Wednesday, November 29, 2006

A early look at the title races and relegation battles: Spain

Over in La Liga, it's still very tight at the top of the table, but a gap is starting to open up between the first 3 teams and the rest of the top 10, who are very closely packed together. I think the battle for a European place will be just as fierce as the title race this time around.

While Barcelona, Sevilla and Real Madrid try to keep pace with each other at the top, Real Zaragoza, Celta Vigo, Atletico Madrid, Getafe, Valencia, Villarreal, Deportivo La Coruna and even newly promoted Recreativo de Huelva all have a good shot at the European places if they don't screw themselves over. Down in the relegation zone, things are already looking bleak for several 'contenders'.

the title contenders

Even with an injury crisis up front, Barcelona aren't going to give anything away. My primary worry is that the team will run out of steam as the season goes on, due to FIFA's insistence on making the Champions League winners play a whole lot more games than everyone else, thus stunting their actual chances (no wonder no defending champions have won again after the Champions League was re-organised). Everybody else will have a Christmas break while Barca has to go off to Japan to play the World Club Championship.

Personally I want Rijkaard to field non-starters only, unless we reach the final. Nice as it would be to win the only international title Barca don't have yet, it's not worth risking other, bigger, titles for. On the other hand at least Eto'o, Messi and hopefully Saviola will be fresh for the last few months of the season.

Sevilla's title challenge seems to be real, as they're only 1 point off the top after 12 games and have dealt well with the loss of Jesus Navas. They have the best home record of any team in the league and some great results away as well. With Barcelona struggling to stay in the Champions League and the squad thinned up front through injury, this could well be Sevilla's year.

On the other hand, Real Madrid are well and truly back - if not to playing good football, which they are some distance short of achieving, but to getting vital results week in, week out. The next few matches are important to them given that their only playmaker Guti is suspended and injured. It will be interesting to see how Capello copes - I suspect he knows that the approach he took at Valencia isn't the actual solution.

european candidates

Zaragoza have some wonderful players, and enough overall quality to take them into the Champions League. Their problem is the leaky defence, not to mention a poor disciplinary record. They also need to work on consistency, which I suspect is as much a mental problem as anything else. Hopefully they won't crash and burn like last season and will make a European competition, be it the UEFA Cup or the Champions League.

I'm not sure what's going on with Celta. They have great away results due to their slick counter-attacking system, but home form has been rather more wobbly. There's a lot of quality in the squad, and the team itself is well organised. Their coach is a smart guy. Probably not quite good enough for a Champions League place, but they certainly have enough to qualify for the UEFA Cup yet again.

Atletico Madrid had a great squad at the beginning of the season, and played very well indeed. They looked good for Champions League place. But as we all know, they're the 'cursed' team of La Liga. Something always happens. They now have a rash of injury problems, Fernando Torres has been a little hit-and-miss, and you can't blame an inability to put the ball in the back of the net on the referee. (Seriously, Atletico supporters seem to insist on a referee conspiracy against them more than any other club's supporters, almost as much as Barca fans did during the bad old barren years. I'd say the problem is deeper than that.)

Getafe are an odd team, in a lot of ways. Their manager Schuster loves running his mouth off, but the former Barca and Real Madrid player also seems to have acquired a knack for turning unknown players from the bench of a small club or one in the second division into gems. That's the key to Getafe's incredible success given their modest means. They're well-organised, defend very well and have players who can capitalise on the counter. Having lost many of their best players (most of whom have Schuster to thank for their career) this season, they simply keep grinding out results. Not quite good enough for the Champions League, but the UEFA Cup certainly looks possible.

Valencia are watching their title chances disappear over the horizon right now. At the beginning of the season, they looked like the ones who were going to give Barca and Real a run for their money, alongside Sevilla. Sure, injuries were mounting, but the squad was so big that they were dealing with it fine.

But as the ridiculously long injury list got longer, they began increasingly relying on their two strikers, both of whom had so far avoided the dreaded treatment room, to get them out of jail. The problem with that is once those strikers get injured, then you're really in trouble - and that's what happened against Real Madrid. I know the Real defence isn't that great, but you still have to have an actual striker if you want to score against them.

As the squad is worn down to its bare bones, it's now clear that the club's sporting director and former player Carboni has bought very badly. Not only did he clash repeatedly with coach Flores over who to sign, the players he did sign have not exactly been a success. Morientes has done well, sure, but any idiot knows that El Moro is a great striker going by his record in Spain. England just didn't suit him.

Look at Carboni's other signings. Del Horno hasn't played a single minute, spending all his time in the treatment room and operating table. He's out til January. Tavano wants to go back to Italy because Flores would rather play a winger up front than use an actual forward like him. Joaquin has carried over his poor form from old club Real Betis and is increasingly being squeezed out of the starting eleven. Given how much he cost (almost as much as Samuel Eto'o's transfer to Barca), this is a real disaster for the club.

I really don't know what's going to happen to Valencia. They might rally and get themselves up into the Champions League places again once the injuries blow over, but a valid title challenge looks a little unlikely, given the unstable internal situation within the club.

Villarreal have a host of problems of their own. The team and the fans aren't getting along so well, for one. Forlan was booed for playing like his Manchester United self at the beginning of the season, which Riquelme, amongst others, took offence to. Now Riquelme himself is unhappy with the way the team have been getting booed as a whole.

I think the behaviour of the fans is ridiculous. Villarreal aren't playing all that badly. If they're having trouble, maybe that's because they have their own injury crisis to deal with. The loss of Gonzalo Rodriguez has left a hole in a formerly watertight defence - and replacements Fuentes and, er, Pascal Cygan haven't really been impressive. Up front Robert Pires, who was supposed to replace Sorin, is out with a long-term injury. Other new signings Cani and Nihat have only impressed in flashes, and now the latter is injured too.

Most importantly, Riquelme is going through a bad patch, and Riquelme's mood affects the whole team. They're not in a good place mentally right now. Without Roman, they let their heads drop far too quickly against Barca - which you're not supposed to do at the Camp Nou, because then the hosts will hammer you. At times like these they really need the support of their home fans to get their heads right again. A couple of victories should set them on their way, and they might very well snatch a European place, but that all depends on the form of one man. Let's hope Roman is up to it.

Depor are yet another oddity. They have great form at home and were well on course to a European spot until they seemed to hit a stumbling block a few weeks ago. The recent defeat inflicted on them by the previously dire Osasuna was an alarming sign of decline. Even away, 4-1 should not have been the scoreline if Depor had played anywhere near their normal standards.

I really don't know what's going to happen there - they have so many new players and such a young squad that it's hard to tell if they're going to be able to find some consistent form and keep it through the season. Maybe a UEFA Cup spot is possible, but anything higher looks unlikely - perhaps next season, after the young squad has had more time to grow together?

This season's surprise fresh-promotee success Recreativo may also have a shot at Europe, but it remains to be seen how ambitious they are, and if the squad is big enough to go further than just avoid dropping down, which looks like a easy task for them at this point.

relegation bait

Poor Real Sociedad have been rooted to the bottom of the table for quite an impressive length of time. They still haven't won a game and only have 5 points, but seem to be improving under new coach Lotina. Against Atletico they produced a solid defensive performance which saw them finally move off the bottom of the table, albeit only on goal difference. I think their season may very well pick up from here. They'll be in danger all through it because of their exceptionally poor start, but things are getting better. Sociedad only have to look at the way Mallorca play - grinding out results by playing as many men behind the ball as possible - and how well that has served the island club to see how their present system might produce similar results. It won't be pretty, but I have a feeling that barring an implosion, they will manage it.

New promotees Gimnastic have not found life in the top flight pleasant at all. The third Catalan team in the first division has struggled to adapt and now lie bottom of the table with a goal difference of -15. Pretty appalling, but then they have played a lot of top sides and were unlucky to lose out a few times. Given that they've just fired their manager (impressive trigger-happy tendencies from La Liga boards, as usual), I don't foresee a real upturn in their fortunes. Definite relegation candidates at this point.

