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*

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