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 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
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.
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.
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.
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.