Without futher ado:
Werder Bremen (4-1-3-2): Wiese; Fritz, Mertesacker, Naldo, Schulz; Baumann; Frings, Borowski, Diego; Hunt (Owomoyela 91'), Klose
FC Barcelona (4-3-3): Valdés; Oleguer, Thuram, Puyol, Sylvinho (Zambrotta 82') ; Motta, Iniesta, Deco; Giuly (Messi 65'), Eto'o (Gudjohnson 65'), RonaldinhoGoals:
1-0 Puyol o.g. (56')
1-1 Messi (89')
Barca were disastrous for the first 15 minutes. Just incredibly poor, no coherence, inability to string two passes together, Motta, Iniesta and Giuly invisible against Bremen's physical approach.
Both Ronaldinho and Deco said after the match that Barca's troubles stemmed from lacking a man in midfield, and I think that's evident from the match itself. As Ronaldinho dropped back into a midfield position the team improved greatly, got lots more possession and started getting shots on goal. Before that we were just getting out-hustled and out-manned in the middle of the park, which is just not something that happens to Barcelona. That said, Motta, Iniesta and Giuly were still not getting involved enough. I expect that kind of thing out of Giuly because he just has a game like that once in a while, but not people like Iniesta and Motta who have aspirations of becoming starters ahead of very good players in Edmilson and Xavi. To be fair, Iniesta improved as the game went on, but that's not going to change his supersub status. Motta is a whole other kettle of fish I will discuss later.
Nice to see the edge come into Barca's game after the own goal, although I wish it could have been there from the very beginning. After that it became more of an even game, with Barca picking up greater steam after each of the substitutions. Messi immediately made the right wing threatening again and in fact lifted the whole offence to a better level. Zambrotta's entrance meant that Barca's ability to recover lost possession got much better immediately, which was invaluable leading up to the goal. In the end, Deco and Messi combined to rescue a point for Barcelona with a typically Barca move.
I disagree strongly with those who say that Barca were outclassed all over the park. If they were, why was Bremen's only goal scored by Puyol? Hunt had a great game in every other aspect, but his finishing was pretty bad. So many chances wasted with speculative efforts from range. Klose on the other hand couldn't be blamed for not scoring since he wasn't even fully fit and was a bit unlucky as well. I agree that Barca's midfield were beaten by Bremen's, and all credit to them, especially Frings and Diego, but the two teams were in no way a class apart from each other. That said, Barca will need to get into form quickly if they even want to get out of the group.
I'm going to miss Eto'o a lot, no matter how well his replacements do. Did you see that run he made on about the 22nd minute mark? Intercepted the ball from a Bremen corner, ran the whole length of the pitch lightning quick and was only stopped by Frings' interception just outside the box. This is why I love him as a player. The forward line as a whole were ineffective before the double substitution, but Eto'o worked as hard as ever before he had to go off. Get well soon, Sammy.
Gudjohnsen looked a little shaky, but comparisons with Eto'o are never flattering and he did the best he could, making some good passes and holding off defenders well. His ability to penetrate a good defence by himself is something I'm not yet convinced by, but we'll see.
Ronaldinho was ordinary. I think that's the best way to describe his performance. He improved after Messi and Gudjohnsen came on, but if Sylvinho wasn't the nice guy we all know he is, he could have smacked Ronnie for wasting the nth great pass/cross from him. I won't slam him, because he always starts slowly and maybe things will improve soon, but it is worrying.
Like I mentioned above, Giuly had one of those games. Undoubtedly a great player, he's nevertheless prone to unstable form - one moment he's scoring the goal that sends Barca to the Champions League final, the next he's unable to get a touch of the ball all game. Not his fault, especially against such a big, physical team, and not exactly worrying given how good his replacement is.
Stand up Leo Messi, or as some Barca fans cheekily call him, the 'Messi-ah'. Visitors to this blog will have seen my rambling rebukes of what some in the media have called his loss of form. Like Rijkaard said, though, one flat match does not a loss of form make. Cutting through all the arguments about his deficiencies in front of goal, his age and physical strength, I believe that what counts is the fact that Messi always delivers when Barca needs him to. Case in point: scoring the vital game-tying goal.
