Sunday, October 29, 2006

The Football Press: the bad

I was going to write a post saying nice things about the few good football journalists around, but two recent offerings from the normally quite sane Guardian Football pages has ensured that I'll start my 'the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly' series about the football press with the bad.

First, this incredibly over-the-top piece about just how depressed David Beckham is and how much his life sucks right now at Real Madrid. I'm not the biggest Real or England fan, but I've never had anything against Becks. He's honest, he's hard-working, he can still whip in a mean cross and he's great at set pieces. The Real supporters love him, as much for the grit as anything else. He's still England's best passer, as far as I'm concerned.

What John Carlin writes about Beckham's status at Real this season is fairly accurate. What I find distasteful is the crowing 'ha, look at him now' tone. Witness the last sentence:

If Beckham did not realise it before, he does now: you can be rich and handsome and famous and have three healthy children and a beautiful wife, but you can also be sad.

To which I can only say - what did Beckham ever do to you? To put that quote in context, here's this gem, which commits one of the most irritating sins a football journalist is capable of. That is, sprouting bullshit about a player or coach's mental state and claiming to know their deepest thoughts from their body language or clothes or something else equally inane (e.g. the handwringing about Wayne Rooney before he stormed back to form).

But his eyes said much more than that. The booking was merely the pretext, the occasion for venting a steaming churn of bottled-up feelings. There was anger and frustration, but there was sadness, too, and hurt. Towards those - such as the new Real coach, Fabio Capello - who have scorned him; towards himself for having lacked the foresight or self-knowledge to leave sooner; towards life, for being cruel.

I have no words. Well, a couple. Did he perhaps read Beckham's diary? Or better yet, look so deeply into the Englishman's anguished eyes that he read Beckham's soul?

Moving on. The subject of my second rant involves two of my favourite young Argentinean players, Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano, so I'm not unbiased. I do need to start by saying that the piece by Amy Lawrence which sparked this particular rant isn't actually that bad. It's a balanced assessment of West Ham's problems, and well worth a read. But it is very useful in reflecting an alarming trend in articles about the Hammers' problems. Very sensibly, Amy writes:

But maybe it is madness to judge the Argentines on their performances thus far.

Let me think. How about...YES. Yes, it is. Even more insane, though, is the insinuation, bordering on xenophobic, that the arrival of the Argentineans is the direct cause of the club's problems. Let me emphasize that. Direct cause, meaning they are personally to blame.

The reason I mention xenophobia is the tone of many articles - go on, have a look for any article about West Ham's problems, they're all similar - which seems to go like this: 1) West Ham was great when it was all traditionally English, 2) these dirty foreigners came in, 3) they threatened the Englishness of the club and 4) now everything's gone to hell, it must be because of the foreign influence.

The far more likely explanation that Amy touches on is second-seasonitis. There's also the suspicion that many of their key players from last season simply haven't shown up this time.

One other suggestion favoured by pundits is the takeover speculation having unsettled everyone at the club. I can see how that might work in the case of the training and coaching staff, but not the players. How many footballers give a toss who their boss is? Barcelona won their first Spanish title in 6 years during the 04-05 season while a full boardroom war was going on, while Real Madrid went on a great run during the second half of 05-06 even though they had 3 different Presidents during that time.

Lastly, these guys are 22 years old. They're not the most worldly or experienced players around, certainly not enough to turn a club's fortunes around by themselves. Neither of them speak English - Carlitos even had trouble mastering Portuguese when he was in Brazil, so it's going to take him a while. Neither has started more than 3 matches for the Hammers so far. Carlitos is nowhere near form, or even fitness, while poor Mascherano...I'm not sure he knows what he's supposed to be doing out there. Watch the way he played for Argentina in the World Cup, and you'll see why he was so highly rated, but none of that so far. Pardew is a crowd-pleaser: when people said the Argentineans were the problem, he stopped using them. Didn't make a lick of difference.

It's very frustrating for me personally, because I hate to see young Argentine talent have their careers stall overseas (see also Cavenangi, Fernando and Saviola, Javier). It's even more annoying when 2 young men completely new to the country and everything about it get blamed for a whole club's incapability.

I'll end with this:

Burkinshaw feels Tevez and Mascherano could enjoy similar success, but only if people are more patient with them.

He explained: "They are already writing these lads off, (saying) they shouldn't be here any longer and get rid of them.

"They haven't had a chance have they?"

Sensible words from the man who bought Osvaldo Ardiles and Ricardo Villa to the Premiership.

On a related note, when your opponent bites you in the middle of a football match, how is it possible for you to be painted as the bad guy?

Barca miscellany

Sorry for the lack of posts. I promise it's not because Barca lost El Gran Classico. As I've mentioned before on the sidebar, I do have an academic life to tend to. That means exams around this time, and that combined with being sick as a...well, something really sick - led to the lack of posting.

I did have half a post about the Real v Barca game all written, but it's been a week and the whole thing is outdated now. Some thoughts on all matters Barca below. There's also another post in the works about a couple of Argentina-related matters.

Thomas at Forca Barca has a little round-up which contains a great assessment of Rijkaard's style as manager. This is why I like the Dutchman so much. He's a breath of fresh air that way. It's also why he's the man I'd put most faith in to lead the team out of any bad patches.

Moving on, I'm getting slightly frustrated with the lack of significant playing time for Saviola. I know that he fell out of favour with our sporting director in his last season at the club before being farmed out, but that shouldn't matter when one can clearly see that he links better with the other strikers and with the midfield than Gudjohnsen does. Saviola has a superb understanding with Ronaldinho and Xavi, in particular. Obviously I'm not unbiased, since I'm quite fond of El Conejo, but surely letting go of the past and giving him more chances is better for the team as a whole?

Finally, on a lighter note, I'd like to voice my approval of young Thiago Motta's new hair this season - much improved upon the monstrosity that was last season's mop. Now, if only he could do the same with his tackling...

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Real v Barca - the preview

There's been a lot said about what mood both clubs will take into this game, most of it nonsense. First it was how downcast and easy pickings Real would be after their shock 1-0 loss last weekend to Getafe, and now it's how bad Barcelona are after they lost 1-0 to two-times Premiership champs Chelsea. Of course, most of it is just hype played up by the press. Every quote is used out of context and exaggerated in order to conform to a certain narrative. In a game like this, the form book goes out of the window. You can never tell what's going to happen.

If Barca win this game, they'll be 8 points clear of Real - an excellent position from which to build. If Real win, they'll still be 2 points off Barca, but it will inject some much needed confidence into Capello's side, at least where the league is concerned.

Real Madrid

Possible line-up (4-2-1-3):

Ramos--Helguera--Cannavaro--R Carlos
------------Van Nistelrooy

*May be dropped for Reyes, although I can't see why on current form. Beckham should come in as a substitute at some point as well.

Contrary to claims that Real have yet to find their system, Capello's starting XI seems nailed on, except for the one uncertainty I indicated above. It's an effective formation, defensively solid with the personnel indicated above, not to mention threatening in attack through the lethal finishing of Van Nistelrooy, the pace and trickery of Robinho and Raul, and of course the intelligence of El Rey - Raul.


Possible line-up (4-3-3):


*Could be rotated for Oleguer
**Could be used in the holding position, with Thuram dropping in to partner Puyol
***May be rested in favour of Motta or even Marquez
****May be too tired out from playing 90 minutes against both Sevilla and Chelsea. If so, will be replaced by Giuly, and may appear as a supersub.
*****Could be subbed out for Saviola at some point.

In contrast to Real, Barca have a settled system but a lot of uncertainty about personnel because of the rotation system employed by coach Rijkaard. They've had harder fixtures than Real over the last week and those who played both league and CL games will probably be exhausted. I'm sure Rijkaard will take that into consideration.

The truth is, no one knows what's going to happen when possibly the biggest club rivalry in the world is played out. Am I worried? Sure. But let's hope for a good, even game, decided by moments of beauty.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Homage to Henke

I've been wanting to write this post for a long time, and it's probably a good time to do it when Barca are missing him so badly. I know that Celtic fans loved Henrik Larsson for his many contributions during 7 starring seasons there. That's not surprising. What is surprising is that he only played 40 games for Barca in 2 seasons there, but he left as the third most popular player - just after Ronaldinho and club symbol Carles Puyol - in a team full of stars.

Larsson himself confessed to being surprised at how quickly the supporters took to him. I think our admiration of Henke stems from both his contributions on the field and behaviour off it. Even in the very beginning, there was something romantic about a man who had displayed remarkable loyalty to his old club through the years by doing that rare thing, seeing out a long contract, and finishing his glittering career with a couple of years at Barca, where he could prove his last remaining doubters wrong about his ability to excell at the very top level.

From his first home appearance, the crowds were won over by his great work ethic. The constant supply of goals didn't hurt either. Then he suffered a horrific and almost career-ending knee injury in Barca's home match with Real, a triumph marred by potential tragedy. There were rumours that the injury would force the 34 year old to retire. One of the best decisions Barca president Laporta has ever made was to offer him an unconditional contract extension at that point, as he lay in hospital. Then Larsson insisted that he was going to get through the long and hard physical rehab process and come back as soon as possible. This invoked a great response from supporters.

In his first game back from that injury, the Camp Nou rose as one to applaud Larsson as he ran onto the field. It was a wonderful moment.

Larsson's second season in Spain was marked by the lack of first team chances, as young Samuel Eto'o continued his blistering form and Lionel Messi began to challenge for a starting place on the right wing. However, he never complained about being on the bench and was in fact a model of professional behaviour, not to mention humility, to the many younger players at Barca.

