Monday, September 05, 2011

On to the next one

I must admit I was skeptical. Of course I wanted him back, who wouldn't? He's our boy after all, Barça born and bred. The number four jersey has been vacant for over a year now. Word was that it had been given to Thiago Alcantara. What?! Does this mean he's not coming? I can't go through all this again next summer. Will he? Won't he? Should he? After another crippling end of season collapse at Arsenal it became clear that yes, absolutely he should. Things had come to a complete halt at the Emirates. It was time.

But how would this work out. How as Cesc Fabregas going to fit into what was already the best midfield in the world? He's not better than Xavi or Iniesta (not yet anyway) Would he he cooling his heels on the bench, getting frustrated? And what of Thiago, sensational in the U-21 European Championships and now promoted to the first team from Barça B? We don't need Cesc, we have Thiago was the talk, indeed I was one of those saying it.

Well, four weeks in and Fabregas' impact and seamless integration into the team (coupled with that of Thiago) has proved I hadn't a bloody clue what I was talking about. Cesc has been nothing short of exceptional. Gols in both the SuperCopa against Porto (a real thing of beauty) and Villarreal (plus two for La Roja against Chile on Friday night), his understanding with Leo Messi is such that you'd think they grew up together playing futbol or something... Their movement, Cesc bringing something that Barça lacked last season, a midfielder that who powers forward into the box and gets on the end of things, and interchange of positions has been a joy to watch. I know it's only been two games (he barely featured in the second Madrid game but did show Beckham-like awareness in being the first to celebrate the winner with Messi, ensuring he was on the front page of every newspaper in Spain) but crikey, the evolution of this Barcelona team and his part in it, well, don't go booking your flights to Munich in May just yet but it's hard to see any other side coming close.

Real have definitely improved (Ozil will, if he's fully trusted by Mourinho, will again excel) but ten so have Barça. Alexis Sanchez is a huge upgrade on Bojan and Jeffren and fits perfectly into the 3-4-3 system that Guardiola is currently employing (though I suspect it'll be rather fluid over the course of the season bearing in mind the return of Pique, Puyol and most significantly, Dani Alves.

Basquing in their reflected glory

It's Sociedad away at the Anoeta this weekend and even the Barça website has flagged how flat FCB can be coming back from the International break. On the plus side, the Spanish and Catalan players haven't had to travel too far (Geneva and erm, Lagrono) but Leo and Mascherano have been on the moon or wherever that ridiculous friendly against Venezuela was played so I wouldn't expect either to start. Barça lost away to Sociedad last season in a match that was smack bang in the middle of the Clasico Survivor Series and looked to be heading for a draw had it not been for some ridiculous defending, needless showboating and an injury that was pretty much the end for poor Gaby Milito. Barcelona completely lost their heads and in the space of ten minutes threw the match away. As it happened it counted for nought as Madrid also lost (at home to Sporting Gijon). Even factoring in the post-international come down I'd expect a much more professional performance this time and a win, though not a very comfortable one.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Luis and Ivan go to Roma

In his own quiet way, Luis Enrique has success at Barcelona B has been almost as impressive of that of Pep Guardiola with the senior team. Enrique succeeded Guardiola at the Mini Estadi and in three has taken the team from the Segunda B to third in the Segunda Liga, which, were they a regular team and not Barça’s reserve side, would have seen them in the playoffs for promotion to the Primera Liga. This is all the more noteworthy as Barça B is a team of young lads, most of them 18, 19 or 20, that regularly has it’s best players unavailable because they’ve been called up to dine at the grown-ups table. Thiago Alcantara, Jonathan Dos Santos, Andreu Fontas, Marc Muniesa, Sergi Roberto and Nolito have all been shuttled between the two squads. Injuries, Copa Del Rey games, playing well for Barça B can all mean the lungs being torn out of a side that still has to field a full team every Sunday.

On the back of this, Enrique’s move to Roma is an interesting one. During the season all the talk had been of Getafe, a well run but poorly financed (though this may change with their purchase by the Royal Emirates group) and supported team. It would have been a stepping stone, as it has been for Quique Sanchez Flores, Bernd Schuster and Michael Laudrup. Expectations are modest, avoiding relegation is pretty much the limit of their ambition.

Contrast this with the pressure cooker that is AS Roma. Despite being relatively successful (2nd place finishes, 2 Copa Italias and some decent results in the Champions League) under Luciano Spalletti and Claudio Ranieri, their most recent scudetto was 10 years ago when Fabio Capello was in charge. Since then they have excelled at snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, blowing the title on more than one occasion.

