Wednesday, September 27, 2006

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).

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