Thursday, September 28, 2006

The Spanish team most likely to win the Champions League is...

...not Barcelona, I think. Despite being a Barca fan, I'm realistic enough to see that out of the three Spanish teams competing Valencia probably have the best shot at it.

Why? Real and Barca have both proven that they can't beat quality opposition this season, at least so far. If that doesn't change soon, then obviously they'll be knocked out. Valencia on the other hand have gotten good results against the likes of Barca and Roma, are in great form and probably feel unbeatable right now.

The counter-attacking tactics employed by coach Quique Sanchez Flores are well suited to a knock-out competition, and their water-tight defence should stand them in good stead to advance far.

Disaster for Barca at Werder

...and I don't mean the result. No, there's nothing wrong with that, and I'll talk about why later. But for now, the worst news for Barca fans is surely the injury to Samuel Eto'o, who is so crucial to the team.

For those who didn't see it, he turned sharply and hurt his knee. Very worrying sight for those who know what he's like, as Eto'o would never ask to be subbed off unless he was very seriously injured. Thank god there appears to be no ligament damage, which this team has had enough of for ten years in the last 2 seasons. In the 04-05 season Barca essentially won the league with a 13 man squad due to Edmilson, Gabri and Larsson being out for almost the whole season. Last season bought similar injuries to Xavi and Motta.

Turns out that Eto'o might be out for up to 3 months. Even 2 weeks is far too long at this point, as Barca have a nightmarish run of fixtures ahead, encompassing teams such as Sevilla, Real Madrid, and Chelsea (home and away). The problem is that Barca don't have a replacement at his level. Not many clubs can replace a man who scores 68 goals in 100 games with someone of the same standard.

There just aren't many forwards in the world who are as good as he is. Thierry Henry, yeah, but he decided to remain at Arsenal, and I think rightly so. Ronaldo used to be that good - in fact, probably better - but definitely not now. I could go on, but the point is that with all respect to Gudjohnsen and Saviola, Barca cannot replace Eto'o.

His injury makes Barca less dangerous going forward. End of story. Now his backups - the aftementioned Gudjohnsen and Saviola, plus Ezquerro when he gets back to fitness - have to prove their worth.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Argentina call-ups for Spain friendly

Interesting news for the Argentine fan - coach Alfie Basile has released the list of players who will be called up for the friendly against Spain on the 11th of October.

The List

Goalkeepers: Roberto Abbondanzieri (Getafe, Spain), Leo Franco (Atl. Madrid, Spain)

Fairly predictable there, nothing much to say.

Defenders: Roberto Ayala (Valencia, Spain), Rodolfo Arruabarrena (Villarreal, Spain), Gabriel Heinze (Manchester United, England), Pablo Zabaleta (Espanyol, Spain), Gabriel Milito (Zaragoza, Spain), Fabricio Coloccini (Deportivo, Spain)

Good to see Ayala back - he'll be getting his 106th cap, equalling an Argentinean record - as well as the surprise inclusion of Arruabarrena as Basile remembers another old Boca boy. Zabaleta being called up again is great news for the young right-back. Good to see Gaby Heinze back from injury as well.

Midfielders: Pablo Aimar (Zaragoza, Spain), Leonardo Ponzio (Zaragoza, Spain), Javier Mascherano (West Ham United, England), Leandro Somoza (Villarreal, Spain), Lucho González (Porto, Portugal), Daniel Bilos (St. Etienne, France), Maxi Rodríguez (Atl. Madrid, Spain), Federico Insúa (Borussia Monchengladbach, Germany)

A good list of players, and especially reassuring is the sight of Aimar's name on there. Good to see Somoza getting another call up, as well as guys like Bilos and Insua getting another shot. Same with Ponzio, although he hasn't really impressed me so far.

Forwards: Hernán Crespo (Inter, Italy), Sergio Agüero (Atl. Madrid, Spain), Lionel Messi (Barcelona, Spain), Javier Saviola (Barcelona, Spain) and Carlos Tevez (West Ham United, England)

Crespo's name is very, very welcome. Good to finally see a proper striker on there who can put away the chances created by the shadow forward behind him, be it Messi, Aguero or Saviola. I'm assuming Tevez is going to be deployed as a first striker and Crespo's sub here, otherwise 4 players fighting for one position is too much.


Assuming Basile plays 4-3-1-2 again, this is what I'd like to see as a starting XI.

---M Rodriguez--Mascherano--Bilos--------

Just take my word for it that it's a 4-3-1-2 with one striker playing slightly behind the other and excuse my diagram skills please. Anyway, this would be similar to the old system with Riquelme with the midfielders behind Aimar covering for him, and Mascherano screening the back four, but would probably have a bit more pace since Messi and Aimar are both speedy players and link up well. Bilos is there instead of Lucho Gonzalez because of their respective performances against Brazil, and Maxi has been in great form so he should play the whole game if possible. Actually Tevez could very well be where I've put Messi since he's been Crespo's strike partner before, but given club form I'm not sure he should.

Second half, assuming Basile's going to make wholesale changes:

---M Rodriguez--Somoza--L Gonzalez--

Substitute Messi for Tevez in the event that Tevez plays with Crespo. I know that Ponzio is listed as a midfielder up there, but I really don't think he's going to play in midfield looking at the rest of that list. Of course I could be horribly wrong and then very embarrassed, but that looks unlikely so far. Milito should come in for Heinze who's still recovering from injury, and Somoza should get some deserved playing time. Insua is playmaker based on what the Argentine press have been saying. I don't actually want to see this line-up, especially in defence, but that's what things should look like if the coach is aiming to give all the players a run out.

An interesting list of players, and I have to say definitely a better looking squad than the one called up against Brazil. Defensively, at least, there should be improvements.

Eye-catching omissions

Cambiasso is injured, but it's interesting to note that there's only one guy who plays in Italy on that list, and he's the guy we can't do without, since he's our best center forward. Former captain Zanetti gets the cold shoulder yet again, having had his international career suddenly cut short with the exclusion from Pekerman's World Cup squad. What's Basile thinking about the Serie A boys?

Another omission that catches the eye is Andres D'Alessandro. The question, I suppose, isn't why he hasn't been given a chance now, but more whether or not he'll be given a chance in the future.

Also interesting to note that everyone on that list plays in Europe in a relatively big league. Players in the Argentinean league have been left out due to match commitments, which is fair enough. What I mean by the above is that guys like Clemente Rodriguez in Russia and Lucas Biglia in Belgium are overlooked and will probably continue to be. Incredibly, 14 of the 22 man squad play in Spain. Of those 14, 3 are from Atletico Madrid, 3 from Zaragoza, 2 from Villarreal and both of Barca's Argentines get the call.

Exciting times for the Albicelestes.

Round-up of Champions League results and previews for the Wednesday games

Results so far

The first half of match day 2 of the Champions League has come and gone, with few surprise results. Madrid and Raul threatened to make me eat my words with a 5-1 pasting of Dynamo Kiev in which the latter scored a brace, but given how Dynamo went down to Steaua (who themselves got thrashed 3-0 by Lyon) I’m not quite convinced yet. Interesting to note that despite press reports alleging van Nistelrooy’s incompetence in the game against Betis (wildly exaggerated, of course) and playing up Ronaldo’s inclusion, the Brazilian only made a cameo appearance. Probably a wise move by Capello, as to me van Nistelrooy and Reyes are their most important offensive players right now. The coach sounded a note of caution after the match in an attempt to cut down on the hype that will no doubt be generated by the press, which I see as a great move, so all credit to him. The Dynamo coach on the other hand said that Madrid would probably be in the final. I’ll reserve judgment on that front , but Capello is very good in Europe, so who knows?

Manchester United were unconvincing against Benfica but came away with a crucial away win, which is really all that counts at this point. Sir Alex Ferguson’s decision to rest Louis Saha for the EPL game at the weekend - lambasted by the press and some fans - seems somewhat vindicated now since he scored the only goal. Wayne Rooney continues to struggle with form as the criticisms pile on. I have to say, I’m not his greatest fan – in fact, most of the time I think he’s a bit overrated, but right now I feel bad for him. It seems that with young prodigies like him, Messi, C Ronaldo and Aguero, they’re so hyped up that any slump in form is immediately jumped on by the circling hordes. People forget that the oldest of the four mentioned above is only 21, and the youngest barely 18. An ordinary person of that age would probably be out skipping classes, getting drunk and avoiding responsibility, while these guys have a hell of a lot on their shoulders. I’m not saying that they should have a lower standard imposed on them – after all, if they’re good enough to start for a big team then they should perform. But what I am saying is that anybody can have a couple of bad matches, even prodigies. Just lay off until you’re sure that they’re really having a slump (see: Adriano - hasn’t scored for Inter for almost half a year, now that’s a real slump).