Conceding last-minute equalisers, ludicrous penalties, multiple sendings off, needless yellow cards that see their best players suspended for big games, ridiculous collapses against hopeless opposition, Roma are a team that always seem likely to beat themselves as much as the opposition in front of them.

So what have Enrique and de la Pena (more of him later) let themselves in for? Firstly they take on a squad where most of the players are 30 or over (in some cases waaay over) Vucinic, De Rossi, Borriello and Menez are the only top class players at the club that are in their 20s and two of them, Vucinic and Menez look almost certain to leave. There’s also the goalkeeping situation, which rapidly needs addressing. Their 3 keepers, Julio Sergio, Doni and Labont are prone to such comical errors and lapses of judgement that there’s a good chance of one of them showing up at Arsenal soon. Doni used be very good but he’s gone to pieces in the last two seasons and is on his way out the door.

On the plus side, De Rossi is brilliant and Borriello has signed permanently from AC Milan. French lunatic and sometime defender Philippe Mexes has left (for Milan as it happens) so instances of on-pitch madness should be well down on last season. Juan and Nicolas Burdisso are a solid central defensive pairing. Taddei and Pizarro are very tidy midfielders and the clubs new owner, Tom DiBenedetto looks like he might buy a few players and more importantly, leave Enrique and his coaching team to it (he’s a partner in the Liverpool and Red Sox owning NESV, who have a good ownership record).

Inevitably a laundry list of Barcelona fringe players and almost the entire Barça B squad have been linked with a move to the Stadio Olimpico. Of the players available they could do with one or all of Bojan, Jeffren and Soriano, though one of them is likely to be included in the deal that brings Alexis Sanchez from Udine to the Camp Nou. Enrique will probably play the same 4-3-3 at Roma and with an existing forward line that includes a 35 year old Francesco Totti, it’s in desperate need of upgrading with some young, mobile players. As for the rest of Barça B, the noises the players have been making, particularly Martin Montoya, would suggest they’ve got no interest in been pushed out the door.

One final word about Ivan de la Pena, the other ex-blaugrana at Roma and Enrique’s assistant. A player of immense talent who got shunted out of Barcelona by Louis Van Gaal, making a disastrous move to Lazio, one his career never really recovered from. Though he did do very well at Espanyol following a second (and very brief spell at Barcelona), he was much better than that. A fabulous passer and the lungs of that Espanyol side, he retired in May and this will be his first coaching role. I wish him all the best.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Season review

Now that I've had a few weeks to digest and recover from the Champions League Final (and Primavera for that matter), I'm finally getting to a season review and a look toward the summer (transfers etc) Now this is happening.

Pep Guardiola described the 09/10 season as "fucking barbaric". The same and more could be said of the 62 games of 10/11. With the pressure and intensity ramped thanks to the arrival of Jose Mourinho at Madrid, the five clasicos would come to define the season. La Liga, the Copa del Rey and the Champions League, all funneled into five games, starting with a band in late November and ending in bitterness, whinging, diving, lying, cheating and marked perhaps a low point in the always fractious relationship between Barcelona and Real.

Let's start with the 5-0, the zenith, the peak, the performance by which all will now be measured (that's about as grandiose as I can get). Madrid brutally exposed and torn apart by Xavi, Iniesta, Alves and el puto amo Leo Messi. It was a result and display that would set the tone for the first half of the season, where Barça regularly knocked 4, 5 or 6 (and occasionally 7 or 8) gols past the opposition. After January, the swagger wasn't quite so pronounced, David Villa's form dropped off a cliff and 1-0 or 2-0 became the norm.

The upshot of this mauling was that when the teams faced off against each other months later in the Survivor Series of clasicos, Madrid sharpened up their studs, elbows and gamesmanship, and those who bought into the hype and expectations that we were in for more glorious displays of total futbol were to be sorely disappointed.

Baring Messi's mazy run and gol in the first leg of the Champions League semi, these four games were shocking. A pathetic display of negative tactics from Madrid coupled with a race-to-the-bottom slagging match between the clubs off the field, I had always feared it would turn out this way for this is what Mourinho teams do. And with four games in the space of twenty something days, the strain (these were after all Liga deciding, Copa del Rey final and CL semifinal games after all), the saturation of coverage, the intensity of two teams who were absolutely sick of the sight of each other ultimately made for a painful three weeks. Over the years I've grown to dread Barça-Madrid matches and the bullshit that surrounds them. Next season starts with them playing each other twice in the Super Copa. Ker-ist.