I thought Deco was the best of the midfielders, which - it has to be said - is not a great achievement in this match. He did the best he could while being constantly harried by 3, 4 Bremen players and coped better than Iniesta with the physical aspects of the game. Tracked back to help defend well, as always, and was rewarded for his labours by making the Barca goal with a great pass. For those who wonder why Deco is never rotated (including yours truly), I guess we have the answer. Truly a born winner, and Barca are lucky to have him.
If my assessment of Iniesta above in the match report sounded harsh, rest assured he's actually one of my favourite Barca players. Great runs through the middle of the pitch, good passing vision, spirited hard work and a nice shooting touch combines to make him a potentially fearsome player. He is, however, young and still growing. The defensive aspect of his game needs work, since the great effort he puts in doesn't always pay off. He also needs lessons from Deco on how to cope with being kicked around - not by diving, god forbid; that's the one thing I dislike about Deco, and hopefully he won't pass it on to the young guys. Right now Iniesta does great work regularly as an impact sub, but I do have to question Rijkaard's decision to start him against a team like Bremen. Maybe Xavi was tired out from the difficult game against Valencia or nursing a knock. Otherwise I can't see his reasoning.
On to the complicated problem of Thiago Motta. For those of you who don't frequent Barca fan forums, Motta is a regular hate-figure for Barca supporters along with Oleguer, who I'll discuss below. I'm usually reluctant to join in with what I see as unfair blame being heaped on the poor guy, but in this case...well. He's actually not a bad passer of the ball, but defensively rather worrying. In that aspect I would rate him ahead of Iniesta and Xavi but still not good enough for a defensive midfielder. It is said that Rijkaard rates Motta because he sees the young Brazilian as a player in his own image, but I really don't see it - yet. He is far from effective as a midfield destroyer in current form. I'm not saying he doesn't put in the effort. The problem is that his tackling is often so untidy and badly timed that it leads to either comedy defending or him being booked. That said, I'd like to see a midfield of Deco-Motta-Edmilson against Chelsea again, if possible, since to me Motta does provide a combination of defensive muscle and forward movement that meshes well with Deco and Edmilson's game against a side like Chelsea.
Sylvinho played a blinder offensively, I thought, and the lack of product was more due to the forwards (particularly Ronaldinho) not being able to do anything with his wonderful crosses and throughballs than anything else. He faded towards the end of the game and the decision to bring on Zambrotta was the correct one, but that doesn't affect the overall strength of his performance. Not too many problems in defence, which was a pleasant surprise.
As for the great Lilian Thuram - what can I say? Yet another commanding performance from the ageless Frenchman. Let almost nothing past him, great tackling and marking, domination in the air - the best of the Barca defenders, to me, even with the errors he did make. I've just been amazed by his defensive style. He's played 3 games for Barca this season and you can count the number of times he's been called for a foul on the fingers of one hand. Motta should take lessons in how to time your tackles from this guy. Definitely the new Larsson, since he also began with lowered expectations from the fans because of his age and has gone on to win their affection with his attitude and general excellence.
Poor Puyol. The great folks at a pretty move call him the Armoured Saint, which I love because it's a great reflection of just how committed, genuine and hardworking he is, and how much the fans adore him for it. He looked so crushed with the own goal. As much as Bremen deserved a goal, Puyol certainly didn't deserve that. What a comedown after scoring his first goal in European competition against Levski Sofia. Other than that, he was fairly solid in central defence. Late on a couple of Bremen moves, but made up for it by working his ass off, as usual. No Barca supporter would have blamed him even if his own goal had cost the team all the points, which to me says it all, really.
I don't like to criticize Oleguer because he gets so much stick from the fans as it is, but if you look at Bremen's attacks, the most threatening ones came through the right, and he failed to close that wing down. That said, he grew into the game as it went on and made some great interceptions in the last 10 minutes or so. My guess is that having not played a full game since the beginning of the season, he needed sometime to get back to match sharpness, and throwing him in at the deep end wasn't a good way to do that. To me, he's a center-back, not a right-back. Barca have 2 actual right-backs in Belletti and Zambrotta, and while Belletti is defensively questionable that shouldn't mean poor Oleguer gets to play out of position and get blamed for everything that goes wrong.