Back to the topic at hand, and Milan failed to get past Lille’s tight defence in France, ending up with a 0-0 draw to take home. No real surprises so far, unless you count out-of-form and injury-stricken Hamburg’s loss to CSKA Moscow, but in reality the Russian side who won the UEFA Cup two seasons ago were always going to be challengers for at least that UEFA Cup spot. With the speed of change going on in Clubs like CSKA who have lots of money poured into them quickly a poor record in the past doesn’t count for all that much.

Second half preview

Spartak Moscow v Sporting Lisbon

A potentially tricky away tie for Sporting after the heady heights of that upset victory over Inter. It’s never easy to play in Russia, but the visiting team can be thankful that it’s not quite winter yet, so at least they won’t freeze to death. Spartak got thrashed 4-0 by Bayern in their first game, collapsing in the second half after holding their German hosts to a 0-0 draw for the first. I’ll be looking out for this result mainly because of Spartak’s two Argentines, Clemente Rodriguez at left-back and eternally unsettled Fernando Cavenaghi at center forward. Rodriguez is a regular starter and provides a threat going forward, but Cavenaghi – once so good in Argentina’s River Plate has yet to adapt to his surroundings 2 seasons in and may not play. I think both clubs would be content with a draw here, but a win would mean a lot to Sporting who now have hopes of qualifying for the second round while Spartak would just be happy to finally win a game in the Champions League.

Bremen v Barcelona

Mark van Bommel seems to have enjoyed his one-season stay at Barca immensely, despite not getting enough regular playing time, an unfortunate consequence of a large squad which saw him and the club part amiably at the beginning of this season. He’s now a mainstay for Bayern Munich, attempting to pick up where Michael Ballack left off. Why is this discussion part of the Barca preview instead of the Bayern one? Well, he’s given a fairly gushy interview to a German magazine basically telling Bremen what they already know – that playing an open attacking game against Barca is very risky.

He’s got a bit of a reputation as a trouble-maker, but I’ve never seen any signs of that in his time at Barca. In fact, he seemed pretty popular within the squad, never complained about lack of playing time and made the best of his opportunities. As a result Barca fans were all wishing him well when he chose to leave, and he’s been very good about his departure. I was worried that he’d have some unhappy views to air, since that seems to be the trend for players moving clubs right now, but he’s been a perfect gentleman about it, so all credit to him. I don’t think many could complain about a one-year stay that yielded a Spanish title and a Champions League winner’s medal, but you never know these days.

Turning to actual team news, Miroslav Klose could play despite not being 100% match fit after Bremen failed to win all the Bundesliga matches that he missed through injury. The attacking axis of him and Torsten Frings is undoubtedly Bremen’s main threat, so they’ll be hoping those two have a blistering game. Playmaker Diego looks set to play after recovering from injury. They’ve had a bad run of form recently and a win would really help the team get back on track.

Barcelona have continued their policy of rotation, leaving Marquez, Gio, Saviola and the still injured Ezquerro out of the squad. This means the starting line-up will look something like this (4-3-3): Valdes; Zambrotta/Belletti, Puyol, Thuram, Sylvinho; Edmilson/Motta, Xavi, Iniesta/Deco; Giuly, Eto’o, Ronaldinho.

The reason there are so many uncertainties in the above is because I’m not sure how concerned Rijkaard is about fatigue after that hard-fought game against Valencia. Zambrotta would play most games because of his defensive abilities, but against a team like Bremen who play in a similar style to Barca the defensively dubious attacker Belletti might be in his element. I’m also not at all sure which of the midfield trio of Xavi, Iniesta and Deco will play. Personally, I’d want to rest Deco because he looks like he needs it after playing every match so far. Rijkaard might not want to take that risk, though. In any case, I would like to see Iniesta play some part, taking the place of either of the other two, starting or coming in from the bench. Edmilson is popularly thought of as better than Motta in the holding midfield position, but after his unconvincing performance against Valencia I’m not sure he’d be better than Motta against a fast team like Bremen. Giuly should start as a matter of rotation, with Messi or Gudjohnsen perhaps coming in from the bench later on.

This has the potential to be a very good game between two sides that both use positive, attacking tactics – just the kind of spectacle that, personally speaking, I’d like to see more of in club football. I’m hoping it lives up to expectations, since last year’s group stage opener (also away at Bremen) resulted in a scrappy 2-0 win that really flattered Barca. A better game this time would be great. Of course, beyond that winning the game is the most important thing for us in this very difficult group. Bremen are probably my second favourite side in the group and I genuinely hope they qualify, but not at Barca’s expense. So with no disrespect to the German side, this is a game the defending champions should be looking to win. There’s no excuse for not coming up with a result as Bremen will not employ stifling defensive tactics like Valencia. In fact, their defence is really pretty poor. If the offence finally gets itself together, Barca should be fine. If not, we could be in a bit of trouble.

Levski v Chelsea

The big question hovering over this tie seems to be the fitness of John Terry. Late news seems to be that he will be fit to play, although knowing Mourinho I’m not sure how far that can be trusted. Either way, Chelsea will be looking to pick up a comfortable win here, even though playing away in Bulgaria is sure to be difficult. Since Michael Ballack is available, they’ll probably revert to the diamond formation that so stifled Frank Lampard before Ballack’s suspension in the EPL. Whether it’s a good or bad thing, you decide. Andriy Shevchenko to score, I say. He’s such a class act that it’s bound to happen sometime.

As for Levski, having handled the roughest start a Champions League rookie could have (away to the defending champs) with admirable spirit, things aren’t going to get easier. A thrashing by Barca in Camp Nou shouldn’t have dampened spirits too much since it was so predictable, and they should run out with the same positive attacking mentality that they showed in the last game. This is just as suicidal against Chelsea as it is against Barca, but good on them for doing what I think is the right thing. Here’s hoping they avoid another thrashing, although I can’t see past a Chelsea win.

Inter v Bayern

One of the big ties of this round, along with Valencia-Roma and to a lesser extent Barca-Bremen. On paper this is an exciting clash between the champions of the German league and the (non-cheating) champions of Italy, but in reality I’m not sure either of these teams have really lived up to their billing so far this season.

Let’s start with Inter. The ‘crazy Inter’ cliché is overused and exaggerated, but it is true that their ability to fail against all odds is kind of amazing. While not being a fan of any team in particular in Serie A, I usually have one eye on Inter because of the sheer number of Argentinean players in the team. It was great to see Cambiasso start the season with a brace in a game against Fiorentina but worrying when the defence then conceded 2 goals when leading 3-0. The same thing happened against Chievo, Inter storming to a 4-0 lead which included a brace by on-fire Hernan Crespo and a header by fellow Argentine Walter Samuel. Then they managed to concede 3 in the last 20 minutes. A win against Roma helped them bounce back from a disappointing defeat in their opening CL game against Sporting Lisbon, and they’ll be looking to pick up points here to steady the boat, qualification-wise.

In team news, Recoba, Argentines part-time striker Julio Cruz and team mainstay Cambiasso are all injured, while Patrick Viera is suspended for that red card picked up against Sporting Lisbon. This should pose no problems given the depth of the Inter squad, with versatile Argentineans (see what I mean about the number of Argentine players?) captain Javier Zanetti and Santiago Solari able to slot in to any number of positions on the field. Crespo is of course one of the most on-form strikers in Europe right now, and I’ll stick my neck out here – Hernan to score at least one.

Similarly, Bayern have not been having a happy fun time at all, although they’ve climbed back up to the top of the league table. They looked particularly poor in pre-season with new signing Lukas Podolski nowhere near match fitness, especially in that 4-0 thrashing by Barcelona at Camp Nou, which was particularly embarrassing given that Barca used a completely different XI for the first and second halves, managing to beat them with both (3-0 first half, 1-0 second). After purchasing the aftementioned Mark van Bommel from Barca they’re looking better in midfield, but I’m not quite convinced that they have the quality to go far in Europe. They’re known domestically as a utilitarian side that grinds out results, but in the Champions League lately there hasn’t even been that, with last season’s embarrassing thrashing by AC Milan no doubt still on the mind of their fans. In Bayern’s last game they took their sweet time breaking down Spartak Moscow in the last game before scoring 4 goals late in the second half at home. On a positive note, though, they have no injury worries for this clash.