Beyond the vortex of the clasicos, it's been an incredible season. 96 points, a European Cup, some of the finest futbol ever played. A full injury-free season for Andres Iniesta, Eric Abidal's recovery from cancer of the liver to lift the Champions League trophy wearing the captain's armband, David Villa's seamless integration into the team, Pedro continuing to score crucial gols, Xavi and Leo Messi (53 gols in 62 games) standing apart from all others, another Zamora for Valdes, who is (and has been for about 3 years) the best 'keeper in Spain, yes, even better than Iker. The success of Barça B in the Segunda under the newly confirmed coach of AS Roma, Luis Enrique (they were third), was also a joy, as were the promotions from the B team of Thiago Alcantara, Jeffren and late on Andreu Fontas and Marc Muniesa. Javier Mascherano, going from an initial rocky start to an essential member of the team, his game winning tackle on Nicklas Bendtner in the CL a real coming of age moment, as was the standing ovation he was given minutes later.

Personal highlights include the aforementioned Arsenal game, Andres Iniesta's gol against Valencia (the only two games I got to this season), being in Barcelona for the CL Final and going to the Camp Nou to greet the team the following day, the Villarreal game at the Camp Nou, Pep's anti-Mourinho rant and Sid Lowe's fabulous interview with Xavi.

There weren't all that many lows to speak of. Puyol missing nearly the whole second half of the season with a knee injury and Pique's subsequent unsteadiness is one, the Qatar Sponsorship deal another, the prospect of next season being Guardiola's last and the minor frustration of losing the Copa del Rey final to a Ronaldo gol are about it.

On to the next one

So where are we at for the summer? Well, the club is no in a far better situation financially and there's €45 million in the coffers to spend on Cesc (yawn), Gigi Rossi or Alex Sanchez. Depending on what sports rag you read, Bojan is off to Udine or Roma and Jeffren may follow him out the door. Cacares (Sevilla), Nolito (Benfica) and Victor Vazquez (Club Brugge) have already left which leaves the (previously on loan) quartet of Hleb (dear gawd Hleb), Henrique, Victor Sanchez and Kerrison to deal with, assuming of course that overpriced IKEA wardrobe Zlatan Ibrahimovic stays at AC Milan, one expects he will.

I'd be sad to see Bojan leave. He's still only 20 and a great talent. I thought the run he went on toward the end of the 09/10 season, when he benched Zlatan, would see him really push on this year, but the arrival of David Villa in the sumemr and Afellay in January saw him slip further down the pecking order. In order to develop as a player he probably needs to go and play week in, week out. I think he'd light it up in Serie A. He's quick, strong, mobile, positionally aware and a good passer of the ball. He just needs a coach with some real confidence in him.

On the signings front, I'd rather we didn't go all out for Fabregas given the fact that he wouldn't play ahead of Xavi or Iniesta. His arrival would also surely stifle the progress of Thiago Alcantara, who has been brilliant every time I've seen him. No, the priorities are another centre back (Milito is probably on his way), maybe a left back if Maxwell leaves and Cote doesn't sign from Sporting Gijon and a forward who can mix it with the current holy trinity of Leo, Pedro and Villa. At centre back I'd like to see someone like Simon Kjaer at Wolfsburg or Zapta at Udine. I also really like San Jose at Bilbao (what on earth happened to him at Liverpool? Fantastic at underage level at Athletic, goes to Liverpool, turns to shit, comes back, is fantastic again) Left back, both Adriano and Abidal are options there but I would have liked to see Monreal come in form Osasuna (he's signed for the ever improving Malaga and I think he'll prove to be an excellent addition, much more so than the 100 year old Ruud Van Nistlerooij).

And so to a summer free of futbol. I intend maybe dipping into the U-21 tournament in Denmark over the next few weeks, particularly to see Spain, and the U-20 in Romania in late July, for which Ireland have qualified, but the Copa America will mostly go unwatched, given the time difference and the fact that I need a break. Ideally the first full match I'll see will be the opening weekend of La Liga. One final word on La Liga, or rather Sky Sports coverage of it. After six years in the anchors chair, Mark Bolton is leaving. He's a very good presenter , knowledgeable and clearly a real fan of Spanish futbol. He made Revista de la Liga an unmissable show and Sky will have a tough job replacing him.

Finally, my team of the season:

Valdes - FC Barcelona

Alves - FC Barcelona
Abidal - FC Barcelona
Ballesteros - Levante UD
Marcelo - Real Madrid

Borja - Villarreal
Xavi - FC Barcelona
Iniesta - FC Barcelona

Messi - FC Barcelona
Rossi - Villarreal
Ronaldo - Real Madrid

Monday, May 02, 2011

Grown so ugly

Well this has been most unpleasant. The fourth and final clasico really can't come (and go) quickly enough. A gradual amping up of whinging, cheating, diving, fouling, fighting, name calling, shoving and play acting over the first two games went nuclear in one of the most embarrassing displays I have ever seen on a futbol pitch from both sides. Every decision contested, every contact exaggerated, milked to the fullest. I haven't seen such a display of histrionics since the Porto-Celtic UEFA Cup final in 2003, which, coincidentally, featured a Mourinho coached team doing their best to destroy the game of futbol.

