messi has rightly attracted plaudits for his performances this season (his all round play in addition to his record-equaling 47 gols has been exceptional) but Xavi has been Barça’s stand out player. The team just doesn’t function the same way without him.

In contrast to Xavi’s growing dominance, Andreas Iniesta hasn’t really made an impact, having a very stop-start season on the back of a lot of injuries. Given the overall strength of the team, his absence wasn’t too keenly felt, though something like this was very much lacking from the second leg against Inter, I don’t recall a single shot from distance in that game bar Bojan’s disallowed gol (more of the Inter game later)


Up front was where the team changed almost completely. With Sammy gone to play right back for Inter and Titi Henry going into semi-retirement, there were two slots to fill alongside Leo Messi. One round hole would have the square peg that is Zlatan hammered into it. The other was filled by Pedro, who’s really stepped up, pushing Bojan out for most the season (Bojan, made of sterner stuff than one might think, had a barn-storming end to the season and starting most of the games going down the stretch ahead of Zlatan)

Ah Zlatan, a more polarising force one could not find. I think he did pretty well in his first season. He’s not Sammy and was never going to be part of a fluid front three in the same way. He scored 21 gols, including two against Arsenal, crucial gols away at Stuttgart and Mallorca and of course, rifling one past Casillas in the clasico. That said, he did play with all the effectiveness of a wardrobe or a dining room table between Christmas and mid-March and frequently looked out of sync with the rest of the team. The problem is, I think anyway, was that while he was brought in to give Barça a different way of playing, another option, they never ever used it. There were never balls over the top for him to run onto, early crosses for him to head down and there were never going to be, the team can’t just change it’s style of play like that. And moreover, they didn’t have to. Bar the Inter game, they haven’t had to come back or try something different. They lost one league game all season, 2-1 away to Atletico, four games in all, with only two being of any consequence, the Copa del Rey tie against Sevilla and the 3-1 disaster in Milan.

Where he fits in now with the signing of David Villa I really don’t know. Despite the ‘7’ on his shirt, Villa is a number 9 and it seems unlikely that they can both play together. I’m hoping this doesn’t result in another Henry - ’dinho - Eto’o - Messi type problem where the club just had too many players for the same positions. I wouldn’t like to see him sold, especially as it would likely be at a huge loss but it may come to that. He’s surely 4th in the queue behind Messi, Villa and Pedro.

And so to Leo, destroyer of worlds, slayer of demons and scorer a ridiculous forty-seven gols. Playing in any of the three forward positions and even as an attacking midfielder, there are scarcely words to describe his performances this season. Hat-tricks against Tenerife, Valencia, Saragossa and four against Arsenal, where does one begin? I am consistently impressed by Messi’s un-showy brilliance, he’s the very antithesis of the whinging, pouting CR9. His gol against Real was Leo in microcosm. Cleared out of it by Sergio Ramos, he got up, received the free kick himself from Maxwell, played a one-two with Xavi and scored. All very matter-of-factly and amazing just the same. I’m pretty much in love with Leo, Antonella Roccuzzo move over.

Taking this season as a whole, Barça have been otherworldly at times but were pushed all the way to the final day of the season by a rather pedestrian Real Madrid side who ground out results rather than blew teams away. Up until Madrid gave up playing against Malaga and settled for a draw there was just one point in it. I think it’ll be just as tight again next time out, especially with Jose Mourinho in charge at Madrid. The loss to Inter in the Champions League was disappointing but more for the flat performance in Milan than the inability to put more than one past them at the Camp Nou.

I’ll post something at the end of the week about David Villa, the upcoming presidential elections and the Fabregas situation. All that remains is...

Team of the season (4-3-3)

Victor Valdes (Barcelona)

Dani Alves

Gerard Pique

Carles Puyol (all Barcelona)

Filipe (Deportivo la Coruna)

Xavi (Barcelona)

Banega (Valencia)

Javi Martinez (Athletic Bilbao)

Messi (Barcelona)

Ronaldo (Real Madrid)

Navas (Sevilla)

Player of the season: Xavi (Barcelona)

Coach of the season: Gregorio Manzano (Real Mallorca)