Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Musings on the second round la liga games

Atletico Madrid 0-1 Valencia

...what did I say about Fernando Torres in my last post? Add to the against column 'not very good as a captain', since captains are supposed to stop their players from starting stupid arguments with the referee instead of indulging in the stupidity he should be keeping others from.

Now that I've said that, though, he's probably going to score a hat-trick when Spain play Argentina in October.

In current form he's certainly a better central striker than Raul, but I'm not convinced he's worth pushing David Villa out to the wings for - especially after Villa scored what turned out to be the winning goal for Valencia.

Sergio Aguero made his competitive debut at home and looked good, prompting more media pressure on the Atletico coach to play him instead of Mista with Torres. He had a couple of good efforts cleared off the line by fellow Argentinean, the generally scary and very impressive Roberto Ayala, one of my favourite defenders.

Objectively it's probably a good idea to ease Aguero into La Liga with the substitute appearances he's been making instead of throwing him in at the deep end, given the past history of other Argentinean stars not settling down in Spain in their first season. That said, though, given Torres' suspension for the next game, maybe we will finally see Aguero play the full 90. He needs to be playing regularly if he wants to make the next Argentinean NT, at least according to Basile's loud disclaimer that he would not be picking players based on reputation.

There has been speculation that the remark was aimed towards the well-known youngsters - like Tevez, for example, or more pointedly the insanely popular Messi. Which brings me onto the next match.

Barcelona 3-0 Osasuna

I was very, very relieved that Barca won this match and won it comfortably. Getting the three points in the last round was not enough to silence the circling vultures otherwise known as the sporting press, but this will surely help. Poor Osasuna though, what a rough start to the season after losing their very impressive coach (who guided them to a fourth place finish last season) to the aftementioned Atletico. First being dumped out of the Champions League by Hamburg, then losing their first two matches.

This was an important win for Barca, especially with the first Champions League game in the undisputed group of death coming up. The team played well in the first half, but eased off in the second - fair enough, given that they were up by 3 goals and Osasuna only had 2 or 3 good chances for the whole match.

For Barca, scoring the first break-through goal seems to be the vital thing. After that things become much easier, since the other team have to come out looking for an equaliser instead of just parking the bus. Before that first goal comes it can be very frustrating not being able to penetrate despite having overwhelming amounts of possession. Case in point is the same fixture last season, where Barca couldn't score until the second half and eventually came away 3-0 winners, the first goal freeing them up to play their usual game. Fortunately, then, the opening goal for Barca came after just 90 seconds this time.

Eto'o had a great match, scoring two lovely goals and setting up the third for Messi. I love watching him - he's obviously a bit barking mad, but what a player. Blazingly fast, lethal in front of goal, and industrious too - even if his attempts at defending aren't the most impressive, at least he tries hard. Ronaldinho turned in a workman like performance with the occasional flourish, as did Messi, Deco and Xavi.

Further special mention must be made of the Argentinean wonderkid, though. The Chinese commentator on CCTV5 had barely finished doubting his touch in front of goal when he scored what one site described as a 'cheeky' goal by drilling the ball precisely between the legs of the 'keeper. Frequently dogged by doubts from the chattering classes ever since his debut for Barca, first on whether he was too young to be a starter, too physically weak, too inexperienced for the big stage, and lately, after all that has been dispelled, about his shooting ability. Admittedly 6 goals in La Liga last season isn't very impressive, but factoring in the minutes he actually got to play in between being injured and being disqualified it's not all that bad. Before his long injury lay-off against Chelsea he had even been on a bit of a scoring streak, with 5 goals in 4 games. Still, his finishing was pretty suspect, netting difficult chances but blowing some easy ones.

Messi is 2 for 2 so far this season, above and beyond any expectations I had. Barca doesn't rely on him to supply goals, especially when Eto'o is around, but it would be very good for the team if he could start scoring not only pretty goals but mundane ones as well.

Moving on, the defence deserves some scrutiny for this match. Puyol was rested for the first time in forever, which would have been a momentous decision by Rijkaard, since we lost the last 5 games we played without him. I say would have been, because it actually was made a lot easier by the presence of venerable French defender Lilian Thuram. Puyol had given his all - as usual - in Spain's match against Northern Ireland, picked up a few knocks and was exhausted. He had also played somewhat poorly if reports are to be believed.

Confession time: I really like Thuram, for his wire-frame-glasses-wearing, eloquent, conscientious persona as much as for his excellence on the field. He played the full 90 minutes alongside French-speaking Rafa Marquez in central midfield against Osasuna and gave a wonderful performance, repelling pretty much everything thrown at him and even throwing in a couple of flair moves. Case in point: a well-timed, clean tackle to rob Raul Garcia on the edge of the box, and then a backheel clearance. You'd never believe he's 34 years old.

Zambrotta, the younger and more recently world-cup-winning of the former Juventus pair, also played well, occasionally chipping in to the attack. Of the two, he's more liable to give away freekicks, sometimes needlessly. Poor guy needs to adapt to the Spanish definition of what a foul is after giving away the freekick that led to the equalizing goal in the last game against Celta. Works brilliantly with Thuram, though, as you'd expect. Barca fans are eagerly awaiting the formation of an attacking partnership with Messi down the right, and the early signs look good, even if they don't even speak the same language yet.

Marquez had his usual solid game, working well with Thuram (helpful that they have a common language, at least) and contributing dangerous passes into the midfield and the attack. Sylvinho was very impressive offensively with great runs down the left and defensively unperturbed by poor Soldado, Osasuna's lone striker up front. I don't know how Rijkaard is going to rotate him with Gio in this form. Valdes...was Valdes. Good reflex saves, but never feels quite assured when there are crosses to be dealt with and inconsistent with his distribution.

It's all systems go, looks like, for the Champions League game versus Levski Sofia.

Other results that caught my interest

Getafe won again against Racing Santander (1-0) - Bernard Schuster is a true miracle worker. Tiny budget, players picked from the second division? No problem. Signing hard-to-spell Argentinean NT goalkeeper 'Pato' Abbondanzieri (I just had to go and look it up) was a great move. Contrary to reputation, he's actually very, very good. Adept with crosses, excellent distributor, calm under pressure and has an incredible record with penalty shootouts - not that Getafe are going to need that last much.

Real Madrid thrashed newly promoted Levante (1-4), who were fresh from a beating by Sevilla in the last round. Ruud van Nistelrooy had a hat-trick, despite missing a penalty. A good day for Real after the bore-draw that was their last round match with Villarreal.

Speaking of which, the Yellow Submarines somehow contrived to lose to Recreativo (0-1). They really need to pick themselves up soon if they want to go back to Europe next year, because the competition looks pretty fierce.

Sevilla, one of the competition, won again (1-3) against Real Sociedad. They're really looking good after thrashing off-colour Barca 3-0 in the European Super Cup and winning their first two games comfortably. And all that after losing 3-0 in pre-season to Manchester United, which...I won't comment on.

Zaragoza won 3-0 against Espanyol, in a game which contained nearly as many Argentineans as an Internationale or Villarreal training session. Zaragoza won despite having defender Ponzio sent off fairly early on. Pablo Aimar scored the opener, and their other big signing Andres D'Alessandro also played well. Their second was scored by striker Diego Milito. Espanyol's best chance in the second half - in which they too had a man sent off - came from Pablo Zabaleta, one of my favourite young players. I mention the above names because they're all Argentinean.

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