Another difficult visit to the always fearsome San Siro beckons for the German champions, and it’s difficult to call this one with both teams displaying somewhat inconsistent form so far. Inter will be looking to win, no doubt about that, but quite honestly I think Bayern would not complain about a draw.

Liverpool v Galatasaray

No one in this group seems to know how to score so far, but with Liverpool’s luck improving in front of goal maybe that’ll change. Galatasaray are difficult to play at home but notoriously poor travelers, so Liverpool should be looking to pick up points at Anfield. Anything less than a victory would be unacceptable.

Bordeaux v PSV

Bordeaux will be difficult to break down at home, but PSV should still expect to pick up points here given their league form and the fact that after drawing at home to Liverpool they kind of need them. I’m not all that certain that the Dutch side will achieve that here though. It’s a good chance for Bordeaux to show that they have quality going forward as well as in defence. 0-0 draw, anyone?

Shakhtar v Olympiakos

The Greek side managed to put 2 goals past a normally water-tight Valencia defence at home but managed to concede 4 for the first win by a Spanish side in Greece. Still-dangerous Rivaldo’s injury is a major drawback for them, especially given their poor away form in the CL. Shakhtar will be looking to get 3 crucial points with the advantage of playing at home, since they also travel badly, having been beaten in the first game 4-0 by Roma despite putting up a decent fight for the first half.

Valencia v Roma

Roma are yet another team who don’t travel all that well, although their recent impressive form in Serie A and a good win over Shakhtar means that they’ll be confident going into this game of getting a result in the noisiest stadium in Spain, never a easy place to for away teams to play in.

Valencia on the other hand are riding high after their impressive away draw against Barcelona and are in great form on all fronts. Their only worries might be the increasingly long injury list and fatigue from a hard-fought game in the Camp Nou, as their large squad is stretched to the limit. Marchena, Albiol, Baraja and del Horno are all injured, which is concerning but not a big problem since they’re all replaceable. What might be worrying Valencia fans more is the sight of their usually indefatigable captain David Albelda getting cramp near the end of the Barca game, and the suspicion that he rushed his comeback from injury to play.

If exhaustion doesn’t set in then I think Valencia should win this game. They’re playing well as a team with a tight defence and some great players going forward. Fernando Morientes nabbed a perfect hat-trick in the last game, scoring with left foot, right foot and his head, but I think it’s David Villa’s turn this time. Valencia to win with at least a goal from the best Spanish striker around.

(By the way, something that I forgot to mention about Valencia last time – they’re really lacking a dead-ball specialist now that Aimar is gone. Villa isn’t bad, but he’s not very consistent on free-kicks, and Joaquin is only accurate from one side.)

La Liga Round-up: Week four

Betis 0 - 1 Real Madrid

It would be unfair of me to comment in depth on this game, having not actually seen it. I will note that while the press seem to be a bit happier, there are still grumblings about Capello's defensive style. The system he seems to have settled on is interesting. It's a 4-5-1 (or, to break it down further, 4-2-3-1) with no questions about who starts in defence or upfront but rotating the offensive midfielders.

The backline of Salgado-Cannavaro-Sergio Ramos-Roberto Carlos looks set in stone, fitness permitting, especially taking into account Cicinho's long-term injury. Screening them should be the defensive midfield axis of Diarra and Emerson, who seem to be undroppable. Ruud van Nistelrooy looks a dead cert to start every (significant) game if available, no matter what Capello or Ronaldo claim. So that leaves Beckham, Reyes, Robinho, Cassano, Guti and Raul to fight it out for the 3 attacking midfield spots. It'll be interesting to see which combination Capello settles on, especially since it now seems like Raul and Beckham are finally droppable. Early signs seem to suggest that the coach likes Reyes and Cassano, doesn't think Robinho should start and is willing to give Guti chances to shake off spells of indifferent form.

Also, having seen Raul's claims in the press that he's just as good as he ever was, I can only shake my head sadly and try to remember his golden days.

Atlético 2 - 1 Sevilla

Well, I said that Atletico would look like convincing challengers for a Champions League place if they could beat Sevilla. Turns out I'm wrong - they did beat Sevilla but are yet to convince me that they're for real. Struggling to overcome a side who've had both their center-backs sent off is not the stuff champions are made of. Thank god for Maxi Rodriguez, then, scoring twice in the space of 5 minutes to give Atletico a valuable victory. Sevilla will feel robbed after they dominated when it was 11 v 11, but I think they'll bounce back to winning ways next week.

Mallorca 1 - 0 Espanyol

Oh dear. Espanyol continue to be frustratingly inconsistent just like last season, losing to lowly Mallorca one week after beating a good Celta side. It's something they'll have to fix if they don't want to be fighting relegation again by the end. A great result for Mallorca, though, and they must be pleased that Argentinean misfit and Barca loanee Maxi Lopez has opened his account.

Villarreal 3 - 2 Zaragoza

Forca Villarreal! Yes, finally the Yellow Submarines have their first win of the season, and us fans can breathe a sigh of relief. It didn't come easily, though, since Zaragoza are a pretty good side, even if they're still in a state of transition. Hopefully both sides will be able to build on this result, the Submarines by going on a run of victories and Zaragoza by picking themselves up next week.

On an Argentine-watching note, it was great to see Riquelme scoring a penalty, in the same spot where he missed a decisive one last season. I think it was a real confidence booster for him, and his form will probably pick up again. Before long, we could see the magician back to his best. Somoza came on and did his job well - Mascherano would surely be worried for his starting place in the Argentinean National Team if he'd been watching. Fuentes has not impressed so far, but maybe he needs time to settle in.

On the Zaragoza side of things, Aimar scored the opener and played okay in general, another step forward in El Payaso's return to form. D'Alessandro started well but faded a bit later on, and poor Gabriel Milito got sent off for a second bookable offence (handling in the box), giving away the penalty that Riquelme put away.

Levante 2 - 0 Deportivo

Oh dear yet again. Some thought that Depor would return to being a force this season after flattering to deceive in the last, but their inconsistency so far would suggest that they still have some way to go. Argentine watch special mention goes to Coloccini, who was apparently very good against Villarreal last week but not so impressive this time.

Real Sociedad 2 - 3 Recreativo

Very troubling result for Sociedad, who now have only 1 point from 4 games. Granted, they had some tough opposition before in the form of Real Madrid and Sevilla, but only managing to draw with Athletic Bilbao and then losing to new boys Recreativo is pretty bad. I've said before that Racing looked like they might be relegation fodder, but there are teams who are worse at the moment - like Sociedad, for example. Recreativo, on the other hand, have 2 wins and a draw from 4 games. A good start to life in the Primera, definitely.

Getafe 0 - 0 Athletic

A poor game if reports are to be believed, and one in which 3 players were sent off. Getafe have started pretty well this season, only losing to Valencia so far. Athletic on the other hand have had a pretty rough time of it with only 2 points, drawing with Sociedad in their first game and then getting spanked by both Betis and Atletico. Life isn't going to get much easier for them, though, with the next visitors to the San Mames being defending champions Barcelona.

Argentine watch note - NT no.1 'keeper Abbondanzieri (whose name I have to look up everytime) has done well so far, only conceding against Valencia.

Nastic 2 - 2 Racing

Racing finally have their first point against one of their potential rivals in the relegation battle, although Nastic have looked at times to be very capable of staying up this season. The same cannot be said of Racing, or at least it couldn't before they integrated new arrival Zigic into their squad. He scored both goals against Nastic, including the last-gasp leveller that finally got them a point. Maybe things will pick up for Racing now, although it's too early to say.

Celta 0 - 2 Osasuna

Celta continue their slide and Osasuna continue their revival. Widely expected to be contenders for a UEFA Cup spot, both have had a couple of surprise defeats so far, Celta going down to Espanyol and Osasuna to Getafe. Raul Garcia, who I have to say didn't look good in Osasuna's game against Barca seems to be back to his best, scoring one of the goals in their victory. Osasuna seem to have picked themselves up, now Celta must do the same.

And finally the big one...

Barcelona 1 - 1 Valencia

Barcelona (4-3-3): Valdés; Zambrotta, Márquez, Puyol, Van Bronckhorst; Edmilson (Iniesta 46'), Xavi, Deco; Messi (Saviola 84'), Eto'o, Ronaldinho.