I always feared it would end this way, with two teams sick of the sight of each other, with Barça being dragged down to Real's level, with the constant fouling inevitably leading to constant over-acting and waving of imaginary cards at every opportunity. I saw a quote from Xavi this evening that sums all of this shit up well; "I'd rather talk about football, all this other stuff is lamentable." Both sides are to blame, Mourinho for his vicious, negative tactics, his baiting of Guardiola and down-right ridiculous claims in the pre and post-match press conferences and Barça for their shameful haranguing of the referee and diving around like they'd been shot (Busquets, Alves and Pedro were the worst offenders) The whole thing was as depressing as it was inevitable.

As it turned out all my pre-match worries were completely unfounded as Real played like a team hoping to strangle a 0-0 draw by making almost no effort to attack bar the odd free kick or shot from distance that invariably went no where near the gol. They had nothing, nothing before the sending off of Pepe, nothing afterward. They were hopeless.

As I write this Aitor Karanka is giving the pre-match press conference and the mud slinging continues. Rather than giving it rest he's stirring it up further ahead of tmrrw night's game which I expect will be a dire affair with Madrid kicking Barça up and down the pitch. But at least that'll be the end of it for the time being. Until we have to go through this all over again at the start of next season of course with the Super Copa and another two of these fucking games and all that goes with them.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Are we there yet?

It's half time in this marathon of Clasicos and I gotta tell you, I'm not full of confidence for the upcoming Champions League games for all sorts of reasons. In no particular order, here's what I'm feelin'.

1. David Villa

After going on a Zlatan-style late season slump (no gols in eleven games for Barcelona), Villa finally hit the back of the net against Osasuna on Saturday night. The blaugrana number seven has looked a shadow of his usual self down the stretch, frequently substituted (as he was again on the weekend after only 57 minutes) and was absolutely awful in the Copa del Rey Final on Wednesday, caught offside with Pippo Inzaghi-like regularity, diving around, whinging and generally contributing nothing. He should have been hauled off well before the start of the second half of extra time.

This very much parallels Ibrahimovic's stuttering finish to his one and only season at the Camp Nou. Unlike last time out though, there's no one like Bojan on a hot streak (he knocked in six in the last eight I think) to step into the team and replace him. Bojan is injured and won't be fit again before the season ends. Afellay has barely played since joining from PSV in January, limited to late substitute appearances and starts in dead rubber Copa games. Jeffren, who managed ninety minutes vs. Osasuna (and who's cross set up Villa's gol) has been plagued by injury and only played a handful of times. None of the Barça B forwards seem to be under consideration, Nolito had a few fruitless run outs earlier in the season but back to the Segunda he went (his contract is up in June and there seems to be no appetite to renew it).

The upshot of all of this is that Villa has continued to labour away, playing rubbish with no one stepping up to the plate to put any pressure on him or take his place. His level of play has been a big factor in the side scoring far fewer gols of late (the 5-1 victory over Shaktar an anomaly rather than the norm as it was earlier in the season).

2. The squad and injuries

The Villa problem is somewhat symptomatic of the of a wider problem that has been thrown into stark relief in the last two months; the size of the squad and it's inability of cope with injuries. For a club as big as Barcelona the squad is tiny. Not counting B team players like Fontas or Alcantara who regularly get promoted to the 1st team match day squad, there are just twenty (20) players on the books at the Camp Nou.

Of those twenty, just one is a right back (Dani Alves), and of the twenty, six, five defenders and Bojan, are currently injured. The defence that finished the game against Osasuna consisted of Dani, two defensive midfielders (the only two), Busquets and Mascherano, and a crocked Maxwell, in for a crocked Adriano. While Pique will be back for the Madrid game, Masch or even Jeffren at left back seems increasingly likely. Quite the patchwork quilt eh? All this while a plethora of players have been loaned out everywhere from the Brum to Santander.

Now it's easy to be all Captain Hindsight in these situations and quite frankly I'd rather see Cacares and Hleb loaned out or sold altogether as opposed to having the around gumming up the works at the Camp Nou. But still, compare the Barça and Madrid benches from Wednesday. Where the blaugrana featured Fontas, Alcantara and a unfit Carles Puyol, Madrid had Higuain, Benzema, Adebayor and Kaka. And while it's true that los blancos have near unlimited resources to construct such a squad and Barça are sinking in debt, the point still remains, there are not enough players at FCB and it's at the business end of the season when this really starts to tell.

