Thursday, September 14, 2006

CL group stage: Barcelona vs Levski Sofia

Barcelona (4-3-3): Valdes; Gio van Bronckhorst, Thuram (79' Oleguer), Puyol, Belletti; Motta, Iniesta (72' Xavi), Deco; Giuly (63' Gudjohnsen), Ronaldinho, Eto'o

Levski Sofia (4-2-3-1): Petkov; S Angelov, Topuzakov, Tomasic, Milanov; Borimirov (62' Nikolov), Eromoigbe; E Angelov (45' G Ivanov), Bardon, Telkiyski; Yovov (69' M Ivanov)

Goals: 7' Iniesta, 39' Giuly, 49' Puyol, 58' Eto'o, 90' Ronaldinho

Firstly - man, now that's some rain.

Despite the weather there was a fair deal of crowd noise and a good atmosphere for the first CL game of the season - a pleasant surprise, I must say.

Levski put up a good fight and initially looked tight at the back. That might sound a little absurd, but it is true - they did very well in patches of the first half defending with numbers rather than man-marking. I was not impressed with them playing on after one of their players had committed a fairly horrific challenge on Gio, have to say. Andres Iniesta (who by the way the Chinese fans call the 'young white one') is probably similarly unimpressed after he was kneed in the crown jewels while fighting for the ball, although it looked unintentional.

I wasn't convinced by Barca's possession play in the first half - they lost the ball far too often, and while the rain may have been a factor, they started doing it even before the rain had set in - or their shooting. Where was the 'we net every one in two chances' efficiency? Much improved after the break, but they were 2-0 up by then.

Granted, Barca didn't play their best eleven - not that anyone actually knows what that would be, but my guess is that despite Rijkaard's regard for Motta as a player, he wouldn't be in it. On current form Sylvinho might nip in ahead of Gio, Zambrotta would probably be picked over Belletti and maybe Messi instead of Giuly. Speaking of which...

Poor Giuly, increasingly marginalized because of Messi's form - and, it has to be said, his own fairly below-par display in the first league game against Celta - played his heart out, as usual, and ran himself down after a hour, as usual. His goal was well taken, utilizing his strengths to great effect. As much as I love watching Messi play, Giuly is still the better finisher of the two, at least for now, although the Argentine is improving in that respect. Easy to forget amongst all the hype about Messi's talent that he's still only 19 years old and far from the finished article.

The first goal was a lovely combined effort, just like the goal that opened the scoring in the last match. Iniesta's finish was excellent. He's rapidly climbing my list of favourites after great displays against Celta in the league and an energetic game this time round. He makes runs, tackles, passes brilliantly and even scores the odd goal - well on his way to becoming the next 'complete midfielder' after Deco, who also had a good, if utilitarian game linking up play. Very heartening for the future of Barcelona, as long as those Madrid rumours (in the case of Iniesta) continue to be just rumours.

Ronaldinho displayed his dazzling array of tricks and scored a fantastic goal as he does for Barca on a regular basis, but what I was most impressed by was his workrate, challenging for 50/50 balls, running after a ball that looks like going out and helping out the defence. Complacency would be the most deadly disease for him right now and for Barca as a whole, and it's nice to see no signs of it so far, barring that awful European Super Cup game.

That goes for Eto'o as well, who was all over the pitch and tried very hard to take the ball back on many occasions, proving that 1) he's still got that great mindset and work ethic praised by Rijkaard after the last game, and 2) he wouldn't make a very good defender. His goal was a great solo effort in which he wrongfooted no less than three defenders gathered around him, although the 'keeper could possibly have done better since the shot itself didn't have that much power on it.

Great to see Puyol get on the scoreboard. The last time I remember him scoring was in another 5 goal blowout, that time of Real Sociedad in the league last season at the beginning of that wonderful winning streak. Everyone knows that his commitment is unparalleled, but he's actually got great technique on the ball as well, as those who saw the lead-up to Fernando Torres' goal in the World Cup game against Ukraine can testify. That tackle he took in the second half looked pretty nasty; I hope he doesn't pick up a niggling injury. It has to be said that he didn't look his best quite yet; in fact, Marquez with Thuram might work better right now, form-wise, but what Barca get from having Puyol on the field is a lot more than just a central defender. That said, it would be nice if Rijkaard never had to play Puyol and Oleguer together in central defence again. I think Oleguer's a great guy, but have yet to be convinced by his defending, especially at center-back and especially in Europe.

Belletti I always have my doubts about defensively, but he played well on the attack, linking with particularly Ronaldinho and defensively wasn't really tested. No big problems, so that's good. Thuram continued to defy his age by putting in two impressive performances only 3 days apart from each other. I actually thought he'd be rested, but maybe for the next league game. He's going to be so crucial for Barca in Europe later on in the season, here's hoping he doesn't tire out too much before then.

The new boys are proving quite popular, if the chants of 'Gudjohnsen, Gudjohnsen' (just one more syllable than the much-chanted 'Larsson, Larsson' in the last two years) when he came on and the standing ovation Thuram got when he was subbed off are any indication.

Lastly, I have to say that some of the offside calls were extremely harsh on both sides. Also Thuram did very well with that last-ditch tackle inside the box, but a different ref might have given a penalty even though he did actually get the ball.

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