Valencia (4-5-1): Canizares; Miguel, Ayala, Albiol (Navarro 73'), Moretti; Edu, Albelda (Hugo Viana 89'), Vicente, Joaquin, Silva; Villa (Angulo 76').

0-1 Villa (17')
1-1 Iniesta (49')

The Game

Very entertaining, with both sides showing great technique, tactical awareness and neat passing. Definitely a top quality game, although being a Barca supporter I'd have enjoyed it more if we won, I feel that a draw is satisfactory to both teams.

The Team

I guessed the correct starting line-up, since Rijkaard chose to put his faith in a line-up that looks very similar to the double-winning team of last season, with the exception of new signing Zambrotta. This back-fired on him in the UEFA Super Cup, but thankfully this time any possible damage was stemmed in time by smart tactical changes, including the substitution of Edmilson for Iniesta and switching Eto'o to the left wing.

The Defence

They get pride of place this time because for once, I haven't got much to criticize. Obviously Valencia's defence is better, but they're essentially a defensive-counter attacking side, albeit a very, very good one, so they have to be. I don't think anyone can be blamed for Villa's goal, it was just a great piece of team work. Zambrotta continues to impress me both in defence and going forward, although his crossing needs some work. But the point about him is that Barca aren't asking for him to attack all the time. They have Belletti for that. He's relied upon to defend well, and he's done that so far.

I've seen some criticism of Marquez in this match, but I don't think he was bad at all. A couple of crucial clearances in the first half, generally assured in the second was my impression. Puyol was as impressive as ever with some great work positioning-wise and good clean tackling. Gio had a hard time against Valencia's pacy wingers but coped pretty well.

Overall, I'm very pleased with the organisation of the defence. They're working much better as a unit and don't look nearly as suspect on dead-balls as they did at the start of the season.

The Midfield

Very poor in the first half, I have to say. This isn't a criticism of any player in particular, but a Barca midfield just isn't usually overrun like they were. Edmilson had trouble imposing himself on the game, Xavi was neat and effective as usual but could not provide any penetration, and Deco was especially guilty of giving away possession too much as well as bad shooting.

Thankfully with the introduction of Iniesta - and I'm guessing a quiet but scathing half-time talk from Rijkaard - things improved immediately. Everytime I see Iniesta play I end up liking him more. Just such a complete player with great pace and vision, who goes about his work without fuss. A well-taken goal takes his season tally so far up to 2 - maybe that'll be the newest skill in his arsenal. It would be nice to have another goalscoring midfielder along with Deco. Speaking of whom, him and Xavi both did better in the second half and even had a couple of good shots on goal.

All in all I'm not convinced that Deco-Xavi-Edmilson is really our strongest combination right now, with Deco in somewhat strange form. He's such an important player that he's one of a few who hasn't been rotated so far, but a rest might do him good. Pity Rijkaard has no easy games where he can rest players right now.

The Forwards and the Result

It is rare that I have cause to criticize the forward line for two matches in a row, but the simple reality is that the shooting has been pretty bad. Messi had a couple of good shots this time, so did Eto'o, but the misses were far more frequent. Ronaldinho was completely closed down by the incredible Miguel, Eto'o had a hard time against Ayala (but to his credit did pretty well) and Messi's battle with Moretti was a 60/40 affair - he was winning, but not quickly enough before other defenders arrived to close him down.

Eto'o was lively as always, and probably should have at least had a penalty from the two times Miguel kicked him inside the box. Bad luck, though, and since the result was a fair enough draw and the referee was just generally incompetent rather than biased I'm not going to moan.

There has been an incredible amount of crap written about Messi being subbed off for Saviola and about the general results of this match, with Sid Lowe of the Guardian an honourable exception.

Firstly, about the substitution. I highly doubt Rijkaard bought Messi off in the last few minutes of the match because he was ineffective. If so, Messi would have been off at about the hour mark, like he was against Racing. Personally I thought he was more effective both going forward, finding space and tracking back than Ronaldinho, who had a torrid time of it against great defenders in Ayala and Miguel. Most Barca fans seem to agree that Messi was much better than he was in the last game. He's still not back to top form, but hopefully it's only a matter of time. And in the meantime he should try not to get booked. Messi's game has become increasingly physical lately, which is kind of alarming, even if his efforts at defending are to be applauded. He's a lot stronger than he looks, able to bundle players off the ball, but then that often leads to a foul being given against him. Was lucky not to be booked for jabbing a stealthy elbow into Moretti's chest after the latter had used all manners of tricks - shirt-pulling, arm-grabbing, etc - to impede him.

I'm very happy for Saviola, especially the great reception he received from the fans. He worked hard once on the field, too, almost getting the winning goal. Good to see that Rijkaard is as good as his word, and that Saviola still looks match-sharp.

Secondly, most (sane) Barca supporters didn't expect to roll Valencia over going into this match. Barca never do well against them, which is news to no one except clueless journalists, who are busy claiming our demise. The funny thing is that Barca drew at Camp Nou against Valencia last time around too, in a season where they also achieved that amazing 18-game winning run and eventually did the double. In all fairness we were lucky to get a draw that time. Therefore I'm not sure this game tells us anything new - for me, it only confirms what I already knew.

I wrote in my report of the Racing match that Barca were not on top form yet despite the hype, which is clear if you've seen the matches so far. It's interesting to note that the team only really got into form in early October last season, so I'm not worried yet. They need to get there soon, though, because there are a very tough run of games coming up, most of them must-wins. Here's hoping the Bremen game is a stepping stone to it.


A great team and potential title winner, if anyone didn't know it already. They defend with 9 men when the other team have the ball, closing down any space in the box as soon as anyone so much as sets foot in it, and have some fabulous players who can take advantage of the breaks created. Miguel is just a wonderful right-back, quick, nimble, good going forward and great with his positioning - I'm surprised he's not more well-known. His performances for Portugal in the World Cup were very impressive, after all, and he's been great for Valencia for a while. Hard-tackling Argentine Roberto Ayala is as imperious as ever. One of the best center-backs in the world, surely, even at his age.

Vicente and Joaquin on the wings always looked dangerous, with Vicente perhaps being the better of the two right now. It's great that he's on such good form after returning from some awful injuries. David Albelda was most noticiable for me when he knocked Marquez flying with a comically exaggerated tackle. He's kind of like Puyol, in a way, except he plays in midfield and therefore his relative lack of passing expertise is more apparent. Last but certainly not least, David Villa proved once again that he's simply the best Spanish forward right now, with an astounding record of scoring goals against Barca, unfortunately.

Next up, a preview of the Champions League games on Thursday (well, my Thursday, Wednesday to a lot of you).

Sunday, September 24, 2006

previews of the big la liga games this weekend

Atletico Madrid v Sevilla

The big news on Atletico's part is the return of Fernando Torres, which is likely to see Mista dropped to the bench to allow Sergio Aguero to partner Torres in attack. The young Argentine has more than earned a starting place with his virtuso display against Athletic Bilbao and if he continues along the same vein then Sevilla may find their unbeaten run so far threatened.

Sevilla have a couple of injury worries with striking pair Ernesto Chevanton and Luis Fabiano likely to miss out. They still have on-form Frederic Kanoute, though. It's hard to see this team getting beaten with the way they've been playing recently, to be honest, but their backline while solid isn't unbreachable. Should be a cracker of a game, too bad no one will be able to watch it. A high-scoring draw looks likely, if Atletico don't self-destruct.

Villarreal v Real Zaragoza

The Yellow Submarines have to start winning games sometime around now. Unfortunately, Zaragoza aren't the easiest opposition, but if Villarreal want to return to Europe they're the kind of team the Submarines have to beat. This match can now be called the Battle of Argentina, with both sides likely to field at least 3 Argentine players. Villarreal have significant injury problems with most of their defence out as well as Frenchman Robert Pires. Their problems are compounded by the fact that their match-winners Riquelme and Forlan both seem to have hit a spell of bad form.

Zaragoza on the other hand are a club on the up with the Argentinean axis of Aimar and D'Alessandro driving the attack and Gabriel Milito marshalling the defence. Unfortunately his brother, the excellent striker Diego Milito is out with an injury, but otherwise the club go into this match with a fairly complete squad and high expectations. My heart says a desperately needed win for Villarreal, but my head thinks that Zaragoza will probably edge it.