When he did get the chance to play, he grabbed it with both hands, racking up an impressive goals to games ratio in any of 3 different positions on the forward line. Despite starting very few times, he still ended up with 10 goals in the league in the 05-06 season. And all this even though he'd announced in December of 2005 that he was leaving the club at the end of the season. His last home game was against Espanyol, and appropriately enough it was the game in which Barca were presented with the league trophy. 15 minutes before the final whistle he was substituted to allow the Camp Nou to stand up one last time and applaud him. It wasn't to be the last time they chanted his name, however.

Of course there was the Champions League final. (In case you need reminding, here's an excellent Guardian article about Larsson's contributions in that game.) Even Thierry Henry in his petulant post-game rant remembered to pay homage to the decisive influence of Larsson in turning the game around for Barca. With his intelligence and distribution, he set up both of Barcelona's goals within the space of 10 minutes to turn the dream of a second European triumph into reality. For that I think us fans will forever be thankful.

So to Henke, a great player and a wonderful person, thank you. For two great seasons, for the holy grail that is the Champions League trophy, for the memories. Thank you for everything.

Argentine Player Watch

It's a return to writing about something cheerful - my regular feature keeping an eye on how Argentinean players are doing in various European leagues.

The much-maligned Julio Cruz was the hero for Internationale, scoring both goals as they beat Spartak Moscow 2-1 at the San Siro. I say much maligned because you may remember him as the player Argentina coach Jose Pekerman subbed in for Hernan Crespo against Germany in the World Cup, to no effect. A lot of people believe that Messi should have been used instead. I don't think that's what Pekerman got wrong at all, as Cruz was taken along to the World Cup to be Crespo's substitute, so it was a straight swap. Besides, if the substitution did happen, it would have left the hated Messi-Tevez strike combo, which as we've seen so far does not work at all.

In any case, I felt that Cruz was unfairly maligned, since at 32 years old it was sure to be his last World Cup, and he had more than earned an appearance by becoming Internationale's top scorer for the 05-06 season despite making mostly super-sub appearances. An uncomplaining hard-worker, his attitude about the whole situation was excellent, so it's great to see him get off to a good start this season by saving Inter's ass in the Champions League, at least for another game.

In other striker related news, my favourite Argentinean target man Diego Milito of Real Zaragoza is now joint top scorer of the Spanish League with 5 goals in 6 rounds of football. I think he actually missed a couple of matches due to injury, as well, which makes it even more impressive. In the absence of Eto'o for most of the season, I'd love for Milito to become top scorer this season, as long as he refrains from scoring a hat-trick against Barca again, of course. Although he's perfectly welcome to knock 4 past Real Madrid in the same match as he did last season. I've argued for his inclusion in the Argentinean National Team enough times to sound like a broken record, but there's no reason why he shouldn't be involved.

Lastly, this is from a couple of weeks ago, but the Guardian's occasional Argentine columnist Marcelo Mora y Araujo - who translated Maradona's autobiography into English, by the way - wrote an excellent piece about the situation of Tevez and Mascherano at West Ham, including a nice little interview with Mascherano in which he comes off as nice a person as ever.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Chelsea v Barca Match Report

Well, what can I say? A disappointing result, but one that I can live with. It went pretty much how one would expect. Barca tried to play their passing game and succeeded for most of the first half, but Drogba's goal was a killer blow. Chelsea for their part were very physical and very organised, and defenced brilliantly with 8 men behind the ball after they went ahead, never letting Barca back into the game while breaking at lightning speed whenever possible.

Rijkaard's comments after matches are always sensible and worth reading. In this case, I think he's absolutely right. We have to worry about qualifying first now. First we need a win at Camp Nou against Chelsea, and then to win the games against Bremen and Levski. There's no room for error, because Bremen in particular will be looking to cause an upset and qualify instead. The consequences of not getting through to the second round are unthinkable.

That said, the result isn't a disaster by any means, and wouldn't have been even if this were a knockout round game. I think that the display put in by some members of team are more worrying.


(4-1-3-2): Hilario; Khalid Boulahrouz, Ricardo Carvalho, John Terry, Ashley Cole; Claude Makelele; Mickael Essien, Frank Lampard, Michael Ballack; Andriy Shevchenko (76' Robben), Didier Drogba (90' Kalou).

Credit where credit is due - Chelsea deserved to win, because they took their chances.

Drogba was immense. Tireless running, good passing work and deadly finishing combined, a defender's worse nightmare. The sight of him makes me miss Eto'o even more, because that's the same kind of effect Sammy has. But anyway, he was brilliant. I can't overstate that. The goal was one for the highlight reel. Who needs Sheva, anyway?

Speaking of which, poor Shevchenko was really out of sorts. He didn't make too much of an impact. One gets the feeling that he's still stuck in Milan-mode, their way of passing and the service he used to get from the likes of Kaka and Pirlo. He'll get better, I'm sure, but right now Ballack looks the better of the two big signings.

That said, the best signing Mourinho made in this transfer window wasn't one of the big two at all. Stand up Khalid Boulahrouz. The Dutchman was joint man of the match with Drogba, for me. Ronaldinho got absolutely no quarter from him, and Messi didn't fare too much better. Fast, strong, and intelligent on the tackles, he made every other defender on the pitch look cheap. Especially Ashley Cole. He wasn't that bad, I suppose, but comparatively speaking not nearly as impressive considering the effort Chelsea went to in order to sign him. Messi was dealing with him very easily before he had to switch to the center.

The usual suspects such as Terry, Essien and Makelele put in solid performances and Hilario did his job well. Chelsea as a whole are so well organised and defensively excellent that with one great attacking player they can grind out results very easily. And now they have that with Drogba. They are going to be very difficult to beat in the Champions League if he can stay in that form. In the end, when it comes to a match like this, the team who has the most players actually turn up will win, and that's what happened today. That said, I believe that Barca should get a better result at the Camp Nou.


Starting line-up (4-3-3):


After the subs (3-4-3):


First, I do want to talk about Rijkaard's choices. Not to criticize them, but more to marvel at his sheer audacity. Changing to 3-4-3, which the team had probably never even practised before when we were one down and Chelsea were breaking with great effectiveness was pretty damn brave. Or stupid, if Chelsea had managed to score again.

(On a sidenote, does this give lie to the bashing of England's change to 3-5-2? The Barca players adapted quite well to the sudden change of formation, I thought.)

Anyway, back to the match. Some people say that he should have bought on Saviola in place of Gudjohnsen, which would have been more of a straight swap. I'd agree, actually, but it'd be interesting to hear his thinking on the subject. He must have had a reason for pushing Messi - who is most definitely not a target man - upfront. Giuly stayed on his wing while Messi and Ronaldinho changed positions, but both disappeared when they went into the central striker role.

I wasn't surprised to see Iniesta come on, but definitely surprised to see Gio go off. It was probably necessary since he'd already been booked and looked in danger of being sent off, but I don't recall Barca playing with 3 at the back at all in the last 2 seasons. Maybe the lack of Sylvinho in the squad meant that Rijkaard had no other choice. In any case, it worked out alright - meaning we didn't concede another goal - and we did need another man in midfield.

the team

We really do need to work on defending set pieces. Every single one that Chelsea got looked dangerous. I know there's a height problem, but that shouldn't allow our players to leave the opponent unmarked.

There was some really nice attacking play in the build-up, but no finishing product. In the first half it was Chelsea losing the ball a lot in midfield, but as Barca got more frustrated looking for the equalizer we started losing the ball in dangerous positions. In those periods Chelsea looked dangerous every time they came forward and we couldn't replicate that without a cutting edge up front. That said, I was pleased with the team's general response to going behind, but that's not something we've had a problem with, having had to come from behind an alarming number of times this season.


The entire defence was immense. Most of them might have gone to sleep for Drogba's goal, but for the rest of the game they did much better than I expected. After switching to only 3 at the back, they did very well to close out the spaces and not concede another.

Valdes made a couple of crucial saves and generally commanded the box well. Zambrotta was excellent at the back although still less effective going forward. Marquez put in yet another great performance, including a couple of crucial clearances and tackles. I think he's actually a better defender than Puyol. Rafa and Thuram together are pretty much impossible to get through.

Puyol did the best he could, but he's not particularly fast or tall, and while his value to the team is immeasurable, his is the triumph of effort over inspiration. Doesn't take away from how indispensable he is to the team, but it does mean that he has his off moments - like for Drogba's goal. To be fair to him, his injury was acting up again and eventually led to his substitution. Puyol has been plagued with recurring injuries for 3 seasons now, not surprising considering that he's played almost every match he was fit for. It had to come back to haunt him sometime.

Gio tried hard, but with Ronaldinho being pinned back he couldn't go forward much. Did his defensive duties adequately until he was substituted.

Like many Barca fans, I nearly had a heart attack when Oleguer came on for Puyol. Him in a 3-men backline? We were sure to concede more now. However, he did ever so well coping with difficult circumstances. I didn't envy him going up against the much faster Robben at all, but it was fine in the end.


As a whole, they had to work very hard running constantly from box to box, covering the defence - especially after the switch to a back 3. The effort started to show towards the end, but a valiant performance from all 4 of them. More of the same against Real, please.

Edmilson looked better than his last couple of outings, screening the defence effectively, especially after the switch to 3-4-3. Offensively he wasn't all that involved, but that's not what we have him for.

I wasn't too impressed with Deco, whose passing seemed off and who didn't get into the game enough, but then he was involved in most of our best passing moves and had enormous defensive responsibilities to deal with, so perhaps that's a more than reasonable performance.

Xavi did quite well down the right, combining nicely with Messi. His passing was just as good as usual, although it was without penetration like much of the rest of Barca's forward play. Also took a couple of good shots at goal, which I'd like to see him do more often. Probably the best of the midfielders.

