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.