Barcelona v Valencia

The biggest match of the week sees two potential champions battle it out for the right to retain a 100% record. Valencia have quite a few injury concerns with Marchena, Baraja, del Horno and Tavano all out, although only Baraja out of those would affect the starting line-up. Raul Albiol and David Villa are both doubtful, though Villa looks more likely to start now after earlier signs that he could miss the game, which if true would have certainly made Barca 'keeper Valdes relieved because of his tendency to feed Villa goals under pressure. If Villa is not fit then David Silva will partner Fernando Morientes up front instead, with Navarro replacing Albiol in center defence with Roberto Ayala. Captain Albelda has recovered from his cheekbone injury sustained while on international duty and will start in central midfield, with Vicente and Angulo patrolling the wings.

Barcelona have only one injury worry in the form of Santi Ezquerro, who has been left out of the 18-man squad with Saviola slotting into his place on the bench. Rijkaard will field his strongest team, albeit with one eye on the Champions League game in mid-week by resting players such as Motta, Sylvinho and most significantly Thuram, who will most certainly start the Bremen game. The more defensively sound duo of Zambrotta and Gio will be used at fullback, with Puyol partnering Marquez in central defence and Edmilson in the holding midfield role. The golden midfield combination of Deco and Xavi should start again, although I have a hunch one of them could be replaced by Iniesta at around after the hour mark to rest them. No one knows whether it will be Giuly or Messi starting on the right wing. Giuly seems to be in better form but after Rijkaard's remarks announcing that he will be keeping faith with Messi despite his quiet game against Racing I'm not too sure what's going to happen. Rijkaard may want to start Giuly in the Champions League game instead. If Messi does play it will be his first game against Valencia since the 04-05 season, having missed out both times last year through injury and ineligibility respectively. To round things off Ronaldinho and Eto'o will lead the attack, with Gudjohnsen possibly coming off the bench later on for the latter.

My guess as to the starting eleven (4-3-3): Valdes; Zambrotta, Puyol, Marquez, Gio; Deco, Edmilson, Xavi; Messi, Ronaldinho, Eto’o

I remain somewhat unconvinced by the new and improved Barca backline's ability to hold off the likes of the fabulous David Villa and the formidable Morientes, not to mention Vicente and Angulo who have been in such good form. The addition of Zambrotta should help, as long as the central pair have their usual proficient game. The attacking players will do the rest, although it won't be easy against a very strong Valencia defence marshalled by the excellent Roberto Ayala, who can keep world-class forwards quiet for the whole game through tight marking and aerial dominance. They'll have to do better than they have so far, especially that poor initial display against Racing before they picked it up.

No predictions since this game involves my club, but this is the most nervous I've been about a game since the beginning of the season. Barca have done badly against Valencia in the Camp Nou for the past 3 seasons, and there's no denying the potential of the squad Quique Sanchez Flores has managed to assemble. Both clubs will take the game very, very seriously, which should make for a great contest.

Friday, September 22, 2006

the future of Argentina part 3: forwards

This is the last part in my series on the look and shape of the new Argentinean National Team, this time on the forwards. Due to the number of players covered, they've been divided up into two categories - center and second forward. Players are listed by age. At the end I'll sum up their possibilities of being involved with Basile's Argentina and to which extent.

Abbreviations: WYC = World Youth Championship, the U-20 tournament run by FIFA. Held every 2 years and won by Argentina in '95, '97, '01, '05 since Maradona first led his team to win it.

(Note: please take my classification with a pinch of salt, as it's a pretty fine distinction for many of these players.)

center forwards

Julio Cruz (Internationale, Italy) is highly unfortunately to be remembered mostly for coming on for Crespo to little effect in the game against Germany at the World Cup. A veteran of the game at 32, he's only been hovering at the edge of the Argentine squad in the last few years after a great season for Inter, scoring many goals in mostly substitute appearances. It was a choice between him and Diego Milito for the World Cup squad as back-up for Crespo, and he just edged it because of great form leading up to the end of the season. An uncomplaining hard-worker, it's sad that his only World Cup involved only two substitute appearances. At his age surely chances in the NT will be rare at best, although he's a very useful guy to have on the bench.

Hernan Crespo (Internationale, Italy) is the most experienced forward Argentina have currently at international level and probably the best center forward. He has had bouts of erratic form in club football lately and never settled in at Chelsea, but his 29 goals in 54 appearances for Argentina cannot be argued with. The man who took on the heavy mantle of Batigol has done as well as he can be expected to and on current form is certainly Argentina's best option. Joining Inter seems to have sparked off his club career again, some great goals having seen him take the place of Brazillian Adriano in the starting line-up. Must surely be Basile's first choice unless he has other considerations in mind. At 31, though, the Copa America would probably be the extent of his NT career.

Diego Milito (Zaragoza, Spain) has only 3 caps for Argentina. Frankly, I can't understand why. Well, perhaps Crespo's dominance and the fact that he spent two seasons in Serie B with Genoa, but surely someone who has been so excellent for his clubs for the best part of last season deserves a shot? He started at Zaragoza on electric form, notable achievements include a hat-trick against Barcelona in a match Zaragoza won 4-2 and putting 4 (!!!) past Real Madrid in a 6-1 pasting. Sadly both were Cup ties instead of league ones, but with both Spanish giants fielding pretty much the first team those were impressive achievements. Injury troubled him and his form dipped during the latter parts of the season, but frankly the whole club had sunk into a low they couldn't seem to overcome by then. Started this season brightly before getting injured in last week's match. He's 27 years old, just reaching the peak of his powers and in my humble opinion should definitely be given more chances in the battle to succeed Crespo with an eye on 2010.

Luciano Figueroa (Genoa, Italy) cannot be discussed without mentioning Delgado, who I'm going to talk about below. The reason for this is fairly unfortunate - Figueroa doesn't seem to play well without having Delgado as his strike partner. The two did very well together at Rosario Central and in the 2 seasons they were both at Mexican club Cruz Azul. All the other clubs Figueroa has attempted to play for has yelded fairly disastrous results, with perhaps his (very) short spell for River Plate last season an honourable exception. A member of the '04 Olympics-winning team (although I'm not sure he actually played), he somehow has 15 caps and 9 goals for Argentina - not bad, all things considered. It's hard not to admire him moving back to the Argentinean league just to increase his chances of being selected for the World Cup, and it looked like he might have an outside shot until he got a long-term injury. The 25 year old has little chance to play for the NT in the near future, not only because of his Delgado-dependency, but also because he's currently playing in Serie B.

Cesar Delgado (Cruz Azul, Mexico) is the other half of the pairing mentioned above, Figueroa's strike partner at both Rosario Central and Cruz Azul. He's also 25 years old, but there are a couple of key differences between the two. First, Delgado has managed to stay at the Mexican club and is doing fairly well there in his fourth season according to reports. Secondly, he can play well without Figueroa. Partnered Tevez to good effect in the '04 Olympics and has 18 caps for the NT, although his goalscoring record is less than impressive. In terms of talent, though, I think he's a better bet than Figueroa. Basile certainly seems to like him - he was due to be called up for the Brazil friendly until he got injured. Based on that, I'd say he has a good shot of getting into the team in the future.

Fernando Cavenaghi (Spartak Moscow, Russia) was one of the bright young hopes of Argentinean football at River Plate. Top scorer of the '03 South American title winning U-20 side, he was tipped for great things in Europe after an impressive goalscoring record with River in the 03-04 season. Then he moved to Russia and was never heard from again. Actually, that's not true. The problem is that Cavenaghi still hasn't settled in to life at Spartak, two years after moving there. In his first season he scored a mere 6 goals from 25 appearances. Things don't look to be improving this season so far either. It is my fondest hope that he'll secure himself a move out of Russia somehow and regain his form. What a waste if one of the (former) brightest young stars of his generation continues to struggle away from the spotlight. In current form, it would be risky for Basile to call him up, but there's still hope for the 23 year old in the future.

second forwards

Javier Saviola (Barcelona, Spain) is yet another former golden boy of Argentinean football, a story that's becoming sadly common especially amongst playmakers (see: Aimar) and strikers. During two phenomenal years for River Plate as part of a formidable team that also included Aimar, Ortega and Juan Pablo Angel, Saviola confirmed his status as the biggest rising star of his time by finishing the '01 WYC as both Top Scorer and winner of the Golden Ball, a feat that had only previously been accomplished by one man - Diego Maradona, of course. He still holds the all-time top scoring record in the tournament, having bagged 11 goals. After that, it was no surprise when Barcelona came calling.