Athletic Bilbao rounds off the bottom 3. Now, personally, I would hate for Athletic to be relegated. They have maintained the proud record of having never been relegated while sticking to their unique Basque-only selection policy, which hasn't been easy in the last couple of seasons. Losing key players such as Ezquerro and Del Horno has not helped, as recruitment is a lot more difficult for them than for your average club. The last time I saw them play, I thought that they had a few quality players, particularly up front - Llorente is a pretty good youngster, and Yeste can be brilliant sometimes.

Perhaps they lack a bit of quality at the back, but that's certainly not what their coach was saying - about 24 hours before he got the sack. I hate the way La Liga treats managers, by the way. I really don't think he deserved to go, as there wasn't much he could really do, at least from where I'm standing. Much as I hate to say it, it looks like Athletic will struggle again this year, even if they do manage to bring in some reinforcements in January. Fingers crossed they won't be going down.

The case of Real Betis is a strange one. They shouldn't be in relegation trouble at all, given the quality of their squad and the displays they can put in. Losing Oliveira was a big blow, but Joaquin hadn't been playing well for ages anyway, so selling him should hardly be the cause of their misery. Reportedly it's the club owner's interference in selection and transfers that has bought all this about, which is predictable enough in a league where semi-crazy dictator-style men with no understanding of football get all the power. City 'rivals' Sevilla's great fortunes must also be getting them down.

I'd be surprised if they were relegated, because of the amount of talent and potential in the team. Betis won the Copa del Rey in 04-05, least we forget, and finished 4th in the league. The season after that they were relegation battlers, but still managed to beat Chelsea in the group stages of the Champions League along the way. It would be a shame if they couldn't arrest their downwards spiral.

the coming winter

The fixtures before Christmas are crucial to the shape of the top of the table. Real Madrid and Sevilla will play each other, while other top clashes include Valencia v Depor, Valencia v Zaragoza, and Celta v Villarreal. It is very important to Barca that they pick up as many points as possible during this period, since it gives them a chance to build up a cushion before the clash with Atletico Madrid, which they will probably lose. The only team to beat Barca at home in all competitions last season comes to the Camp Nou on the 20th of December. Barca must ensure that they can afford to drop a few points by then.

(I'm writing a less in-depth version of this for both Serie A and the Premiership as well.)

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Barca v Villarreal and the day's other action - the brief version

Barca 4-0 Villarreal

More comprehensive match report to come, but for now, the quick version - keeping in mind that these two are my first and second teams, respectively.

thumbs up
Ronaldinho. Simply the best. He now has 50 goals for Barca. And leading the scoring charts in Spain, no less.

Here's Villarreal's Argentine keeper Barbosa on his second goal:

"At least I will appear in all the shots of that goal," he said sheepishly.

"When he received the ball, I had no idea that he was going to try 'la Chilena.' [what South Americans call the overhead kick] This is the first time I have played against him, and the truth is that he has had an absolutely gigantic game."

thumbs down
Bookings for goal celebrations. After a goal like that? Are you kidding me?

thumbs up
Andres Iniesta. If Ronnie hadn't scored that wondergoal, people would be talking about his volley.

More goals in this season than his previous ones put together - and only a couple of months in. So far this season he has 3 goals in the league, 2 goals in the Champions League, and 4 assists (all in the league). Brilliant stuff in general. Thank God he didn't go to Real Madrid.

(This is really hard for me as Xavi is one of my favourite players ever, and he's playing well, too. But in this form Iniesta must start if he's not too knackered to. Rijkaard knows that. If only we had the same wonderful selection headaches up front as we do in midfield.)

By the way, that wrist-kissing celebration after his goal in Sofia was apparently in honour of his girlfriend Anna (awww). He did a bit of club-badge smacking this time around, which from him - been with the club since he was 12 - is only fair enough.