3. Madrid (Cabron!)

They're pretty fucking good what? Stoic in defence, reinvigorated in attack (putting 6, SIX! past third place Valencia on Saturday night and supremely skilled in the Jose Mourinho school of rotational fouling and excessive diving. Madrid's 80 points from 33 games would see them top any other league in Europe (by seven in England, nine in Serie A, eleven in Germany and a massive twenty one in Ligue 1) Instead they remain second with five games to go and baring a meltdown from Barça of well, Barcelona proportions, second is where they'll stay. As was noted last year, the problem isn't Madrid, it's Barcelona. Barça are definitely better over 38 games. Over two, I just don't know.

I worry that Madrid, having been able to rest more than half of their first team and still rack up an ice hockey score versus Barcelona, having to bring on Messi, Andres and Xavi in order to close it out against Osasuna, have the edge. Thus far, in 210 minutes of clasico futbol, Barça have scored just once, a penalty. 5-0 seems a very long time ago. Scoring an away gol at the Bernabeu is essential in order to avoid the crippling heartbreak of last year when Mourinho's Inter ground out the most artless of 0-1 defeats.

4. The positives

You know, such as there are any... Despite all this doom and gloom Barça remain eight points clear with five games to play and lost the Copa to a solitary gol in the Final, they weren't dumped out in the first round.

The form of Andres Iniesta and Dani Alves has been encouraging. Both have been exceptional of late. Leo Messi just hit fifty, like 5-Oh gols for the season. Valdes has been fantastic and despite the constant rotation of the defence, it's been pretty solid and Puyol should be back for the match on Wednesday night (he'll certainly make the return leg). They're definitely good enough, they're playing well enough (the second half in Valencia was brilliant) and they should do this but I expect it'll be by a last minute Andres' gol at the Bridge-type margin. *takes deep break*

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Like Iron Man Starks...

Four games in 18 days. La Liga. Copa del Rey. Champions League. The home game with Osasuna breaks the run, almost ruining the poetry of it but I'll be glad of the break. I love and hate the clasico in equal measure. It really is the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. Losing to Madrid is awful, gut wrenching, their bloated arrogance, their galling sense of entitlement, their preening, diving and whinging, they're like some fusion of the Yankees, Emperor Palpatine from Star Wars and the Republican Party.

And so the nxt two and a half weeks are going to be hellish. Marca. Mourinho. Valdano. Perez. All mouthing off. Each game bringing the prospect of defeat and never hearing the bloody end of it. You would think that with Barça playing the best futbol they've ever played, with them being eight points clear of Madrid, with Messi, Xavi, Iniesta in concert and absolutely unstoppable that I would be confident, even a little cocksure, going into this World Series run of games. Sadly I'm afflicted with a dreadful pessimism (or maybe it's just realism), in the back of my mind are European Cup losses to Steaua Bucuresti, Liga's thrown away to last minute draws against Betis and Espanyol, countless games where defeat is snatched from the jaws of victory. I don't revel in these games, I dread them.

That said, I was filled with confidence to hear of the return of Iron Man Carles Puyol, back after nearly four months of injury lay off. He's the glue that binds the defense together and his calmness and authority have been sorely lacking in his absence. No word on whether he'll start yet but it's not like they needed to rush him back for this game, I don't think they're doing an Arsenal. If he's in the squad then he's fit to play.

Monday, April 04, 2011

Super 8

Eight games remaining. Eight points the gap. Jose Mourinho losing his 9 year unbeaten home record to Sporting Gijon and a fabulous gol by Miguel de las Cuevas. Barça solid in their 0-1 win at the Madrigal with Victor Valdes producing four brilliant saves (the last, with his leg from Santi Carzola in the last five minutes was as good or important as any he'll make this season) Blah, blah, blah. I know, it's Tuesday, you know this already.

It's hard to see Madrid coming back from this. Their four remaining away games are at Bilbao (this Saturday at 5pm), Valencia, Sevilla and Villarreal. Plus they have to play Barcelona in two weeks time. Barça's run in is comparatively easy save the Clasico and the derby with Espanyol. We're getting ever closer to the end and a third consecutive title for Pep Guardiola's side.

Saw all of the Villarreal game and was really happy to see Thiago Alcantara to play a full ninety minutes in the Xavi role in midfield. He did pretty well, though disappointingly there were no vaselina free kicks. I like Thiago a lot and have been impressed with his range of passing, his composure and movement any time I've seen him. After much dithering on his contract before Christmas he was finally signed to a two year deal which will presumably be renegotiated once he's had a proper run in the first team next season. Any such run will of course be dependent on the arrival (or not) of Cesc from Arsenal. With all this money from the Qatar Foundation burning a hole in Sandrusco's pocket it's difficult to imagine that this summer won't see another run bringing our boy home.