Sadly, the decision to buy Saviola was made by a President who did not know what he was doing and bought players without consulting his coach (see: Riquelme). That brand of insanity also explains all the contracts of players signed during that era, which contained huge wages and bonuses. To be fair to Saviola, he was pretty good in the 3 seasons he played for Barca. But the problem is that the expectations upon a hugely expensive center forward at a club in such a state of crisis at the time were enormous, and 'pretty good' doesn't suffice. Rijkaard, the new coach, wanted a different kind of player, and the new management wanted to cut costs, so Saviola's transfer saga began. It is necessary to relate all this because that transfer saga is still going on, 2 seasons later. Saviola failed to settle at both clubs he was loaned to, notching up unimpressive goalscoring records. Barca are still trying to sell him, although he has stated his intention to see out the last year of his contract - persumably spending most of his time either on the bench or playing Copa del Rey matches, since he's a fair distance down the striker pecking order.

Anyway, all this hasn't stopped Saviola from reaching 30 caps for Argentina with a good goalscoring record. He was a member of the '04 Olympics squad, had a great start to the World Cup but faded in the match against Mexico and was dumped from the starting line-up against Germany. On form, he's pretty brilliant, but does tend to get into bad patches sometimes and disappear out of games. I actually quite like Saviola, and reportedly his team mates at Barca do too, so if the above sounds frustrated at all, it's only because I think he's put his international career in danger by choosing to stay at Barca. With such fierce and quality competition for his spot, he can't afford to be sitting around. At 25, Saviola should be approaching the peak of his career, and it's sad to see his progress languishing.

Rodrigo Palacio (Boca Juniors, Argentina) is definitely having a much better time with his club by comparison. The 24 year old's career has really taken off in the last 2 seasons, making him one of the most lethal forwards in the Argentinean league. His excellent goalscoring record for Boca led to him being included in the World Cup squad, one of the few Argentina-based players to earn the honour. Unfortunately, he was limited to one substitute appearance against Ivory Coast, where he had to play as the lone striker as coach Pekerman reinforced the midfield by pulling off the other striker Saviola. Still, the big tournament experience can only help him in the future. Palacio only seems to be getting better for Boca, and surely it's only a matter of time before Europe comes calling. Here's hoping he doesn't do a Cavenaghi (see above), since in his current form he has a great shot at being selected for the NT, especially since the coach who has taken him to where he is now picks the Argentinean team.

Carlos Tevez (West Ham, England) or Carlitos, as he prefers to be called, was the main subject of the biggest story of this transfer window. Expectations are mounting on the 22 year old at West Ham, and they are legitimate ones given what he has achieved with his former clubs. After moving to Corinthians as Boca's best player, he scored an impressive 21 goals in 29 games and captained them to the Brazilian title. Carlitos was part of the '03 side that won the South American U-20 title and also an instrumental part of their '04 Olympics victory along with Mascherano, ending the Olympics as top scorer with 8 goals. He's one of the public's favourites, and accordingly has 20 caps, although not all that many goals. A great display at the World Cup earned him further European admirers, although Tevez did not agitate for a move until he fell out first with the fans, then the new coach. I know that Basile admires him, and he's enormously popular so I can't see him not being one of the first choices in the future. The problem is that if he doesn't settle into life in the EPL - and there are no signs yet that he has - a lack of form could see him excluded until he sorts the problem out.

Sergio Aguero (Atletico Madrid, Spain) is the new Romario, the new Maradona or the new Messi, depending on who you ask. He doesn't want to be known as any of those things, naturally, although he's flattered by the comparisons. What he is, is a very, very good prospect for the future. Only 18 this year, he made cameo appearances in the aftementioned '05 WYC, most noticably drawing the penalty which Messi converted (again) to win the match.

'El Kun' became the youngest player to debut in the Argentinean first division at the tender age of 15 years and 35 days old, breaking a record set by - go on, guess - Maradona himself. He really came into his own in the last season, lifting Independiente with his strong runs, passing vision and plenty of goals. The big money move duly came from an Atletico desperate to spend their way out of mid-table mediocrity. He just scored one and made one in their 4-1 win over Athletic Bilbao in his first start to repay their faith and stake his claim for a starting spot. Best newcomer of the season? A good bet, I'd say, especially if he can help his club avoid their typical curse of flattering to deceive.

Him and Messi are an interesting case to consider tactically, especially the similarities to Riquelme and Aimar, albeit this pair play slightly further forward. Aguero has a powerful, accurate shot that Messi can't match which means that he's better suited to play as a forward. Messi, to me, has a better sense of the entire situation, so he's more suitable to play behind the strikers (hence me including him in the midfielders post). Like Riquelme and Aimar, the two are similar, but not so similar that they can't play together. Messi claims that they could do very well together because of their mutual understanding (the two are great pals - another parallel to their predecessors), so that would be interesting to see if Basile ever decides to play them together again when he's got a proper team and some time to work with them (i.e. not like how the friendly with Brazil). I for one hope that they don't end up being each other's substitute, with the result that one is eternally stuck behind the other for a starting place - for an example one need only look to, yet again, Riquelme and Aimar. I am convinced that Aguero can have a bright future in the NT, as long as he's not rushed into it.

Unlikely to feature

Julio Cruz - age is a merciless thing. So is competition.
Luciano Figueroa - I don't think there's that bad a shortage

Javier Saviola - once he slips out of contention, it's going to be hard to get back in

Likely to feature in Qualifying/Copa America

Hernan Crespo - still number one
Diego Milito - deserves a chance
Cesar Delgado - consistent performer, rated by Basile

Rodrigo Palacio - great current form and a Basile favourite
Carlos Tevez - if he finds his feet in the EPL. Too good to waste.
Sergio Aguero - hopefully will be slowly integrated into the team

Likely to feature in 2010

Fernando Cavenaghi - hopefully will regain his form sometime soon

This concludes my series on the future shape of the Argentinean team. I hope Albiceleste fans feel at least a little better about our team's future and non fans derive at least some enjoyment from my ramblings. Any comments you want to make would be great. I'll follow this up later with a post of random observations I've made while compiling this series, mostly about the spread of leagues and past youth team successes.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

David Villa and Lionel Messi likely to be out of Barca-Valencia game

Even if David Villa (and bad goalkeeping) was the reason Barcelona only got a draw and a loss from their fixtures against Valencia last season, this Barca fan is disappointed to hear that he will most likely not be fit for the table-top clash this time round.

There's a slim chance that he will shake off an ankle injury to start, but it seems increasingly likely given his condition that Villa will start the match on the bench instead. It's a shame since he's my favourite Spanish striker. I know that it's easier for us if he doesn't play, but my desire to see him on the pitch isn't at all born out of arrogance. Just a wish to see a good match between two title contenders, one of whom will fall off the top of the table after this game.

Lionel Messi of Barca, on the other hand, seems to have picked up a knock in his left thign in the game against Racing on Sunday. The club physicians aren't sure if he'll be available for Sunday's game, where he'll probably start on the bench if fit.

Poor Santi Ezquerro also hurt himself slightly in training on Tuesday, but since he's nowhere near a starting place right now (and never ever complains about it, bless him) that isn't going to impact on the make up of the Barca squad.

David Albelda believes the Spanish team is too divided and wants to tell the world

Oh, Albelda. You're a great captain for Valencia and so I try to like you, but then you have to go and say things like this.

"Whether Luis Aragones is there or not, it will be very difficult to achieve anything because there is no unity, in fact it is more like disunity," Albelda told Radio Valencia.

"Now people are asking for a change to the players: Carlos Marchena, Juanito, Michel Salgado, Raul and me.

"It seems we are the ones to blame for the failure at the World Cup even though we rarely played."

"The players and the fans are disillusioned. The fans identify more with their clubs, as do the players."

I thought the point was that Aragones forced Raul into a 4-3-3 that was perfectly fine without him for the France game - which was the one they lost? Also his general cluelessness about how to use the numerous world-class central midfielders Spain were fortunate enough to have at their disposal?

Albelda's right about the tendency for fans to call for the dumping of older players because they think the new kid on the block will make a difference - it's a silly, knee-jerk thing a lot of the time, and experience is very useful in big tournaments.

Everyone knows that the Spanish NT has always had divisions amongst the ranks on a club-based level. In fact, from what I'd heard it was better this year than in the past because there were no strongly and loudly opinionated politicals in the squad. It is clear, though, that the elder Real Madrid and Valencia players in particular are in a clique of their own, especially if you saw Raul shrugging off Luis Garcia to go celebrate with the benched Albelda and Santi Canizares when he scored (now there's a rare occurance these days) against Tunisia at the World Cup. The (current and former) Barca players - Xavi, Puyol, Iniesta and Cesc Fabregas - seem to be in their own little group, but I don't know how much of a clique they are.