In the last few seasons, an Iniesta goal celebration would be a collector's item, since it was so rare. This season he's scoring so often that he's going to have to start putting thought into them.

thumbs down
You know, if he were say, Brazilian and pretty enough to do ads for Armani (instead of an appearance that earns him the nicknames Draculinho and Casper), the football press would be drooling over 'the next superstar' or something like that endlessly right now.

thumbs up
Gudjohnsen scoring again.

thumbs down
Gudjohnsen going down far too easily for the penalty. If he was pulled, it was a very little pull. Seriously, stop it. You can't blame the ref when the player is the one doing it.

thumbs up
That second half display.

thumbs down
Giuly remarking the other day that Barca are now used to starting badly. That's not something you want to get used to, especially against top teams.

thumbs up
A great team performance from Barca, full of hard work and determination but also good football. Pretty much everybody played well. Complacency, what complacency?

thumbs down
As for Villarreal...well, I'll let their classy coach Pellegrini take it:

"It was an even game before the penalty. After Barca took the lead with the penalty it affected the mind of our players, and they took their opportunities then. Perhaps we didn't play well after going down 0-1, but that has nothing to do with Riquelme not being there. But Villarreal do seem like a different team without Roman."

A fair post-match assessment, without any whining or ungraciousness. Good stuff. That last sentence is especially true. Come on, Roman, your team needs you, and they need the real you.

thumbs up
Having phrases like 'great display of attacking football' associated with Barca again. I'd almost forgotten what that felt like.

thumbs down
Wishing that the phrases associated with Villarreal after they beat Inter last season would come back.

quick comments on other matches

thumbs up
Real Sociedad. Finally off the bottom of the table with their hard fought point away to Atletico, although they still haven't won in the league and may very well be back on the bottom after this round finishes. They are looking better, especially in defence.

thumbs down
Atletico Madrid. Just...what? How?

thumbs up
Paolo Maldini. What will Milan do when he retires?

thumbs down
The Milan strike force might as well go on strike, for all the goals they've been scoring.

thumbs up
Tevez's performance for West Ham.

thumbs down
Him storming off in a huff after being substituted. Carlitos, you can do that after you've scored 10 goals in the Premiership.

thumbs up
Gareth Southgate, Martin O'Neill, Steve Coppell, and Chris Coleman, for their (mostly) gracious acceptance of the fact that the referee is a human being in their post-match interviews. It's nice to see so much common sense breaking out.

thumbs down
Jose Mourinho. He's already started complaining about referees, and Chelsea hasn't even lost to Manchester United yet.

Quote of the day

"Gourcuff could be my Messi. Yes, Ronaldinho has Messi and I have Gourcuff!"

From the one and only Ricardo Izecson dos Santos Leite, commonly known as Kaka. Okay, man. Whatever you say.

La Liga preview and other random bits

La Liga Previews

My two favourite teams play each other on Saturday. I'd find it a lot harder to decide who to cheer for if Riquelme was going to play, but he isn't. Understandably, Roman wants to be present at the birth of his third child. Captain Alvarez picked up an injury in last week's match and will not be available. A shame, as he's been playing well. Also missing for Villarreal are long-term injury victims Pires, Gonzalo and now Nihat.

On the Barca side of things, Motta has a fever of all things and Marquez is nursing a knock from the Levski game. Both are okay to play, but are left out for precautionary reasons. This means that Thuram (or, for a surprise, Oleguer) and Edmilson should probably start. However, Belletti is available after sitting out quite a few weeks because of various injuries. Other than that, long-term injury victims Messi, Eto'o and Saviola are also unavailable, although word on the latter is that he will make a faster than expected recovery from his muscle problem.

It's fair to say that so far this season the form of the Submarines have given me more grief than the form of Barca. It's been incredibly frustrating at times to watch them struggle at a mediocre level when you know what they are capable of. While the same might be said of Barca at times, at least the blaugrana league position does not reflect that. (If you want to see a big side who are really having problems, look down and read my post on AC Milan.) The difference being that Rijkaard's side know how to focus, work hard and grind out results every week even when things aren't going smoothly. This is a game Barca will be looking to take full points from, despite the difficulties Villarreal have given them in the past, especially away in El Madrigal. It won't be easy, but going by past record, it should at least be entertaining.

The big game, though, will be Valencia v Real. Unfortunately David Villa has been added to the incredibly long injury list at Valencia, but there are conflicting reports on whether or not he will play. Doctor's orders recommended at least 7 more days of rest, that's all I'll say. If I were coach Flores I'd use a 4-5-1, kind of like the one he used against Barca, but with Morientes alone up front. (No matter how important this game is, it's not worth risking losing Villa for longer.) Assuming, of course, that he can find 5 fit midfielders. After all, 'El Moro' has a record of scoring against his old club.