That is not to say that Iniesta didn't do well coming on as a substitute. He actually looked likely to unlock the massed Chelsea defence, unlike most of the other attackers on the field at that point, with his typical probing runs and great sense of positioning. Predictably muscled out of the game as it went on, though.


Gudjohnsen has some serious problems integrating into the team. I know he's a great guy who's made a huge effort to fit in quickly, but a performance like this is unacceptable. He had no shots in the first half and barely touched the ball. He needs to either gel with Ronaldinho, Messi, and the midfielders quickly or Rijkaard needs to try Saviola instead.

Ronaldinho...what can I say? Little contribution of note except a couple of nice passes and one free-kick on goal, and the rest of his set pieces were notable for how bad they were, to the point where I was wondering why Deco or Xavi wasn't taking them instead. It was more credit to Boulahrouz than anything else that he was so ineffective, but as the only member of the team who doesn't have to track back and defend (in fact poor Deco had to cover for him all the time), we expect more from him. Really needs to get back to full physical fitness as well.

Messi was Barca's best attacking player until he had to switch to center forward. He gave Ashley Cole the runaround when Ronaldinho couldn't get an inch past Boulahrouz, and helped out effectively in midfield. A good performance, but unable to turn the tide like he did at Bremen.

Giuly came on at a difficult time and responded very well. He also gave Ashley Cole problems on the right and made some nice runs into the area, but in the end was predictably muscled out of the game by the massed Chelsea defence. His form at least looks okay, though.


It's fairly obvious at this point that we badly miss Eto'o - or good old Henke Larsson, for that matter. It's all well and good to create chances in front of the box, but what happens when there's no one to finish them? This is the problem Rijkaard will have to solve quickly and effectively, because no matter how much we need him now, Sammy is out for another 4 months. Wishing won't change that.

Rijkaard's other problem is getting his out of sorts big players - Ronaldinho, Deco and possibly Puyol fit and back into form. Those 3 are key to us winning anything at all. They can be replaced, with the depth of the squad, but that leads to an automatic drop in quality.

Not a good day for Barca, but we have to quickly move on. El Gran Classico awaits on Sunday, and I think it's going to be very tough beating Real at their home ground this time. The early bad news is that Puyol's injury may keep him out, although he's determined to get fit and play no matter what - typical of our captain. I hope he doesn't push himself too hard. In the meantime, hopefully the squad can get their heads on straight after such a demoralising loss.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Chelsea v Barca: the Preview

I was going to do previews for the whole matchday, but what's the point when I'm so preoccupied with this game? It might be less important than last season, but I don't think it'll be any less heated. Besides, now that Real have won their Champions League game, it would be nice to match them going into El Gran Classico.


Everyone and their dog will know about the horrible injury suffered by Petr Cech in the game against Reading. It's a real shame, because he is a class act and one of my favourite players from Chelsea. Their second choice keeper Cudicini would have been a more than fine replacement, but he's out too, so third-choice Hilario is stepping into the line of fire. This might not be such bad news - plenty of reserve keepers have been called on like this and given a stunning performance.

Other than that, everyone is available to coach Mourinho. No one knows whether or not he will use the new 4-4-2 formation to fit in the summer signings Ballack and Shevchenko or drop back to the old 4-3-3 for a bit more width and pace. Either way, the backline of Ferreira, Carvalho, Terry, and Ashley Cole is pretty much nailed on, and Lampard, Makelele, and Drogba will definitely start. The two new boys were bought to further Chelsea's ambitions in Europe, so it's hard to see them not playing. I guess that leaves one spot up for grabs - Essien or Robben, most likely.


We will no doubt miss the pace and desire of Sammy Eto'o and the attacking options provided by injured right-back Belletti, but the rest of the squad has travelled and are available to play.


As you can see, the defence is pretty much nailed on due to recent rotations. Over in midfield, I'm not sure if Rijkaard will stick with the more physical option of playing both defensive midfielders (Edmilson and Motta) that worked so well last season. It might be a good idea, especially if Chelsea choose to go with the more physical midfield diamond themselves. If he decides against that, Xavi will probably start ahead of Iniesta, who might come on as an impact sub.

Up front, there are rumours that Messi might not start, rested in preparation for the Real game, but if that's the case, expect him on as a substitute sometime in the second half. In this kind of form, though, I can't see why he'd start on the bench, given how well he did at Stamford Bridge last season. Gudjohnsen should start since he's better equipped to cope with the physical aspects of the game, but Saviola's pace and technique could cause the Chelsea defence trouble as well, so he might come on as sub.

In any case, this game has the immense promise of a classic, two fantasy teams battling it out with heart and soul. Let's hope it's a great game, unmarred by controversy and filled with great football. I'd be happy with a draw, but anything can happen when these two teams meet.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

The Wonder of Being Andres Iniesta

Phil Ball's column for ESPN Soccernet this week (link above) is an excellent piece on Barca youngster Andres Iniesta. Along with the more heralded Leo Messi, he represents the future of Barcelona. Sure, he's the only Barca player who hasn't sold his image rights - which isn't too much of a surprise given his non-flashy style and umm...not quite Beckham-esque looks. But his development has been astonishing.

Pushed into service to cover for the injured Xavi last season, he impressed many with great work in big games, like the Champions League semi-final against Milan during which he earned the praise of Sir Bobby Charlton, who opined that though he did not know the player's name, the no. 24 gave a great performance. I like him a lot, despite the fact that he's still growing and can end up being marked out of games. It's hard to describe what he does, similar to Xavi but not quite the same. The above column does the best job I've see so far.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Spanish League Round-up: week 6

An interesting round with some great games and a couple of surprise results, leaving Barcelona alone at the top, 3 clear of Valencia and Atletico Madrid, 4 ahead of Sevilla and 5 clear of Real Madrid - a very good place to be heading into next week's El Clasico.

Barcelona 3-1 Sevilla

Barcelona (4-3-3): Valdes; Belletti (28' Zambrotta), Marquez, Thuram, Sylvinho; Motta, Xavi, Iniesta; Messi, Gudjohnsen (83' Saviola), Ronaldinho (73' Giuly)

Sevilla (4-4-2): Palop; Puerta (46' Dragutinovic), Escude, Navarro, Alves; Adriano, Renato (85' Kepa), Poulsen, Navas; Fabiano (46' Marti), Kanoute

Like most Barca fans, I was really pleased and more than a little relieved at this result. Less pleased about being unable to watch what was from all reports a cracking game because of Sevilla's TV contract problems, but that's only a minor complaint in the scheme of things. The win has really put us in a good position heading into two more tough games this week, especially with almost all Barca's rivals dropping points. Shorter analysis this week, since I only got to see highlights.

the game

The general consensus seems to be that Barca are finally finding some semblance of the form that saw them going on that 18-match winning streak last season, and of course Sevilla have been on fire since before the start of the season. Apparently played at a furious pace with both teams really going for it, especially in the first half. Barca attacked with abandon, as usual, but were also careful to not give away possession cheaply in the middle of the park. Things died down a little in the second, but there was still no lack of desire for more goals. The scoreline is fair if one looks at the possession enjoyed by Barca, but a bit harsh on Sevilla if chances are compared instead. It was really a very close game that both sides could have won.


They are a very well organised team who defend brilliantly and are lethal on the break. Kanoute's goal was a brilliant piece of teamwork. Most teams come to Camp Nou to play in the same way they do, but few succeed at it. The reason Valencia, Atletico and Sevilla are able to employ a counterattacking strategy effectively against Barca is that they have real quality and pace in the attacking third. Sounds obvious, but it's not easy to achieve. Excellent pacy wingers like Navas, Vicente, Maxi (or, say, Robben and Joe Cole) combined with strong fast full-backs like Miguel and Alves will always give the Barca defence trouble. The likes of Gio and Puyol have real trouble coping with speedy opponents.

I agree with some newspaper reports that Mourinho will probably have been heartened by Barca's inability to contain Sevilla down the left, but that has to be tempered with the realization that Rijkaard will no doubt ring the changes for that game. This starting XI was designed to suit the opponent, and it worked brilliantly, proving that the coach isn't nearly as tactically inept as his detractors suggest. Chelsea will require a different response. For starters, Gio will probably play on that wing instead of the attacking Sylvinho. The midfield will probably also be beefed up from the comparatively light-weight one put out against Sevilla. I would also suggest that Chelsea need to get their own defensive house in order first, since Ferreira isn't likely to contain Ronaldinho and who knows how Wayne Bridge would do against Leo Messi?

the ref

I thought Sevilla coach Juande Ramos made some very fair comments about the referee, despite being sent off for dissent during the match. He basically said that common mistakes had been made, and it was just unlucky that Sevilla were on the end of those mistakes, which is an attitude I wish more coachs would take. The referee in question has never impressed me. This is the man who insisted on booking Messi for diving inside the box last season in the game against Osasuna at the Camp Nou despite there being a clear trip from the opposing defender. After the match, said defender admitted to the trip and declared that it should have been a penalty. Sevilla fans may feel less aggrieved if they know that this guy isn't a Barca fan intent on robbing them of the game - he's simply a bit incompetent and clearly in need of an eyesight check-up.

While the call disallowing Sevilla's goal was very dodgy indeed, I find claims that Belletti dived to win the penalty questionable at least, given the circumstances. Firstly, the challenge was laughably crass, and second, Belletti sustained a dislocated shoulder from the incident, meaning he has to miss at least the Chelsea and Real games. Maybe not a clear-cut penalty, but certainly not a dive.

