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).