Lastly, pride of place goes to Valdes, who did very well coping with being put under constant pressure, especially in the first half, a position he's not exactly used to. Some great saves, and generally an assured performance. I remember watching El Clasico from November of last year and swearing at the TV as he flapped at Madrid's ineffective crosses and mishit shots. Thankfully, he's improved since then. Perhaps Valdes should be given the benefit of the doubt now, especially after doing so well in the Champions League final.
I do not understand why this man is constantly belittled by the fans. I do not understand why even now some fans want him replaced with a 'big name'. Maybe he doesn't shout enough? To me, Barca's recent successes could not have come without him. He's admirably forthright, level-headed and very, very good at man-management. Sure, some of his starting choices might seem a little inexplicable, even to a fan of the man like me, but his substitutions are usually pretty much spot-on. Those who were bitching about the starting line-up after the game might want to recall that the team had just played a gruelling match against Valencia a couple of days ago in which half the team got the stuffing kicked out of them. Hence the rotations. Anyway, enough of that, another rant for another day.
Not impressive, frankly. I know that Barca's style can be hampered by teams who snap at their heels all over the pitch, but that should not be an excuse for a team with title aspirations. Almost every team will try to stop Barca playing their game that way, and we should be dealing with that. That said, it is a good sign that the team is able to continue playing in the same style even when a goal down and come back strongly. Everyone is working hard and doing their best. Considering that it took Barca until mid-October of last year to really start playing well, I'm not panicking just yet.
However, the loss of Eto'o is massive. My initial reaction was one of complete despair. I felt like we could kiss all the titles goodbye. But if the team can click with either one of his replacements - both quality players in their own right - then all hope is not lost. Let's just see what happens over the next month.
Klose is a great forward who I quite like, but there's just one thing I can't stand about him. It's the way he always looks like he's going to injure the goalkeeper crashing into him going up for 50/50 balls in the box. Remember that knee in the ribs of Argentinean goalkeeper Abbondanzieri which meant he had to go off with an injury in the World Cup quarterfinals? I do, because I'm convinced that started the chain of events which led to Argentina losing the game. My heart stopped everytime him and Valdes crashed into each other. Thank God nothing bad happened. Anyhow, that's enough bias from me.
That Naldo, though, what a great defender. So fast and good with his positioning as well - I haven't see a defender keep up with Eto'o so well for a while, and he completely shut Ronaldinho down when the Brazilian went up against him.
Frings and Diego both had great games, and I've already talked about Hunt. Borowski was less involved, but the point about Bremen's performance isn't who did what - they performed well as a team. Everything clicked together, everyone gave their all. If they can continue playing like this, they'll trouble Chelsea when they come to visit, which makes it even more important for Barca to win their other games against Levski and Bremen and try for a result against Chelsea.
A note about commentary
The ESPN commentators were better than some of the guys they had for the World Cup, but God - did a player have to kill someone to get booked in the eyes of these guys? Or do they just watch a lot of Premiership games? I mean, yes, the ref did stop play a bit too much, but those Bremen midfielders play rough, and guys like Motta aren't exactly gentle defenders either.
Also, I get so fed up with commentators who keep saying that Barca need to basically abandon their style of play because otherwise they're never going to score. There was a hilarious moment in the ESPN broadcast of the Champions League final of last season when one of the commentators was busy insisting that Barca needed to stop playing their passing game and try hoofing long balls into the box to break Arsenal down when Eto'o completed a lightning fast passing move by scoring the levelling goal. At the beginning of the Premiership season I felt bad for Arsenal for precisely this reason - everyone was saying the same thing about them, except they did actually have a scoring problem. For both teams, though, that style is part of their identity. To insist that a team like Barca need to use long-ball tactics to score goals is to miss the point.
Finally, great stadium atmosphere at Bremen, I have to say. Now if only we can pack the Camp Nou and give the German team a similar reception when they visit. Actually, before that, we have to 'welcome' Chelsea, but I'm sure that won't be a problem for the faithful at all. Reproduce the atmosphere of last season's semi-final home leg against AC Milan and Camp Nou will really live up to its reputation.
Up next, my take on round 5 of La Liga.