In the end, at least this ref wasn't as bad as the man who 'refereed' Atletico vs Recre. More on that below.



A good game overall, despite the aftementioned defensive problems of Sylvinho. The new boys are finally being integrated properly into what can actually be a very stubborn and well-organised defensive unit. Thuram was by all reports a rock as usual, Marquez's tackling crucial and his passing still insanely accurate - he was involved in the build-up to Messi's goal - and Zambrotta is settling in better as time goes on. Here's hoping Belletti's injury isn't too serious, though, because he offers a potent attacking option either starting or coming in from the bench.


All credit to Rijkaard here, even though he insisted on heaping praise on the midfield trio themselves after the match. Many thought he would go with the Deco-Xavi-Iniesta combination, but he surprised everyone by starting Xavi and Iniesta together for the first time (!) with Motta providing the steel. It worked like a charm. Rijkaard rightly gave credit to the disciplined performance by all three, both offensively and in defence. This young midfield trio - average age of 24 - managed to control the game without being muscled out of proceedings by a physically strong Sevilla side.

Iniesta linked frighteningly well with Messi, the 22 year old and the 19 year old setting each other up numerous times. Now there's a partnership for Barca's future. (Memo to Laporta: can we renew Iniesta's contract now, please? You know other clubs will start fighting over him soon. Memo to Iniesta: please stop going down so easily. You're getting a reputation, and it's stopping you from getting legit penalty calls.) Xavi was Xavi - Barca's beating heart, the most efficient midfielder around, never wasting a pass, always managing to move the ball with great pace and precision. A great assist as well for Messi's goal.

But Motta deserves special mention here. He gets a lot of flack from Barca fans, many of whom cannot understand why Rijkaard likes him so much. I've wondered the same thing myself sometimes. However, when he has a game like this, all doubts are dispelled, at least temporarily. Defensively it was a very effective performance, with the young Brazilian popping up everywhere he was needed at the right time. Offensively too he contributed with aplomb. He still makes the odd clumsy tackle, like the one that got him booked this time, but that was the only blemish on a great performance. Good news for Barca at a time when Edmilson perhaps isn't in the best of form. More of the same, please.

forward line

I did say that people were being ridiculous about Ronaldinho. 'He's back' is the cry, yet to me he returned before the international break. Still, a great performance, universally hailed, has got to be good for his confidence. Finally getting the Spanish press off his back is a big bonus as well. Good to see his free kicks, threaded passes and crazy runs back to their most threatening. The best part for him personally, though, must be the vindication of winning his battle against fellow Brazilian Alves on the left wing, a battle he lost spectacularly last time around. I hope he didn't throw a tantrum at being substituted as some reports have suggested, because as one of the captains and an example to the younger players he really shouldn't be doing that. Plus, Rijkaard was simply resting him for the next game.

Not sure how his substitute Giuly played as part of an unfamiliar frontline. I think I'm right in saying that an attacking axis of Messi-Gudjohnsen-Giuly have never played together before. Looking at the attributes of the players, I can't see it working. Messi and Giuly rely on pace and penetration, two things Gudjohnsen is comparatively lacking in.

Speaking of the Icelandic international, I'm still not convinced by him. His strengths are obvious, and they should probably ensure that he starts against old club Chelsea, but he just seems to fit less comfortably into the Barca frontline's mode of attack. Maybe as he plays more with Ronaldinho and Messi they'll click together better.

His substitute Saviola only got about 10 minutes against his old club, but made the best of them, threading a great pass through to Giuly, who was unfortunately caught offside. Those two have a good understanding already, which could come in very useful. To me, although he offers less strength and ability to hold up the ball, Saviola's pace and skill, not to mention his familarity with the Barca system means that he could start ahead of Gudjohnsen in league games to good effect. Hopefully he will get more minutes to reflect his great form.

Pride of place goes to Messi, who scored a superb goal. Readers of this blog know that I'm a big fan of the youngster who will vehemently defend him from unfounded accusations. Thankfully I can take a break now. His goal was astonishing, gliding through the entire Sevilla defence as if it didn't exist and finishing well into the top corner. Even before that, though, he was directly responsible for both of Ronaldinho's goals. The penalty came about after he threaded a perfect pass through to Belletti, who was bought down inside the box. Similarly, he was brought down for the free kick which Ronaldinho converted - a common combination last season, and one I hope to see more of, although it would also be nice if defenders hacked at Messi less. But, of course, that's not going to happen.

Throughout the entire game he gifted threatening balls to team mates as well as running at the Sevilla defence himself. The Argentine was a surprise inclusion after most people expected Giuly to start. Frankly, I was hoping for the same after Messi's miserable showing against Sevilla in Camp Nou last season and in the Super Cup this season. But no, he played the entire game and did very well.

Atlético de Madrid 2-1 Recreativo de Huelva

What a hilarious game, although not so much if you're a Recre fan. First, though, the not at all funny news is that Atletico will be without both of their first choice wingers for six months after Martin Petrov also fell victim to a knee injury. The signs from this match are that the very capable young Argentine Sergio Aguero will step into the role. Even so, Atletico are sure to miss someone who has been one of their best players so far this season.

Moving on to the hilarity, most of it courtesy of a truly poor referee. New boys Recre will no doubt feel robbed after yet another fine performance, but the lousy penalty calls, at least, hurt both sides. Recre's opener was a very soft call, to say the least. I'm not saying that Viqueira dived, but he went down very easily. Galletti did a good job replacing compatriot Maxi Rodriguez, marring his performance with a dive for Atletico's equalizer. Not content with just those lousy calls, the ref proceeded to wave away better cases for penalty calls on both ends of the pitch.

But the controversy wasn't complete just yet. Aguero proved that he perhaps deserved the pressure of the New Maradona tag by scoring Atletico's winner...with his hand. At least Maradona used his hand because he couldn't reach the ball with his head. Aguero all but jabbed the ball home with a punch at about chest height. It was an incredibly comical sight - in fact, I laughed myself silly watching it, but Recre are right to feel aggrieved about that one. Some sign of contrition from Aguero would also be nice.

Getafe 1-0 Real Madrid

Oh dear. Oh dear. Oh dear. The result itself isn't disastrous for Real, since I'm right in saying that they've never won away at Getafe. It was more the manner of defeat which concerned Real fans - 0 shots on goal says it all, really. Ronaldo got 45 mins and showed that his suspension for the Barca match might not be a bad thing for Real. However, let's put things in perspective.

Real had an almost entirely make-shift backline, with Sergio Ramos suspended, and Cannavaro, Salgado and Cicinho injured. Roberto Carlos was the only first-choice defender left. In attack, they were deprived of their best performer so far this season in the form of Reyes, who was also injured. So that's 5 injuries to key players. Given the patched together defence, one would expect them to have problems in that area. It's the offensive woes that I don't understand. Van Nistelrooy is a classy finisher, Beckham can still send in the crosses, Guti is underrated as a creative force, and Cassano has shown signs of revival since the beginning of the season. So what's going wrong?

My own theory about Real's problems - beyond Capello's tactics - is that the squad is too small. Yes, you read that right. I know they had one of the most bloated squads in the league last season. But how many of those were good enough to start for Real? If we break down Capello's version of the team, defensively they lack cover in almost every position. Helguera is alright, but Raul Bravo was never good enough for the Real first team. They face a crisis at left-back with Salgado injured.

The two holding midfielders have no back-ups should either of them be injured. Van Nistelrooy is irreplaceable right now. I'd say the same thing about Guti. Real have lacked the options that would allow proper rotations for the past 2 seasons, and the problem hasn't been fixed this time round. Much as I admire Capello for his relative honesty about Real's performances - 'horrifying' was the word this time - there's not much he can do about this particular problem.

Getafe, on the other hand, must be very pleased indeed. They're a formidably organised team. Perhaps no real star players, but they defend as a unit and break very quickly. Schuster would probably have been a great choice as Real coach, if only for the entertainment value to be derived from his utterances. But what he's done with few resources at Getafe - which started as a bit of a Real fan club - has been nothing short of amazing.

Betis 1-1 Deportivo

Both teams finished with ten men, and Betis continue their run of poor results, but the signs are at least encouraging this time against a fairly good Depor side. Betis' late equaliser was richly deserved, and hopefully it will spur the team on. Maybe Rafael Sobis will start scoring again. After a brace against Sevilla, he seems to have forgotten how.

Villarreal 0-0 Espanyol

Yet another frustrating result for Villarreal after it looked like they were finally getting back on track. To be fair, the Espanyol keeper Kameni played a blinder, letting nothing past him as the Yellow Submarines peppered the goal. Still, file under 'need to do better' for a team with European ambitions facing a side in supposed disarray.

Levante 0-1 Mallorca

A huge result for Mallorca. This is exactly the type of match they should be winning, against a side on a similar level. They were a bit lucky, scoring with their only shot of the match, but deserve credit for holding on for the win. I thought they'd be in relegation danger this season, but if they continue to grind out results like this, that obviously won't happen.

Real Sociedad 1-3 Zaragoza

Poor Sociedad. They've had rotten luck with injuries, but 1 point out of a possible 18 is just dire. Zaragoza aren't an easy side to play when they're clicking, which they definitely were here, the two Argentine playmakers Pablo Aimar and Andres D'Alessandro gradually coming into their own. Real Madrid reject Diogo was outstanding in defence, scoring the second, while striker Diego Milito continues to make his case for a place on the Argentina squad with a classy brace that leaves him joint top scorer in La Liga.

