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.

No comments: