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.