Nástic Tarragona 2-3 Athletic Bilbao

Athletic badly needed this result, their first win of the season. Nastic were probably the perfect opponents to get it against, since the newly-promoted Catalan team aren't exactly striking fear into the hearts of their enemies. Still, Athletic had to work for it. Yeste, who is a fantastic player, at least from what I saw against Barca, got a brace to carry his side through.

Celta 3-2 Valencia

A great win for Celta, who haven't had the best start to their season but performed brilliantly to overcome Valencia. It was an exciting game, full of incident and some lovely football. Baiano was very impressive for the home side, while Fernando Morientes cannot stop scoring for Valencia at the moment. Before the match Celta's coach was busy talking up Valencia, and maybe that did get to them, because they performed below their best - as pointed out by Valencia coach Flores, who was scathing in his post-match assessment.

That said, Celta have two blunders from opposition keeper Canizares to thank for their victory, and Flores has no one but himself to blame for fielding an unfit David Villa. The worst news for Valencia fans must be the ankle injury suffered by winger Vicente, who is so crucial to the team. Valencia don't play nearly as well without him, and what seems like a recurrence of the injury that ruled him out of the World Cup, not to mention a big chunk of last season will no doubt be worrying Flores.

Osasuna 0-1 Racing Santander

Osasuna won't be too pleased to lose the points to a dodgy penalty, but this is a huge result for Racing. Their first win of the season, and about time too. The most notable thing about this fixture, for me, was the surprisingly excellent performance of former comedy Argentine defender Lionel Scaloni. He performed very well starting out wide on the right wing. Perhaps Scaloni just wasn't cut out to be a defender and never found his real calling all this time. I know I've written scathingly about his qualities as a right-back before, but this is definitely great to hear. Good for him.

Coming up, a Champions League preview.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Spain 2 Argentina 1 - A Dissection

First of all, I have to congratulate whoever decided to play the match in Murcia, on a newly re-laid pitch which led to two injuries and at least two more scares. Neither manager wanted to play on that pitch, and with good reason.

The most serious of these is the one that forced Maxi Rodriguez out of the game early on. Poor Maxi - his injury is a huge blow to both Argentina and his club Atletico, who are doing very well at the moment. The lastest news seems to be that he's going to be out for the rest of the season with knee ligament damage, which is truly horrific news. Atletico must be concerned about losing one of their best players for so long, and this is just awful for Maxi personally since he looked to be on track for his best season in Spain. Get well soon, Maxi!

The other injury that really got on my nerves is the one sustained by Carles Puyol in the warm-up. He'll hopefully only be out for a short time and might be back in time for the Chelsea game. The two scares I mentioned are Luis Garcia, who was set to start but instead came in from the bench, and Carlos Tevez, who played on despite a knee injury. Hopefully neither will turn out to be serious.


4-4-2: Reina; Sergio Ramos, Juanito, Pablo, Capdevila (Antonio Lopez 46'); Angulo (Fabregas 76'), Albelda (Xabi Alonso 46'), Iniesta, Xavi; Villa, Torres (Luis Garcia 57')

I'm happy for the Barca boys, especially captain Xavi, a wonderful player who I'm very fond of. His goal was a cracker, beautifully set up by Iniesta's run. Iniesta had a brilliant game overall, highlighting just how criminally underused he has been in the Spanish team. Granted, they have a lot of midfield talent - Fabregas, Albelda, Xabi Alonso, Senna, the aftementioned Xavi - but what a waste. His time will come, though, perhaps in the next World Cup. In the meantime, Aragones has proved me wrong about wingers - he doesn't seem to need them after all. That said, Argentina didn't exactly use the wings either, so it's not a foregone conclusion.



*replaced Maxi Rodriguez early when he had to go off with a knee injury.

After the subs -


Now, before I dig my nails into the whole thing, a caveat. It is no great disaster to lose narrowly to a team like Spain. Certainly this is a better result than the loss to Brazil. Having read the Brazilian media's complaints about the quality of opposition they've had for friendlies (New Zealand and Kuwait come to mind from recent games) I think matching up against top-quality teams like Argentina are doing is better. Even if we lose the experience gained is valuable. We have friendlies against the likes of France and Germany lined up for next year, which has to be a good thing for this young team. The overall reaction from Argentina fans seems excessively strong given the above. That said, there are some causes for concern.

Problems: Line-up

I wasn't happy when the starting line-up was announced, but kept quiet in the hopes that I'd be proven wrong. No dice. Let's start from the defence and work our way up, shall we?

To me, there was nothing particularly wrong with the backline. However, poor Arruabarrena is now being slated for his performance at left-back. The chattering classes do have a point in that if Basile was so desperate for a left-back that he recalled a 31-year-old whose last cap came quite a few years ago, he might have gone for former captain Sorin instead. Not that Arruabarrena is bad, it just smacks of an emergency choice given Basile's stated preference for young players. That said, Argentina do seem to have a bit of a problem at left-back. I can only think of Diego Placente and Leandro Cufre who can play in that position. Other suggestions are more than welcome.

On to the midfield, then. I really like Mascherano, and he's a great player, but in current form I really don't know why he started the game. Unlike the problems at left-back, we've got plenty of great holding midfielders, so it's not like there's a shortage.

A position where there seems to be a critical shortage right now is the #10. I realized that when I say 'lone playmaker' that's not actually getting the concept across properly. What I mean by that is the Maradona role, basically. In this game the team missed Riquelme, not the Riquelme of Villarreal's semi-final defeat to Arsenal, but the Riquelme of Argentina 3, Brazil 1, the man who could impose his will on a game. Even the Argentine press - who practically hounded him into retirement - have now admitted he's simply the best Argentinean player right now.

Both Basile's choices to replace him failed that test this time. Aimar should perhaps be given another chance since he didn't get enough time in this game to show what he could do, but Insua has tried and failed twice now. Two games don't tell the whole story, but the question has to be asked whether someone who hasn't exactly made a massive impact for Borussia Monchengladbach this season yet should be the center of Argentina's game. I'm being a bit harsh on the man, since he did set up the equalizer, but all of us expect so much more from our playmaker.

Aimar's situation is that he has both the talent and the form problems of Riquelme. I remain convinced that he can succeed as the #10 if Basile shows enough faith in him. The only thing he can do right now is to continue improving for his club and hope that Basile is watching closely.

Moving on to the front line. Tevez is a great player, but he is not in form right now, and therefore he should not have started. Compounding the problem is the fact that him and Messi are in some ways very similar players - both are more comfortable bursting into the box from out wide or midfield than playing as a central striker. Despite what Basile said about playing Messi in a free role, that's not going to work if he's running into the same space as the playmaker - who also has a free role - all the time and attempting to do the same work. Neither Messi or Tevez are clinical finishers in the 20 goals a season sense. In fact, both are more like a #10, as discussed above. Rather than pushing them forward, playing them a bit further back might actually work better. I understand that they're both not quite mature enough as players to be the playmaker just yet, but both would make good strike partners for a proper finisher.

Saviola and Aguero together make a touch more sense since at least Saviola has some of the qualities of a central striker. Aguero on the other hand is more like Tevez and Messi. He was Independiente's #10 before moving to Spain, where of course they don't use playmakers in the same sense, unless you're Villarreal. Basile knows what these players are like. So why was no replacement for Crespo called up? It's not as if Argentina only have him as central striker.

Problems: Execution

The midfield was pretty shambolic at times, nobody seeming to know what they were supposed to be doing. Neither playmaker could stamp their authority on the game. Insua was all over the place and Aimar failed to shine. Insua also ended up in the same positions as the forwards far too many times, especially Messi. Perhaps that was inevitable, since both forwards were playing like midfielders - dropping deep to win possession, running through the midfield and expecting whoever was on the end of the penetrating pass to finish. Maybe that's a hint to Basile to actually play them in midfield, but I digress. Both Messi and Tevez squandered absolutely golden chances to score off great passes from...each other, actually.


Zabaleta should continue to be called up. I'm convinced that he can develop into a really good player with more experience. Works hard, never gives up and has a mature head on his shoulders. Additionally, I'm convinced that this backline, even with the current personnel, can work well with a bit more training time together.

Bilos has done well against Brazil and in this game. More chances for him, please, especially now that Maxi's out for so long. There seems to be no need to worry about the midfield in general, with the notable exception of the #10 position. Even then, it seems to me that those who claim Argentina lack suitable candidates for the position need to look harder. We have plenty of options, it just depends on whether Basile wants to use them or not.

(Seriously, Messi or Tevez on the tip of midfield. Try it. If Basile's willing to give him a free role, then why not take the next step?)


In the end, the fundamental problem for Argentina is three fold. First, the bulk of these players are young. Some have played very few or no competitive internationals. Less than half the squad have Champions League experience. That is going to show when it comes to big matches.

Second, the forward line for this game was so lacking in height it was comical - the tallest, Sergio Aguero, is a hardly Peter Crouch-esque 1.72 meters. That in itself isn't a problem. The issue is more that of the four, only Javier Saviola could be said to be anywhere near being a center forward. That position is something Basile will have to sort out fast.

Third, some of these guys were meeting each other for the first time. They had 2, 3 days of training together, and then, bam, they have to play against Spain. It was the same versus Brazil. Argentina aren't going to win matches with this set-up. In this vein, I agree wholeheartedly with Basile's approach to the Copa, which is to get a group of players based in Argentina together to train regularly and add in some players from abroad. He won the Copa in '93 with this approach, so we know it works. That said, I'll still feel disappointed if he doesn't use certain very capable and deserving players who ply their trade in Europe. Roberto Ayala for example - if anyone deserves a trophy to go out on, it's him. It would be a nice thing for Crespo as well.