I'm in two minds about the whole Cesc situation. On the one hand he's brilliant, young and Catalan and is the natural heir to Xavi. He's progressed as far as he can at an Arsenal side that is allergic to winning things and he's good enough to walk into almost any side. Almost any side.

Cesc is great but he's not as good as either Xavi or Iniesta. Xavi is 31 and Andres is 26. Xavi probably has another three very good years in him and Andres is 26. Barça play a three man midfield and one of them has to be a holding player who can drop back to link with the central defence and break up play. It's Busquets, it's Mascherano, it's Rafa Marquez, it's Yaya Toure. It's not Cesc. So where does he fit? Well much like the Spanish midfield, he doesn't. He comes off the bench, he changes things, he's more direct, shoots more from distance, can play better off and in support of the forwards. He doesn't start. So why buy him? Romantic notions aside it really doesn't make sense. Plus he's under contract with Arsenal until 2014. They don't want to sell him. He'd cost upward of €40 million and to do what, sit on the bench or feature in some early season "well we've bought him so he has to play" games before being squeezed out. It'd be Titi Henry being shoe-horned into a front three along side 'dinho, Messi and Eto'o all over again. And we all remember how well that worked out.

You know where this is going. The man who should be wearing the number four shirt in the 2011/12 season is already at Barça. It's Thiago. He may not be quite there yet but he will be.

One last thing, a really good article on In Bed with Maradona on the Espanyol cantera, the other source of good futbolers in Barcelona. It's worth a read.

Monday, March 28, 2011

The number 5

It was a pretty banal interview. The usual BarçaTV stuff, how is the squad feeling, are you confident about winning La Liga, are you happy with the amount of playing time you're getting? The last question to Seydou Keita was, however, an eye opener. "How about Puyol? Do you think he can be back before the end of the season?" You what?! When I was over for the FCB-Arsenal match there had been talk of Puyol making the bench and now it is of him not featuring again this season. Keita's answer, along the lines of "erm, I hope so" doesn't fill me with much confidence. For something that seemed fairly minor, Puyol has been out for a Rio Ferdinand amount of time and in his absence the defense has been rather shaky. Abidal has performed brilliantly in the centre but he's not going to play again this season following the removal of the tumor on his liver but Pique has been sloppy, Milito's positioning has been awful and he's as slow as hell. Generally there's been an unorganised, wacky races air to much of the defending. Now of course the injury to Victor Valdes didn't help things, for a few weeks there were constant changes in the back five, this lack of continuity undoubtedly contributing to the increased number of mistakes. But still, the most crucial of all the injuries and suspensions Barça have had to deal with is that of their captain.

Given the instability at the back I am very much hoping the Liga strike will go ahead next weekend, as the prospect of facing Villarreal sans Xavi (suspended), Pedro (hernia) and Puyol worries me. As it stands (with that round being played on June 12th), Barça's next Liga match will be at home to Almeria, who are pretty poor, second from bottom and got walloped 0-8 at home by the blaugrana earlier in the season. It's a game that's very winnable without the aforementioned trio. It would also see Xavi coming back into the side away to Real Madrid the following weekend (of the 17th of April)

Also along the back line (well sometimes, when he's not over-lapping Leo Messi), the news that Dani Alves has committed to the club until 2015 is fantastic. The best right back the club has had in about fifteen years (since Albert Ferrer) and along with the quintet of Xavi, Iniesta, Messi and Puyol, probably irreplaceable (I can't think of anyone near his level, Philipp Lahm maybe, Maicon on this very best day?) Haven't read what the figures are beyond the buyout clause but honestly I don't care, the club had to keep him and they have.

A quick word about one Francesc Fabregas i Soler, who was rather uncharitably booed off at the Camp Nou a few weeks ago. He needs to get outta Arsenal if he ever plans on winning anything or staying fit for an entire season for that matter. I don't know what the medial staff are like at Shenley but the Milan lab it ain't. Players such as Van Persie, Nasri, Cesc, Rosicky, Diaby, Vermaelen, Song, all of the gol keepers and even that clown Bendtner are forever in and out of the treatment room. Imagine how United or Chelsea would fare with half of their starting eleven frequently struck down with injury and out of the team for three and four weeks at at time, rushed, re-injured and then out for a further four weeks. All too often this season Arsenal have had "surprise, he's back!" moments with players who were clearly not fit (see Cesc at the Camp Nou for a primary example of this)