On the whole, it seems more of a generation gap problem between the elder players who are all familiar with each other and younger ones coming up through the youth teams. I don't really see how complaining about disunity and hinting at the responsible group is going to help restore unity to the team.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Argentine Watch

Hopefully this will become a regular section in which I search various news sources for changes in the status of players in the Argentinean National Team or on the fringe. There's been interesting news regarding two of the players who I covered in my 'future of Argentina' articles.

River Plate goalkeeper German Lux will join Spanish club Real Mallorca in the January transfer window. This would mean that Argentina's 3 top 'keepers (the other two being El Pato in Getafe and Leo Franco in Atletico Madrid) all now play in mid-table La Liga clubs. Or in Mallorca's case, hopefully a mid-table club since they look to be flirting with relegation danger so far. That said, some of their bad results have come because of goalkeeping errors by aptly named veteran stopper Antonio Prats, so maybe Lux can help them stay afloat and avoid the fate of fellow former River 'keeper Constanzo whose club Alaves was relegated last season.

I wrote that former Boca midfielder Federico Insua would probably act as back-up to Maxi Rodrigues and Luis Gonzalez, but apparently not, according to the Argentinean media. They think Basile likes him so much that he'll be the new playmaker. I remain unconvinced that he should and ready to accuse the former Boca boss of anti-River bias if he doesn't give the in-form Aimar and D'Alessandro (both of Real Zaragoza in La Liga) a look-in. The media reckons that Aimar would be second choice behind Insua since they think he hasn't regained his form yet. I'd say he's well on his way, given recent displays in the league.

reflections on the 3rd week of la liga

My thoughts on some of this week's games, beginning with the customary long write-up of Barca's match.

Racing Santander vs Barcelona

Racing Santander (4-4-2): Tono - Luis Fernandez, Oriol, Pinillos, Ruben - F. Melo, Vitolo, Colsa (A. Tomas), C. Alvarez (Juanjo 56') - Munitis, Zigic (Aganzo 71')

FC Barcelona (4-3-3): Valdes - Zambrotta, Márquez, Puyol (Oleguer 62'), Sylvinho - Edmilson, Xavi, Deco - Messi (Giuly 64'), Eto'o (Gudjonsen 79'), Ronaldinho.

0-1 Eto'o (18')
0-2 Giuly (83')
0-3 Ronaldinho, pen. (92')

The Goals

The scoreline makes the game seem more of a walkover than it actually was. The other 3-0 against Osasuna - now, that was an actual walkover. Osasuna played much worse than Levski Sofia did and would have lost by a bigger margin than the Bulgarian side did if Barca hadn't laid off in the second half.

I think it's fair to say, though, that Barca never really bossed this game until what Eto'o called his 'accidental' goal. He also confessed to be uncomfortable with shots from outside the box (our midfielders are more into those), so the piledriver that was fumbled by Racing 'keeper Tono was purely speculative.

The goal did open up the game, though, and both teams had their chances, with all three Barca forwards shooting wide at least once, Ronaldinho guilty of a bad miss after Messi played him through, but the Argentine also shot over when presented with a chance on a plate by Tono.

Giuly came on for the utilitarian Messi, worked his ass off and was rewarded with a great goal of a Ronaldinho pass, breaking through what seemed like the entire Racing defence and slotting home.

The third came near the end of the game, when Gudjohnsen - who hadn't really been all that involved since coming on - went on a barnstorming run and was bought down by poor Tono inside the box. Ronaldinho made no mistake with the penalty against emergency keeper Melo, putting a sheen on the scoreline that Racing could really have done without.


Barca had 4 on the field at the beginning of the match, two in midfield and two up front. Xavi had his usual quietly effective passing game. He's an interesting contrast with Deco in that he doesn't tackle as much, but never wastes a ball. The accuracy of his passing is incredible, too. Deco is the more flamboyant of the two and did more of the dirty work, setting up play and taking shots on goal with seemingly endless energy. I expected Iniesta instead of him for this match, but he's so important to this team that it's going to be hard resting him.

The playmaking forwards, Messi and Ronaldinho, had games that were fairly similar to their midfield counterparts, setting up play, passing well and getting stuck in when they needed to, but for them that's not enough. Sitting deeper will never earn them accolades since they're expected to score goals.


I rarely have cause to criticize the Barca offense, and perhaps it's odd to start now when we won 3-0. However, it has to be said that but for wastefulness in front of goal, the game would have been settled before half-time. I think every midfielder and forward missed at least a decent chance each. None of them were quite sitters, but there was definitely too much wastefulness in front of goal.


Samuel Eto'o has 3 assists from the last 4 matches - making him the player with the most assists as well as the top scorer of Barca. People talk about his goals, and yes, they're brilliant, but his game has developed into far more than just that.

It was noted after the game that Ronaldinho and Eto'o - both of whom have been criticized for being selfish in the past - had chances, and passed to a team mate in a better position instead of going for goal.

It was also good to see all the attacking players throw themselves into getting the ball back after they lose possession. Messi in particular has long had this habit, sometimes giving chase even into the opponent's box and demonstrating his surprising physical strength in muscling defenders off the ball. Eto'o has also improved enormously in this respect, at one point chasing an opponent and trapping him against the byline with Zambrotta until he had to kick the ball out.


After a shocker in the first league match, conceding 2 goals in fairly routine situations, the defence has been much improved in the last 3 games. Zambrotta is settling in well, his attacking runs always look threatening and he's beginning to combine with Messi in particular on the right wing. What amazes me about him is his speed at getting back into position after an attacking run and also his great technique, which was showcased in this game. In one move he held off 3 defenders near the byline, controlling the ball with a series of dummies and touches until help arrived. I think he's really going to enjoy showing a different aspect of himself than the ones most priced in Serie A, which we know he has in spades - discipline, positioning and physical condition.

Puyol and Marquez are reliable as always, somehow keeping big man Zigic quiet even though neither of them are what you'd call tall. Captain Caveman gave his typical all-action performance, and it was good to see him back in form. Rijkaard's rotation magic strikes again. Marquez was very, very impressive, particularly dealing with aerial balls. Thankfully after a forgettable game against Celta he's back to his consistent best. I was so happy when he finally got the recognition he deserved during the World Cup. Mexico's greatest player since Sanchez? I think so. It's always reassuring to have those two patrolling the back.

The same cannot be said of my feelings towards Oleguer, but he did fine coming on for Puyol, and even with him and Marquez Barca never looked uncomfortable defensively. A lot of Barca fans are very harsh on him, but he's not bad in the league.

Sylvinho gave an impressive performance offensively, combining well with Ronaldinho - but I've said that about every game he's played this season. He is in good form and looks like getting more chances this time after not featuring all that much last season. Still not sure I'd pick him if I wanted Barca's best backline defensively, but offers more than Gio currently when going forward.

I'll mention Edmilson here, since his job is mainly defensive. The majority of Barca fans think that he should be the first choice holding midfielder, and it's not hard to see why. Where Motta could perhaps use more experience, Edmilson is assured, tidy and effective. I'm not sure who's better going forward, but Edmilson is definitely better right now overall.

Above all of that, though, the defence was organised for the majority of the game - aside from the opening 10 minutes or so - which is not only great for us fans to see, but a rare occurance. I haven't seen Barca look this assured at the back for a long time, even more so when Thuram is playing, owing to what a Chinese fan called his imitation of the Great Wall.


To me, despite all the hype Barca have yet to completely hit their stride. In patches of the first half we saw the team at its best, especially around the 20 to 40 minute mark, when they managed to play one-touch passing, quick and fluid pure football, with plenty of individual flair thrown in. I believe the full expression of it will come, after the large squad have all gotten used to playing with each other in their designated roles.

The evidence that I rely on for this is the great atmosphere within the team despite the media's best attempts to stir up conflict with the non-existent "controversy" over Ronaldinho being "dropped" - he was, of course, injured - and Eto'o's tantrum. All the rested players have behaved admirably about their status, and all the new signings have indicated acceptance of the rules this Barcelona is built on, which is that you don't get to play all the games automatically and lapses of discipline are punished no matter how famous you are.