Logically, when a team built around one player loses that player, it falls to pieces. The job Basile is faced with now is rebuilding the Argentinean team entirely. It's certainly not an easy task. I wish him luck.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

making fun of transfer rumours

I have a stated policy of not mentioning ridiculous transfer rumours, but there's no harm in making fun of the most insane ones. So here's my attempt at dissecting two bits of transfer speculation surrounding Barcelona.

I'll start with the persistent reports linking Boca Juniors striker and occasional Argentinean international Rodrigo Palacio with Barcelona. The strongest basis for these claims seems to be the fact that a couple of Barca technical directors were invited to watch the derby between River Plate and Boca Juniors. What some reporters seem to have missed is the fact that those directors were invited by River. On top of that, reports of meetings between Barca president Laporta and Boca suits have yet to be proven.

This next bit is the part I really want to make fun of, though. One report I read - I won't say which website produced this gem of investigative reporting - claimed that Barca were looking to sign Palacio to eventually replace Deco. This would make slightly more sense if Palacio was anything like a playmaker, which as you'll have noticed in the last paragraph, he is definitely not.

So that's that. Now, the Ronaldinho to AC Milan rumours are slightly more tricky. Maybe he will go there someday - I can't see why, but people sometimes make decisions only they understand. The way the sporting media have gone about trying to play up this 'transfer' is comical, to say the least. Their latest ploy seems to be trying to claim Milan owner Silvio Berlusconi having lunch with Ronaldinho's brother and agent is proof that the transfer is on. This would seem damning at first glance, right up until the point one realises that Roberto de Assis also happens to represent Milan's new signing Ricardo Oliveira. Not too strange to see the club chairman having dinner with the agent who represents one of his players, is it?

(Spain-Argentina report to come, when I get my objectivity back.)

Jose Pekerman's Argentina: A Retrospective

There's been various things said about Pekerman's performance as manager of the Argentinean team, especially now that he's been linked to the US job, and I wanted to clarify a few things as well as get my point of view across, speaking as an ardent Argentina supporter who still thinks that team was good enough to make the finals.

I think a balanced view of Pekerman's merits and weaknesses is probably best achieved by looking at his entire involvement with the Argentinean FA, starting with successes at youth level.

Pekerman coached the U20 Argentina teams until 2003, winning three World Youth titles in four attempts. Most of Argentina's finest players today came out of those teams, and have Pekerman to thank for kickstarting their careers.

Youth Success

In 1995 a solid team display from the team won them the tournament in Qatar with the only stand-out performer being captain Juan Pablo Sorin. He went on to become a fine wing-back who got to the Champions League semi-finals with Villarreal last season, and of course was captain of Argentina at the 2006 World Cup under Pekerman.

The 1997 team was a remarkable group of individuals who took the South American title before going on to win the world title in Malaysia, even bagging the fair play award in the process. This team was well organised and played great, clean football, characteristics which would continue to mark Pekerman's way of coaching. He also displayed exceptional skills in managing the personalities of the budding stars, famously starting his most heralded player Pablo Aimar on the bench in the final to teach him about patience, having encouraged Aimar's fragile mental strength all through the tournament by repeatedly assuring him of his excellence.

This group has thrown up most of the backbone of today's Argentina, including Pekerman's favourite player. I'm speaking of Juan Roman Riquelme, of course. Pekerman knew how to make Riquelme happy enough to perform and how he would function best. This was back before the Villarreal playmaker's ill-adviced move to Barcelona. In those days, Roman could do no wrong, and he would go on to lift a Boca Juniors team built around him to glory in the Argentinean League three times, twice in the Copa Liberadores and even in the Inter-Continental Cup, sweeping aside a Real Madrid side which was still on top of the world back then to leave the likes of Raul and Figo admiring his talents. Discussing his World Cup performance would take a whole other post, but let me just say that I was perfectly happy with his displays.

The second most talented player of that generation - and indeed from Argentina today, I would argue - is the aftementioned Pablo Aimar, now of Zaragoza. Unfortunately Aimar has similar problems in that he also needs the confidence of the coach to do well, and has had absolutely horrid luck with injuries and illness in the past couple of seasons. He was brilliant for River Plate in those days, though, winning the Argentinean League five times with a formidable team. Other good players from that squad include Esteban Cambiasso and Walter Samuel, now of Inter Milan, Diego Placente, now of Celta Vigo and goalkeeper Leo Franco, now of Atletico Madrid. All of them have had lengthy runs in the full national team.

Things did not go so well for the 1999 team, who were knocked out in the round of 16. This team still produced a couple of excellent players in the form of Gabriel Milito, now of Zaragoza, and Federico Insua, who now plays in Germany.

(By the way, 1999 seemed to be an amazing tournament for discovering talented players - look at this partial list of those who shone: Ronaldinho (BRA), Ashley Cole (ENG), Rafael Marquez (MEX), Roque Santa Cruz (PAR), Damien Duff (IRL), Robbie Keane (IRL), Gabri (ESP), Xavi (ESP), Diego Forlan (URU). Insane.)

Argentina hosted the 2001 tournament, which provided Pekerman's team a chance to reassert themselves, and they did it with aplomb. A brilliant team stormed through the tournament playing fabulous football in a flexible 3-5-2, scoring 27 goals in all and again winning the fair play award.

The greatest product of that team - or so it looked at the time - was surely Javier Saviola, who repeated a feat only Maradona had managed up til that point by sweeping both the Golden Ball and the Golden Boot, as well as obviously a winner's medal. The record he set of 11 goals scored in that tournament still stands and probably will for years to come. Saviola was also part of that great River Plate team with Aimar, winning 2 league titles in his time there. His move to Barcelona didn't quite go according to plan, but he's back with them now and has a chance to finally fulfill his enormous promise. What he did in the World Cup as first choice, trusted ahead of Messi and Tevez was certainly very impressive.

A whole host of other great talent also came from that team, most noticeably Maxi Rodriguez of Atletico Madrid, who had such a great World Cup, along with the likes of part-time NT goalkeeper German Lux, defender Fabricio Coloccini (who was captain) and playmaker Andres D'Alessandro, who after derailing his promising career with a move to Wolfsburg now seems to be back on track at Zaragoza.

Time with the NT

Pekerman was asked to take over the NT when the previous coach surprisingly resigned in the middle of the world cup qualification campaign. He had a slightly rocky start but gained great credit with his insistence on sticking to a South American style, using Riquelme as sole playmaker, and for getting a victory out of a tough away game against Bolivia, which Argentina almost never wins because it's played at high altitude, by sending in a reserve team. Then came the possibly the greatest moment of his coaching career so far, Argentina qualifying for the World Cup in style by beating Brazil 3-1 at home. Riquelme was brilliant, the striking partnership of Crespo and Saviola was paying off, and Pekerman's Argentina was off to a great start.

They played some great stuff in the Confederations Cup but exhaustion ultimately took its toll, especially on Riquelme, who was irreplacable and hence played far too many minutes leading up to the final, where they were thrashed by Brazil. The Bronze Ball for Riquelme was no consolation, judging by his reaction to winning the award. And then, of course, there was the World Cup.

The World Cup and Beyond

You all know what happened - Argentina played wonderful football and won the heart of neutrals, even some who had previously disliked Argentinean teams, taking them for a bunch of hatchet-men and divers who just happen to play well. Pekerman's team changed ingrained perceptions of what Argentinean football is all about by - as one English journalist put it - kicking the ball instead of the opponent. They played beautifully at times and were generally one of the cleaner teams of tournament. After the debacle of 2002, Argentina supporters could finally feel that things were back on the right track.

That's why most Argentineans didn't want Pekerman sacked when the team went out to Germany. I've seen more neutrals - and Messi fans, although yours truly was not amongst them - calling for his head than Argentina supporters. The work he had done in helping these players become who they are today, and in molding the team into such a force cancelled out any tactical blunders he made.

Make no mistake, Pekerman does have tactical problems. The Germany game was not the first time he dismantled his team with about 20 minutes to go and lost the lead because of it. Anyone who saw the friendly match with England in Geneva will know that he did the same thing there, turning what would have been a great 2-1 victory into an embarrassing 3-2 last minute collapse. The same thing could have happened against Ivory Coast in the first group stage match if the Ivorians' finishing was better, after he took off both strikers and replaced them with one totally inexperienced at international level and a midfielder, completely changing the shape of his team.

However, despite that, I believe Pekerman had a positive effect overall. If it weren't for his team-building efforts it's doubtful Argentina would have got so far anyway. One incident will demonstrate what I mean by that. The 2002 World Cup squad did not get along with each other - everyone knew that. One enterprising Argentinean journalist even managed to listen in on the loud arguments inside the dressing room after they were knocked out by putting his ear to the wall. The same journalist had no such luck four years later, as the team was united even in the face of a difficult loss. There were bitter tears and commiserations, and an emotional apology from Pekerman, convinced he had failed them. None of the players blamed him, though, nor did they want him to leave.

So to sum up, thank you, sir, for making Argentinean football great again. Whatever your failings, the self-belief and footballing ethnics you installed in this extraordinarily talented group have more than made up for them, at least in the eyes of this Argentina supporter. Because you made me believe again.

There was going to be an article lambasting Luis Aragones here, but I'm superstitious when it comes to football and follow the rule that it's always inviting bad luck to laugh at the enemy before you play them. Murphy's law dictates that they will then humiliate your team, leaving you looking like an idiot. Don't get me wrong, I really like a lot of the Spanish players, but Aragones, no.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Round 5 of the Spanish League: a belated round-up

I know, I know, this is years late, but since there's a nice international break, at least round 6 hasn't started yet. There's a rough assessment of each team's results so far and their chances attached to each match discussion. So without further ado, my view of the action, beginning with Barca as usual.