It's unbelievably short termist and has unquestionably cost them. Say what you will about Wenger's unwillingness to spend money on established players, buy a competent 'keeper, these debates are secondary, they have a squad that is good enough to win the Premier League, particularly this year with United being so underwhelming and Chelsea going missing for nearly three months, but they're never fit so it's never gonna happen.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Times done changed

Hercules have scored just three gols away from home all season. Nelson Valdez has scored all three and two of them were at the Camp Nou. That was back in September, the second week of the season. A flat and limp performance where Barça never really threatened and were soundly beaten seems like a lifetime ago. Since then they have lost just 1nce, a fairly meaningless Copa del Rey 2nd leg game away to Betis (they were 5-0 up from the 1st leg). This Saturday they dispatched their only conquerors in La Liga 0-3 with what was a rather contained and measured showing. It would be the 15th victory in a row, equaling the Di Stefano lead Real Madrid of 1960/61. They scored their 401st gol of the Guardiola era (157 matches) and moved seven points clear of Real (and would stay there thanks to Los Blancos fall to earth in Pamplona, losing 1-0 to Osasuna and looking as disjointed and undone as they did at the tail end of the Pellegrini era).

It’ll be interesting to see if the knives start to come out for Jose Mourinho between now and the end of the season if they don’t get to at least the semi-finals of the Champions League. I’d expect them to open a can of whoop-ass on Sevilla on Wednesday in the Copa. Sevilla were all over the place in their 3-3 draw in Galicia away to Depor. They’ll be without (the increasingly erratic granted) Andres Palop, who was sent off for handling outside the area.

Palop, unflappable for years, has slipped into late career David Seaman form this season, making some incredibly costly mistakes (see the 2nd leg of the Champions League qualifier against Braga for compelling evidence of said decline). Sevilla will have a tough time replacing him come the summer mind, Javi Varas really isn’t up to the task. Added to the hole he’d leave in gol, I don’t see anyone else at the Sanchez Pizjuan ready to pull on the captain’s armband bar maybe Kanoute who’s on the decline too. They’re a team in need of major surgery, top to bottom. Having abandoned the policy of signing promising youngsters and selling them on for big money, they’re now chock full of players that just aren’t good enough. The only player who should be considered untouchable is Navas. Escude and Negredo are worth hanging on to but almost everyone else has underperformed massively in the past two years and the way they’re going this time out they won’t even make Europa League.

Back in Catalunya

Aside from being record equalling, Saturday’s game was noteworthy for one or two other things. Dani Alves, back from injury, played all ninety minutes. Andres Iniesta, an injury magnet last season, picked up his first of this campaign and won’t play in Andalucia against Almeria. He won’t be the only one I expect, given their 5-0 advantage from the first leg. One would hope that they’ve learned their lesson from the Betis game though, the losing of which was as much down to disinterest and lack of concentration as Betis playing brilliantly. That said, the focus is firmly on Atleti on Saturday. The last time Barça were on the cusp of equalling Real fifteen game winning streak they got schooled by Atleti at the Calderon (losing 3-1 I think in Frank RIjkaard’s second season in charge). How fitting that they should get in the way again.

Depending on Tottenham’s efforts tonight, it may be without Diego Forlan, who would be a huge loss to Atleti. His departure would guarantee that Kun Aguero would follow him out the door in the summer, new contract or not, and the big red and white striped reset button being pressed as there is no one in Atleti’s price range who could come remotely close to replacing either of those two. I really hope Forlan does it in England this time. Despite his being top scorer in Spain and Europe (with Villarreal and Atletico, not Real or Barça) he’s still regarded as something of a flop after his time at United in these parts and his performances at the World Cup were seen as some class of anomaly rather than something to be expected. I recall seeing Forlan at the Camp Nou, scoring a hat-trick against Barça for the yellow submarines in a 3-3 draw and in the process beating Eto’o to the Pichichi. He was outstanding, his movement and positioning incredible. He really is the complete centre forward.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Gap

It was about 8:08pm on Sunday night when it started to happen. Andres Iniesta side-footed home Dani Alves pass to make it 1-0 to the blaugrana against Malaga. At 8:18pm when David Villa made it 2-0 it was there for all to see. The gap. It had been a mere two points before the final two matches on Sunday. Now it was four and Barça were beginning, just beginning to pull away as the season reached the halfway point. Real's limp draw away to Almeria ended the relentless winning cycle of the big two that had seen them in first and second place pretty much since August, losing just two matches between them, both winning all of their games since the Clasico and routinely putting four, five and six gols past even the best La Liga teams.