It is telling that Eto'o went straight over to Rijkaard after his goal and hugged him, and also that he went down the line touching all the benched players' hand after he was substituted. Everytime shots cut over to the Barca bench, we see players who are either intent on the match - Puyol being the most obvious example - or laughing and joking with each other (the Brazilians, mostly, and Gio).


Some people say that Rijkaard doesn't need to be a great coach because he's got such a good team of players. Tell that to Real Madrid's various coachs during the last 2 years. Tell that to under-fire Inter coach Mancini. Maybe former assistant coach Ten Cate was the tactical mastermind behind so many great, game-saving substitutes - we'll see whether that's true this year after he left - but there's no doubt that Rijkaard is the one keeping a group of very talented but potentially violatile players happy and motivated. A handy talent that many would no doubt like to have - Sven, for example.


Barcelona enjoyed 77% possession, more than double the number of shots and 90% accuracy in passing. It's that last statistic that I'm most impressed by. Barca always dominate possession and almost always take more shots. But given the double substitution made around the hour mark and Gudjohnsen coming on later on, it's good to see that the passing game is working as well as ever.

On a different note, what a card-happy referee that was. 9 bookings in a not particularly violent game is too much.


This season has seen squad rotations of even greater scale than last season, reflecting both the upcoming nightmare schedule and the increased depth of the team. I wholeheartedly approve of Rijkaard's choices even if it means some of my favourite players getting dropped. The only way to ensure that the benched players don't feel aggrieved is to show that no one is immune to being dropped if they play badly. Almost all the big names have been rotated so far this season with the exception of Deco and Eto'o, even the previously untouchable captain Puyol.

I have a feeling that Deco will get rested soon, or at least be pulled off at around the hour mark again as he was against Osasuna. As for Eto'o, if we had a substitute who could produce results like he does, he would get more rest. As it is, Gudjohnsen hasn't quite clicked into the team yet, so he's reduced to substitute appearances at around the hour mark or after that. Eto'o took substitution very well against Santander, which is a good sign when he is actually rested.


I hope not. Puyol was substituted because he picked up a knock, though. Eto'o was also kicked around pretty thoroughly, although he doesn't look to be injured.


They started brightly, but became aimless after the first 15 minutes and were crap for the rest of the first half. In the second half they were much improved and played a more physical, tighter marking game, especially when taking advantage of Barcelona's double substitution before they could settle. Lots of fouls, but that's what the lower ranked teams should be doing against teams like Barca and Madrid.

I will predict that they'll struggle for this season and be in relegation danger again, not only on account of not having won any matches or scored any goals so far. If the hallmark of champions is the ability to win even when you don't deserve to (see: Chelsea) then the hallmark of relegation battlers is losing points at the last gasp when they don't deserve to (see: Watford). Atletico coach Aguirre admitted after their opening home against Santander that they were extremely fortunate to win 1-0. It was a similar story with Getafe, where Santander also lost 1-0. That combined with their inability to take chances against Barca may turn out to be the story of their season.


Enough. Samuel Eto'o is a brilliant player who happens to be black. Attack him if you must, but why bring race into it? Once again, some Racing fans bring the whole league into disrepute.

Athletic Bilbao vs Atletico Madrid

El Kun

Everybody said he was great, even though most of them had not seen him play before. Of course Sergio Aguero is a great player - anyone who can carry a team in the Argentinean first division at the age of 17 is. But now Spain has seen what he can do, and they're raving about the kid who scored one and was involved in 2 other goals in the 4-1 thrashing of Athletic. The new Messi? If you mean 'amazing amounts of hype around talented Argentinean youngester', then yeah, sure. Here's hoping he can bring some consistency to Atletico.

El Nino

Atletico's victory will have raised questions about just how vital Fernando Torres is to the side, contrary to previous assumptions by some that he was the only thing holding the team up. He may find that the new Atletico under Aguirre needs him less and less. Maybe he really does need to leave his childhood team if he really wants to improve.


What can you say? Crisis time, definitely. There were white hankys waved and calls for the resignation of the club President at the game itself. Something needs to be done or they're going to be in a relegation battle again by the end.

Sevilla vs Real Betis


To me, they could be title challengers if they resist the temptation to sell players like Daniel Alves to Real Madrid. Of the two fixtures they have before Barcelona, I don't expect Getafe to really test them especially playing away, but the game against Atletico next week in the Calderon should be very interesting indeed, given the thrashing they administered to Athletic Bilbao. If Atletico can beat Sevilla, then they'll look far more convincing challengers for a UEFA Cup or even Champions League spot.


That Rafael Sobis - what a good piece of business for Betis. 2 goals in the Seville derby against a very good Sevilla team isn't bad at all. Considering Joaquin's unimpressive display for Valencia and how much cash Betis got out of the transfer, maybe that wasn't such a loss either.

Real Madrid vs Real Sociedad


You can take the coach out of Italy, but you can't take...okay, that was harsh. But 4-5-1 against Sociedad? At home? Fielding his two arguably most out of form players in Guti and Raul? Not playing the improving Cassano? At least his decision to bring on Robinho for Emerson was good and helped turn the game in Madrid's favour, otherwise the boos at the beginning of the game might have turned into white hankys by the end.


Unfortunately still crap.


I didn't think he was the player at the top of the 'should be dropped' list (see above), but apparently Capello did. Still, at least he came on and scored a goal. Reyes does look rather more lively in that midfield position, and on the evidence of that game can bend it - freekicks, that is - just as well, so maybe he should be worried.

Next week

The table-top clash of Barca and Valencia means that at least one leading team will fall off the pace by the time the dust settles. It's a great chance for Real to leap frog one or both of their big rivals if they can win their game against Betis, who aren't doing too badly themselves. They've lost two games, but considering the opponents - Valencia and Sevilla - and the close results of both games, it's actually a pretty good start for them. Atletico have a good chance to get themselves into the top 6 if they can beat leaders Sevilla, but it's a big ask for an inconsistent team. And besides, Fernando Torres will be back which means no Aguero, at least if coach Aguirre continues to put his faith in inconsistent Mista instead.

Deportivo and Zaragoza will both be looking to move up the table, Deportivo with the easier job away to Levante, and Zaragoza taking on the out-of-sorts Villarreal. It's true that Levante are higher in the standings, but to me Villarreal are more of a quality team, and if they can shake off their customary early-season slump, then they could give Zaragoza a run for their money. This season is a bit odd for me as it is now this clash instead of the Valencia derby which features the Argentinean 'golden generation' midfield pair, Pablo Aimar and Juan Roman Riquelme. It would be interesting to see which of these part-time magicians end up shining more brightly.

As for Barca, given my success predicting the starting line-up this week, I'll venture forward with who I think should start against Valencia.

(4-3-3): Valdes; Zambrotta, Puyol, Marquez, Gio; Edmilson, Deco, Xavi; Giuly, Eto'o, Ronaldinho. Substitutes would probably include Iniesta at some point for Xavi or Deco for the sake of energy conservation for Bremen and Messi for Giuly after the hour mark, since the flying Frenchman runs out of steam sometime around then.

The backline is what I feel to be our best defensive combination against a team with considerable attacking threat. Sylvinho's been playing well, but he's not as good defensively as Gio. Same with Belletti and Zambrotta. Thuram is left out because I think he'll be needed more in the Champions League match against Bremen mid-week. Edmilson should start instead of Motta because he's more defensively sound, Deco, Xavi and Giuly because they're all in good form, Giuly in particular. He can have his off patches, but this isn't one of them. Messi on the other hand hasn't really looked the force he was last season, with Rijkaard stating that he wants to bed Messi in slowly after that niggling injury so that he gets back to top form. I think that's very wise, especially since the Argentine makes such a devastating supersub.

Nightmare schedule

If Barca are to stumble, it will probably be in the next month or so, with an amazingly difficult run of fixtures. First, Valencia visit the Camp Nou next week. Then there's the mid-week game against Bremen away in the Champions League. Away to Bilbao on the 1st of October should be a breather if they continue their current poor form, but one never knows with them. After that Barca host their European Super Cup conquerors Sevilla on the 15th and will be hoping for revenge against the current in-form team of La Liga. But that's not all. Chelsea await in the Champions League on the 18th as the team goes back to Stamford Bridge, and if they survive all that, Real Madrid will surely prove a stern test in the Bernabeu on the 22nd.

Phew, I'm tired just looking at that list. And a bit worried. I wouldn't mind Rijkaard throwing the Sevilla game by playing a weaker team if we could be at full strength against Chelsea and Real, quite frankly. But I guess that also depends on whether or not Sevilla lose between now and then.