Guti is unavailable for Real, being both suspended and injured. The only other relevant injuries for Real (meaning players who are even remotely likely to start) are Ronaldo, facing a late fitness test, and Helguera, who is doubtful.

This is a big game for Valencia, no doubt about that, but it's also a chance for Real to shut the mouths of some critics. If they can win by a comfortable margin, then it would be difficult for anyone to doubt them as a genuine, consistent force this season. Only the most purist of Real supporters would be booing Capello's style after that.

The other interesting game between two 'big' sides is Celta hosting Real Zaragoza. Personally, I'm hoping that Zaragoza end up in Europe next season, because players like Aimar, the Milito brothers, and D'Alessandro deserve to be seen on a bigger stage. But Celta are in Europe now, which could affect their league form this season. They're a great counter-attacking side away from home, but in their own stadium they're obliged to come out and play more, which could create gaps for Zaragoza - also great on the counter - to exploit. Should be a cracker.

a (very short) note on Frank Rijkaard

Ronaldinho says that he can't imagine a Barca without Rijkaard. You hear that, club suits?

Random headline fun

"Messi and Mascherano Followed By Inter"

That's not 'following' in Messi's case. That's called stalking, especially when Barca have pretty much slapped a huge, neon yellow, blinking 'hands off' sign on the young Argentine. Moratti kind of creeps me out when he goes on about how the only player he goes crazy for is Messi, how he dreams about bringing Messi to Inter, etc etc - and he does it all the time.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

The State of AC Milan and a rant about the big teams

Poor Milan. By which - for once - I don't mean Inter. They just can't catch a break. While results in the Champions League have been satisfactory, they're only a few points off the relegation places in Serie A. The size of the gap between them and leaders Inter (22 points) means that they can't even blame the points deduction for their league position. They've simply not won games.

And now injuries are mounting up too. The latest is that Dida will be out for 2 to 3 months. His substitute is the Australian Kalac who you may recall dropping a clanger in Australia's game with Croatia which nearly costs the Aussies qualification for the knockout rounds.

The likes of Maldini and Gilardino have been coming out to defend the team and say that things will improve, while even their frightening overlord president Berlusconi (whose name I can never spell, sigh) have been saying nice things about a team whose results must really be annoying him.

Everyone blames their problems on bad luck. That's BS, if you'll excuse me for saying so. It's sad when teams dominate matches but fail to capitalize, but it's also no one else's fault but your own. Happens to the best teams - watch any goal-less draw Barca were involved in last season (there's not that many to choose from), or Manchester United's loss to Celtic, or Real Madrid's recent home loss to Celta. I could go on. But there's no point in people moaning about it when it happens. Sure, it would be nice if the side that played more football actually won the game, but there are other things to take into account. Think about it from the 'smaller' team's perspective. They deserve some reward for their organisation and their labours, as long as they don't play like thugs. Counter-attacking football has its moments of beauty.

I've gotten off topic here, but to summarise the point of this little rant: If you - you in this case being a 'big' team - dominate a match but don't score enough goals to win it, then it's your own damn fault. Stop blaming everything from the referee to the Feng Shui.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Barca round-up

I've been having a crazy time lately with my holiday job, hence the lack of posts. Some thoughts below on all matters Barca recently.

La Liga

Good to keep the winning form going, especially away to the most defensively solid team in the league in Mallorca - well, not anymore. It's still looking very tight in the top 8, so Barca are going to have to hang on through our injury problems and grind out results when necessary.

Having said that, I've already discarded the 3 points against Atletico Madrid. We almost never win against them. A club is only allowed one 'black beast' club in my book, and ours is Atletico - and, by implication, Torres. (He'd be a great buy if all that your club needed to do was beat Barcelona every week.) But that's okay, because a lot of the other top 8 teams are playing each other in the next few rounds, and will probably take points off each other in the process.

Champions League

I was so relieved we won in Sofia - 'without playing', as Sport claimed - which keeps the club's qualification chances in its own hands. By the way, I've been very impressed with the way Levski have approached the Champions League - with positive football and sensible responses to defeat. Fair play to them.