Barça would win comfortably, 4-1, with the hamstring injury to Dani Alves which will keep him out for the best part of three weeks the most noteworthy incident, an injury that will see him miss five games. He will however be back in time for the Champions League ties against Arsenal in late February and early March. Madrid were anything but comfortable, huffing and puffing away to a team who are dead last in La Liga. You could say they were unlucky, Cristiano Ronaldo striking the underside of the bar with a free kick in the final minute, but that would be too kind. To borrow a phrase from Sid Lowe, they were rubbish.

Kaka, starting his first game since the World Cup, looked as rusty as Luke Fitzgerald on Saturday and was hauled off in favour of Benzema (1 gol in La Liga in the 2010/11 season) early in the second half. If there was a game that illustrated Madrid's need for a striker in Higuain's absence, this was it. Until Benzema came on, they effectively had no one upfront, with neither Di Maria, Kaka, Ozil or Ronaldo leaders of the line. They've been linked with a laundry list of players, the latest being Van Nistlerooij. Why not get Raul back too? Or El Moro? With it looking increasingly likely that they'll make a move for Llorente in the summer, whoever comes in is going to be a very short term solution. Interesting that there is no one at all at Real Madrid Castilla who's even being considered for promotion to the first team.

Speaking of B team players, Thiago Alcantara, the most recent graduate from Barça B has (finally) signed a new contract. With his current deal to run out the end of the season and his unwillingness to sign another Barça B contract, the possibility of him doing a Cesc and leaving for nothing in the summer had raised it's head. Thankfully he's committed through 'til the end of the 2012/13 season. He'll see out this one at the B team. Another player not going anywhere is Gabi Milito. Having previously indicated his desire to leave and with a deal with Malaga all but done, he's had a change of heart and will stay until the end of the season. Given the lack of cover at centre back, I'm quite happy about this. Milito is a solid player and a better option than any of Fontas, Muniesa or Sergi Gomez, all of whom are still pretty raw. That said, I'd expect him to leave in the summer, probably in similar circumstances to Titi Henry and Rafa Marquez with his contract rescinded rather than the club looking for a transfer fee.

Monday, January 10, 2011

You already know how this is going to end

When Ronaldo scored a soft equaliser, an unmarked header powered past Diego Lopez, just as the clock ticked over the forty five minute mark, you got the feeling that the game was only going one way.

Villarreal had given their all, played Madrid off the pitch and yet would go in 2-2 at half time, leaving it all out on the field. Come the second half, it was you felt, only a matter of time before the tide came in, the sun set and Madrid scored again.

Indeed aside from the 5-0 disemboweling at the Camp Nou, there has been a grim inevitability to every Los Blancos game I've watched this season, echoing their march to the title in 2006/07 season under Fabio Capello (when Barça did their best AS Roma impression and snatched defeat from the jaws of victory). The 2-2 draw at the San Siro, 1-0 victories away to AJ Auxerre and at home in a dire slugfest against Sevilla (with Di Maria getting them out of jail on both occasions) and the 2-0 at home to Valencia, all lethargic performances rescued late on by a combination of individual brilliance and defensive naivety/ gross stupidity.

Given most of these winds have come without Gonzalo Higuain, top scorer at the Santiago Bernabeu in the past two seasons, is even more impressive, if one can be in fact be impressed by this dour grind. Much like Manchester United, who despite being unbeaten in the Premier League have been serving up fairly turgid rubbish and "not really getting out of first gear" (the implication of course being that they can play much better is one I would dispute), Real have rarely sparkled. That's not to say they haven't handed out some spankings but that was as much a result of facing hopeless opposition rather than them hitting the heights.

Villarreal on the other hand have been fantastically exciting to watch. I really thought their huge turnover of players in the summer (most of them in the out tray) would see them drop out of Champions League reckoning but Cani, Carzola, Rossi, Marco Ruben, Borja and the currently injured Nilmar (scorer at the Camp Nou) have been brilliant, playing open attacking Barça-style tika taka. After losing Manuel Pellegrini, their coach for five years, to Real, they inevitably went through a period of instability, Ernesto Valverde coming in the summer of 2009 and being dispatched just after Christmas. Valverde looked to completely reinvent the Yellow Submarines way of playing with disastrous results. His successor, Juan Carlos Garrido, who had been in charge of Villarreal B since 2002, righted the ship, taking them from the bottom half of the table to seventh (and into the Europa League at the expense of the bankrupt Real Mallorca) and this time out they look like a lock for third or forth place and back into Europe's top club competition.

Next Barça they are the best side I've seen this season (Valencia, Espanyol, Palermo, Lazio and Spurs would be the others).