Athletic Bilbao 1 - 3 FC Barcelona

FC Barcelona (4-3-3): Valdés; Zambrotta, Marquez, Puyol, Gio; Edmilson (Giuly 31'), Xavi, Deco (Iniesta 61'); Messi, Gudjohnsen (Saviola 71'), Ronaldinho

Atletic Bilbao (4-4-2): Lafuente; Casas (red card 20'), Ustaritz, Sarriegi, Garmendia (Gabilondo 73'); Iraola, Orbaiz, Javi Martinez, Exteberria (Urzaiz 62'); Llorente (Exposito 22'), Yeste

1-0 Yeste 11'
1-1 Ustaritz, o.g. 45'
1-2 Gudjonsen 61'
1-3 Saviola 77'

Red Card: Casas 20'


Going into this match, both clubs will have been very motivated to get a win. Barca were criticized and doubted after their quite pedestrian display in Bremen - in fact, they still are, but I'll go into that later. The pressure from the press combined with the loss of Samuel Eto'o for five months due to injury meant that the team had to be seen to respond well, or risk being labelled a club in crisis. Winning away in the San Mames, which is never an easy stadium for away teams to play in, would steady the boat before the international break.

Athletic had their own, more severe problems, having not yet won a game since the beginning of the season, prompting the club President to step down. People - including yours truly - were beginning to label them as relegation fodder, which is plainly unacceptable to a club of Athletic's proud history and tradition as one of three Spanish clubs never to be relegated. A win against Barca would have kick-started their season.

The Match

Barca formation at the start (4-3-3):


After the substitutions (4-3-3):


I still suck at diagrams, but you get the idea.

Athletic started brightly, launching several dangerous attacks via Yeste and young Llorente, including a couple of shots that Valdes - sigh - fumbled at. Both of Athletic's forwards were excellent, and I felt for poor Llorente when he had to be substituted 22 minutes in. I'd seen the youngster play in the 2005 World Youth Championships where he was very impressive, scoring 5 goals before Spain was knocked out by Argentina in the quarterfinals. Here's hoping he eventually propers at this club which desperately needs a goalscorer right now.

On the Barca side of things, they had their now traditional poor start, playing badly for the first 15 minutes or so. This has widely been chalked up to the large-scale rotations made by Rijkaard (about 6 players for each match), and much as I support the rotation policy, I can't see any other explanation for it. Look at the list of players who came in for this match, having not started in Bremen - Zambrotta, Marquez, Gio, Edmilson, Xavi, Messi, Gudjohnsen. That's almost an entirely different starting XI. All the defensive players, minus Puyol, were different, which meant it took time for them to gel, and it showed with some bad mistakes at the beginning. Zambrotta of all people was too slow in getting back to defend in the move that lead to Yeste's goal, leaving Marquez with no cover.

However, that said, it was an excellent goal, born of great passing and team work. For me, a team goal like that is to be savoured far more than a long-range volley, because of the intricate effort that's gone into it from different members of team. Athletic had their collective tails up after it, launching waves of attacks at the Barca goal, while Barca continued to play their patient passing game instead of piling forward for the equalizer. The approach paid off, largely thanks to Leo Messi's lethal efficiency on quick counters.

Even before his breakaway run at the Bernabeu gifted Eto'o with the opener in last year's game with Real, the Argentinean U20 team was built around Messi's ability to hit teams on the break by making quick runs through the midfield. Barca are usually more the victim of counters due to their tendency to commit so many men forward in attack, but in this case it worked wonders for them. Messi ran through the midfield, rode two attempts by Athletic defenders to foul him, and passed to Gudjohnsen, who was clean through on goal.

Here lies the controversial moment of this match. Defender Casas made a decision to bring the Icelandic international down from behind in the most professional of fouls, and the referee pulled out a red card. This is the decision that has caused Athletic fans to claim that the match was robbed from them. The question, I suppose, is whether or not you think Casas was the last defender, and whether any professional foul from behind should be a straight red. A yellow card would probably have sufficed, although in that case Barca may have some cause to feel aggrieved since Gudjohnsen was through on goal. I would still have preferred a yellow, if only to shut the mouths of those who claim incessantly that Barca are favoured by the referees.

In any case, Casas' sending off meant that Llorente had to be sacrificed to bring on another defender, Athletic dropping into a 4-4-1, trying to hold onto their fragile lead through massed defending. Can't blame them at all for that choice, and if it had worked it would have been a heroic performance, but Barca are not easy to play against if you're 1 man down, since the extra space allows them to play their game.

Needless to say, the rest of the game was mostly Barca-dominated, although it took them quite a while to turn that domination into a goal. Giuly came on at the half-hour mark to boost the attack, Rijkaard throwing everything forward to get the goals as he often does when behind. This meant a shift in formation (as I attempted to illustrate above) with Ronaldinho in the lone playmaker position just behind the three forwards, and Messi moving to the left wing. There was a risk in playing with no defensive midfielders, but it was worth going for when holding a man advantage.

Just as the first half was about to end with Athletic still a goal ahead, a Ronaldinho corner was controlled by Gudjohnsen, who crossed for Puyol. A combination of the captain and his marker Ustaritz bundled the ball into the net. It actually looked quite a nice strike by Puyol the first time I saw it, but ever the honest man he had to go and tell everyone that it was an own goal. It doesn't matter though, he had atoned for his own goal in the last match by forcing another.

Barca's second started with Messi squaring for the ever magnificent Xavi who set up Gudjohnsen with a defence-splitting pass for a clean finish by the number 7 who beat the offside trap and blasted past the keeper. A nice goal, but not nearly as great as the third, in which both second-half substitutes were involved. It was exactly the type of goal I adore, scored by passing the ball on the ground with precision and speed into the area. Given the physical qualities of the Barca attack at that point (Saviola-Messi-Giuly-Iniesta-Xavi are all below 1.75m, making for a truly height-challenged attacking force) it was the only realistic option. A move started by Ronaldinho came to fruition after again a great pass by Xavi to Iniesta, who made one of his clever defender-drawing runs into the box before squaring for Saviola to finish.

All in all, I was happy with Barcelona's performance. Due to the circumstances of the match it's hard to assess the team's level, but from what I saw, the team seems to be regaining some semblance of form again. There was some of the fluid, passing game of last season's game-winning run, which was highly encouraging. All that is of course without taking into account the first 15 minutes, where as I said before we were dreadful. However, just for now the signs are good for the nightmare weeks ahead.

The Players

Valdes was unsteady in the first half, largely untroubled in the second. Far too many worrisome fumbles for my liking. Zambrotta was arguably responsible for the first goal, but he also made some great tackles and good attacking runs, and settled down as the game went on. Still needs to work on his crossing, though. Marquez had a great game, dealing well with the difficult situations he was sometimes presented with when other defenders ventured too far forward. He also had a spectacular first-time shot which hit the post. Would have been a great goal. Puyol was immense, as usual, and full credit to him for the crucial first goal. What a guy. Gio made some good attacking runs and defended fairly well. Sylvinho is better going forward, I think, but Gio may actually work with Ronaldinho better. They seem to be on the same wavelength more when combining.

Edmilson made a couple of mistakes but still looked better than Motta, at least in the 30 minutes he got to play. Seems like he actually picked up a knock in that half-hour which he is struggling to shake off. Why both our holding midfielders are so injury-prone is a mystery for the ages. Xavi had his typical game - if you don't look for him, he can often seem invisible for large stretches, and then he pops up with a killer pass. The work he does in midfield isn't always flashy, but it is crucial to Barca's success. Iniesta will have someway to go yet in displacing him from the starting line-up. Speaking of which, 'Young White' (Chinese Barca fans' nickname for Iniesta) had a great game as a substitute, which unfortunately for him isn't going to convince Rijkaard to change his status from a supersub into a starter, especially given his unimpressive performance starting in Bremen. His assist for Saviola was wonderful, though, very similar to the one for Messi in the first round game against Celta Vigo. More of those, please.

Deco lost the ball a lot, but that's what happens when you try to get past opponents and create plays. He was very lively, but possibly looked a bit tired having played every game so far. He also seems to be suffering the same problem as Frank Lampard, his fellow expert in scoring deflected goals from range. They just aren't going in like they used to. To be fair, Deco had a couple of close ones this time, so maybe his luck is returning. (By the way, does Mourinho teach all his midfield maestros to do that or something? No one else seems to have picked up on the weird Lampard-Deco parallel.)

Messi had a great game, possibly his best as a starter so far this season. Sure, he didn't score, but he also kept possession better and in general gave the Athletic defence the runaround. Directly responsible for getting Casas sent off and heavily involved in attacking play. A cynical foul which earned him a yellow card was very surprising, in the sense that I think he's never been (officially) booked at Barca before. His performance after Giuly came on was a great demonstration of what an attacking player in a free position can do, alternating between the playmaker spot and the left wing with Ronaldinho. If Basile wants to play Messi in a similar free role against Spain, he would do well to look at this match. I'm really hoping that he can get back to his spectacular best before the Chelsea match. He was so brilliant in that game last season - controversial incidents aside - that anything else would seem a let-down.

Giuly came on and looked dangerous, making some good runs and getting in a couple of threatening shots. Hopefully his performance against Bremen was just a fluke and he will continue to provide good competition for Messi. Gudjohnsen more than paid his dues with a goal and an assist, staking his claim as Eto'o's successor. I'm still not convinced by his first touch, but the way he can hold up the ball and play well with his back to goal is very impressive. His goal was well-taken, and the cross for Puyol was well-struck too, so all credit to him.