Chelsea of course lost to Bremen 0-1, a result which ensures that they will qualify and places Barca in the position of having to win against Bremen in the last game to get through. I'm not blaming Mourinho - he fielded a strong side and no doubt went out to at least get some sort of result. Hell, he even complained to the press later that Frings went down too easily in winning the freekick that led to the Bremen goal, so you know he took it seriously. In fact, I wouldn't have blamed him if he'd rested some players with the Manchester United match coming up, so his behaviour has been above what I expected.

As for Bremen, they need any result they can get. A good win for them, and they now have everything to play for - and pretty much nothing to lose, unlike Barca. Fair enough.

As both Motta and Deco have insisted - neither of them fans of Chelsea, kind of like yours truly - Barca should not hope for favours from Mourinho's team. It's their business what they do, after having gotten such good results from their first 4 games, and they have every right to do whatever makes them happy.

On the other hand, it's up to Barca to make sure that qualification does happen. A team with aspirations of defending their title shouldn't have to - or want to - rely on anyone else's sportsmanship or results. It's all down to a single game, at the Camp Nou, in which we have to win. There's nothing wrong with that.

Food for thought

Here's Bremen coach Thomas Schaaf on what his team is going to do at the Camp Nou:

"We set ourselves ambitious aims and so far we have reached them all in excellent fashion, but we shouldn’t travel to Barcelona thinking that all we have to do is defend.

"If you allow them to play their game, they’re going to hammer us. We have to take the game to them instead."

I don't know if we're in the kind of form (or have the kind of players fit) to 'hammer' a side like Bremen, but if they do take the game to Barca (and judging by past record, they will), with the way Barca almost always play at home it could make for a good encounter. Like against Chelsea, Barca cannot afford to give away cheap set pieces, since Bremen have some - to quote a Mourinhoism - 'giants' who are very good at capitalising.

Medical problems

Something's not right here. Poor Belletti keeps getting injured again right after 'recovering' from a short-term injury, and they keep screwing up the recovery times for other players. Please tell me Messi's not going to be out for double the time he's actually supposed to be (again). Or, God forbid, the same happening to Eto'o.

More immediately, Ronaldinho, Marquez and Motta all picked up knocks in the game against Levski. This is very, very bad. Marquez - who has admittedly been a bit out of sorts lately - can be replaced by either Oleguer (competent, but unable to make up for Puyol's lack of speed) or Thuram (again, same thing - awesomely skilled but not the fastest player around, and not quite on the same wavelength as Puyol a lot of the time). Hopefully Edmilson will be available in place of Motta if necessary. It's a shame since Motta's finally hit a good patch of form and to return to his eternal injury hell would set him back once again.

Ronaldinho, though. If Barca lose him, we're in deep trouble. That would be our 4th forward injured, not to mention our entire first choice forward line - enough to send any club into a deep spiral of despair. In this case, the prospect of Ezquerro-Gudjohnsen-Giuly taking on Bremen on the 5th does not fill me with confidence, even if the match is at home.

First impressions are that all three are just knocks, although knowing the Barca medical staff I'm waiting for them to be examined properly first - which will probably happen today.

Player status

To finish on a cheerful note, how good is Iniesta right now? And it's looking like a productive season in terms of goals for him too. Much as I like Xavi - and I like Xavi a lot - it's hard to see Iniesta not starting in this form. Not only that, but he has shown repeatedly that while quiet, he is a leadership figure on the pitch already at the tender age of 22. I was especially impressed when he was the one going around rallying the troops, calming people down and communicating with the referee when necessary against Depor, in a match where Barca desperately needed a leader after what happened against Chelsea and Puyol's tragic absence. He stepped up, even more so than our actual captain on the day - first vice-captain Ronaldinho.

While him and Xavi are both the quiet type, Iniesta seems to me to be even more of a leader figure. Xavi, bless him, is almost too easy-going. I've said this before, but Barca need to hold on to Iniesta. It's hard to see him not being pelted with offers for teams where he'll start every match, but it should be possible for the club to retain him as very possibly a future captain if they play their cards right. There the precedent of Xavi - who has turned down Chelsea, amongst others, to stay at Barca even through the bad old years - may come in useful.

