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