Saviola came on with 15 minutes to go and duly got himself a goal too, which has got to be good for his chances of succeeding Eto'o as well. I think the main thing that counts against El Conejo (the Rabbit) is his height and physical strength or lack of. Otherwise, his technique is excellent, he makes good runs and even tracks back. He also seems to be in a good patch finishing-wise, which is great because he can have slumps. I was so pleased for him, getting a goal for Barca again 800+ days after the last one, before his dire loan spell at Monaco and slightly better time at Sevilla. Saviola's highest tally at Barca in his previous 3 season spell is 17 goals. Let's hope he can beat that this time round. Forca Saviola, indeed.

And lastly we come on to the hot potato subject of Ronaldinho. I don't know what game some people seems to have seen, but I thought Ronaldinho was actually pretty good. He could work a bit harder, I suppose, but he tried to get past opponents, sent in dangerous passes and even had a couple of pretty good shots at goal. His dead-balls also seem to be improving. There were a couple that were just wide, as opposed to in the Bremen game when his free-kicks were dreadful. I think a return to form is just on the horizon for him. Barca fans must hope that it's sooner rather than later.

Sevilla 1 - 0 Getafe

Don't know much about this game, unfortunately, since Sevilla still don't have a broadcasting deal. But a good result for both sides. Sevilla will be glad to get back to winning ways after the debacle in Madrid, while for Getafe a one-goal loss away to a team like Sevilla isn't overly concerning, especially since the result still leaves them in 9th place. For a club of their size, staying in mid-table is a great achievement, and I don't think they'll have too much trouble doing that this season. Sevilla stay up there with the leaders in 3rd place, and a win against Barca in the Camp Nou in round 6 will see them overtake the defending champions.

Mallorca 1 - 2 Villarreal

The Yellow Submarines continued their return to winning ways, and not a moment too soon for a team with European aspirations. The old strike partnership of Jose Mari and Diego Forlan, rather than shoehorning Nihat in there instead, is paying off with both goals coming from a Jose Mari pass finished by Forlan. Granted, the first came from a comical error by the Mallorca defence, which Forlan seized on to blast the ball into the net, but that's what a number 9 type striker is supposed to be like. (Forlan, ironically enough, is number 5 for his side. WTF?) The second was a nice header off yet another Jose Mari cross, without the comedy defending this time.

Mallorca's goal was quite a good one, Villarreal's inability to clear corners notwithstanding. The 'clearance' went straight to Jankovic outside the box, and he made no mistake with a first-time shot into the back of the net. Still, the Submarines have the victory to build on, which moves them up to 10th on the table. Mallorca are only 2 points off them at 13th place, but they'll want to actually win again soon.

Zaragoza 2 - 2 Levante

Zaragoza are still flattering to deceive. Having bought in almost as many good players over the off-season as Atletico Madrid, expectations were high for this season. This was supposed to be the year in which they journeyed out of mid-table mediocrity, but if they keep doing what they did against Levante it ain't gonna happen. They'll have expected to win this game against the newly promoted team from Valencia, not to be two goals behind at half-time. The first was a shot from distance off a botched clearance, but the second was pure lax defending. Granted, they had some bad luck in front of goal, but playing at home this shouldn't be happening at all.

Zaragoza's first goal came courtesy of an Aimar assist, which makes me happy. The second was even higher in Argentine-content, D'Alessandro's shot only needing the slightest of pokes from Diego Milito on the goal-line after taking a deflection off a defender and then the post for the easiest goal he'll ever score. It's a good sign that they can pull back like that, but really, it cannot be seen as a good result. Levante on the other hand now lie in 12th place, which isn't a bad place to be after the way they started the season. They have some hope of staying up this season.

Depor 2 - 0 Real Sociedad

Two late goals saved Deportivo from yet another draw with below-par opposition. Young Antonio Barragan (on loan from Liverpool) opened the scoring with a shot that came off the crossbar. The second came from a quick counter, Riki breaking into the box from the right to score from what looked an impossibly tight angle. The win leaves Depor sitting pretty in 6th equal place, while poor Sociedad look like relegation fodder with only 1 point so far out of a possible 15.

Recreativo 2 - 0 Betis

New boys Recreativo are surprising many people so far this season with credible performances against supposedly stronger oppositon. This win over Betis is a case in point. They're a strange club, Betis. Just a few weeks ago they looked pretty good with great new signings in Rafael Sobis and David Odonkor, but results haven't really been that good. Maybe they'll come good with time. In any case, it was a harsh loss for them going down to two late goals, but both were the result of bad defending and they can only blame themselves.

Recreativo are up where they'd probably never expected to be - 6th place, just behind the 5 big guns. If they can keep this going then there should be no worries at all about relegation. Betis on the other hand really shouldn't be the sort of club who have to worry about going down, having defeated Chelsea in the Champions League just last season, but they were nearly relegated and are just 1 point clear of the relegation places right now. Not a good place to be.

Real Madrid 1 - 1 Atlético

Ahh, the Madrid derby. Atletico dominated the first half-hour, and their opening goal was excellent. A Torres pass headed down brilliantly by Maxi and finished well by Mista. Only some really poor finishing prevented them from being further ahead. Real levelled the score with their first shot against the run of play, but give credit where it's due - it was an excellent goal by Raul off a great pass by Guti. He got between the two defenders perfectly and fired home. I found the whole pointing at the name on the back of his shirt celebration slightly unsavoury, but I'm not the greatest striker out of Spain in the last 20 years.

The big talking point in this match was a clear exaggeration of contact by Fernando Torres when Sergio Ramos put an arm across his chest. He went down clutching his face in a re-enactment of the World Cup incident between Thierry Henry and Carles Puyol, except Henry didn't get Puyol sent off. Don't get me wrong, I'm no Real supporter, but it's pretty clear from the footage what happened. You couldn't really say it was a dive, but there was definitely acting involved. That coupled with Torres' inability to score against the club he hates yet again perfectly sums up my frustration with him.

Anyway, that aside Atletico can only blame themselves for not taking all 3 points, with almost everyone taking their turn to miss a clear chance to put them ahead. Real can't be pleased with the result, but they should be at least satisfied that they salvaged a draw after being down to 10 men for so long, and after being somewhat outplayed. They sit in 4th place having drawn two games, which isn't a bad place to be considering the leaders play the 3rd placed side in the next round. Atletico will be cursing this draw for a while to come, since it could have seen them overtake Real in the table. Still, 5th place is a very good start to the season considering the teams they've had to play. Maybe this will finally be their year after so many years of underachievement. We'll see.

Racing 1 - 1 Celta

Celta were unlucky to be denied an opener by the post and would live to regret it. Racing's shiny new giant striker Zigic opened the scoring from a corner. It was a header from the Serbian Peter Crouch, of course. Celta then proceeded to waste more chances but eventually pulled one back through a pass by Gustavo Lopez finished by Iriney. They had the post to thank for that goal, and for its eventual penalty 'save' after Lopez had bought Zigic down.

Both teams needed to win this game, and will be unhappy with a draw, Celta more so I'd imagine given their loftier aspirations. Racing need points more badly though, since they have only 2 and sit deep in the relegation places, only cushioned by the awfulness of Sociedad. From what I've seen this season, Racing aren't that terrible and really should be winning at least some games against weak opponents. Celta aren't weak, but you wouldn't know it by looking at the table. They're 14th, which is a long way down from the UEFA Cup place finish of last season.

Espanyol 0 - 0 Osasuna

Bore draw for Espanyol, who've been continuing their glorious tradition of inconsistency. If I sound happy about it, I'm not. Espanyol have one of my favourite young Argentinean players - former U20 World Cup-winning captain Pablo Zabaleta, and I don't want him mired in a club forever in relegation trouble, or God forbid, actually relegated. They're in 15th place, which is fairly dire, but will probably stay up if the current trends continue simply because there are 3 clubs worse than they are (Sociedad, for example). Osasuna looked like they were recovering from the poor run of results at the beginning of the season, but I guess they shouldn't be too concerned about this result since they're usually very strong at home. An away draw is somewhat acceptable, even against teams like Espanyol. They're 11th, which reflects their poor start to the season, and getting back to the giddy heights of 4th that they achieved last season will be very difficult.

Valencia 4 - 0 Nastic

Poor Nastic were thrashed by Valencia despite putting up a good fight in the first half. Fernando Morientes is an amazing finisher, and I say this about the man whose striking partner is the best Spanish goalscorer right now. I don't know what they did to him at Liverpool, but Spain evidently suits him a lot more. His goal off Villa's cross in the first half was a perfect predator's finish. There was a whiff of offside about the ball to Villa, but Nastic were never going to get the call playing in the Mestella. Oh yeah, their coach got sent off for yelling at the assistant ref soon after. Oops. Inevitably Villa opened his account in the second half by putting the ball in the net off a clever low free-kick by Gavilan. It looked a fine goal since virtually both teams were massed inside the box, and the ball somehow found its way in between everyone. Valencia's third was again from Villa, but most of the hard work was done by Gavilan who rounded the keeper and sent a pass towards goal, Villa finishin at point-blank range. The fourth goal was scored by Angulo off a rebound of a shot by Edu.

The scoreline is very harsh on Nastic, who while inferior to Valencia in skill and organisation were not horrible enough for such a drubbing. But the reality is they let in 4 goals against a strong Valencia side who are very good at taking all their chances. The victory means that Valencia are now second in the table just behind Barca on a goal difference of 1. They look like serious challengers this time around. Nastic look the shakiest of the newcomers right now, although being 16th isn't disastrous just yet. Like I said about Espanyol, there are worse sides at the moment.

A proper preview of Spain-Argentina to come, when I have all the up-to-date information on who'll be playing and what formation.