Back to the selection headache, there's also the option of playing both Xavi and Iniesta, which has been used successfully before. The problem with that is that Deco is working his ass off right now, and getting a lot of constructive, if unglamorous work done. I don't think playing all 3 of them is a good idea unless we're at home and the opposition are playing with 10 men behind the ball - and that applies whether Xavi or Iniesta plays in the holding role. Then again, since Messi's out, all 3 might play with more regularity - with Iniesta in Giuly's usual position, instead of further back in midfield.

It's nice to see Gudjohnsen, Ezquerro and now Giuly getting on the scoresheet, when the team needed them to produce. Especially Guddy - I really like the attitude he has shown so far this season, despite all my criticisms of his technique. It's great that he's finally starting to answer back to all the naysayers. I'd gladly eat my words if he'd score more. As for poor Santi Ezquerro, the forgotten man now has a chance to get some games for Barca and prove his worth.

I've long admired Giuly's ability to suffer in silence given how frustrating it must be to be stuck behind a kid 10 years younger for a starting spot, especially given what he is capable of, and his glittering record so far. Much as I hate the fact that Messi is injured yet again, I like Giuly and would love for him to go on a run of form that will see him challenge Messi even when the Argentine is fit. More goals would also be nice.

Finally, as I mentioned before, congratulations are due to Motta, who is 'benefitting' from Edmilson's various injury problems and after a couple of games seems to be hitting some form. This is great news as he is Barca's best at linking attack and defence when his elusive good form comes about. Long may it continue.

Friday, November 17, 2006

The Vexing Case of the Little Rabbit: Javier Saviola and FC Barcelona

As someone who is both a Barca fan and an Argentina fan, I've commented on blogs all around on one or the other about Javier Saviola's current situation at Barcelona. Having seen Argentina fans and Barcelona fans break into all-out flame wars over this topic on forums more than once, I felt that a full write-up of the facts and my own opinions on the problem might be useful.

the past

another new Maradona - the beginning

It is the year 1999. Javier Pedro Saviola is a small youth loved by the fans of his club River Plate for his boyish enthusiasm and clever eye for goal. They nickname him El Conejo, the Little Rabbit, for his dangerous scurrying runs into the opposition box (and for his front teeth, which resembled that of a rabbit). Together with prodigious midfielder Pablo Aimar - brilliantly talented and hailed as the next Maradona - Javier is part of a marvelous River Plate side. The magic four of Aimar, Saviola, Columbian striker Juan Pablo Angel and the legendary Ariel Ortega lift this great Argentinean club to two league titles ahead of eternal rival Boca Juniors. El Conejo, for his part, finishs as the league's top scorer for one of those winning seasons and with the South American Footballer of the Year award for 1999. He is 18 years old at this time.

Meanwhile, over in Spain, Louis van Gaal's Barcelona is winning titles. However, behind the veneer of success a subtle decline is beginning, on the playing front from a team of glorious attacking players who knew how to win to a collection of dispirited individuals addicted to the losing habit; this decline is matched by the once-glorious institution of the club rotting from within as it begins to lose track of its identity and its bank balance. A period of pain for all Barca supporters marked by gross mismanagement from the club board on all fronts arrives, with the election of Joan Gaspart as club president in the year 2000, as van Gaal and long-time president Nunez are ousted for failing to deliver in Europe.

It is the year 2001. Javier has just taken the World Youth Championship by storm as a member of the winning team, crowning his marvelous tournament by taking both the Golden Boot and the Golden Ball awards, the former with a goal tally of 11, a record that will take some beating. The only other person who had finished the competition with both awards was none other than Diego Maradona himself, and the race is on to claim Javier as the next Diego, the great hope that Argentinean football always desperately craves. This makes him hot property - and highly prized - for a possible European move.

Meanwhile, over in Barcelona, things are not going so well. Gaspart had managed to lose star Luis Figo to Real Madrid, an event which is still a bitter memory for many Barca fans, and one which some believe had a traumatic effect on Gaspart. Over the next few years, he would spend incredible amounts of money on the player of the moment, regardless of the desires of the coach, desperately trying to buy some success in the face of the unstoppable Galactico machine. The Juan Roman Riquelme transfer was one such dealing. Even worse, some believe that the trauma of losing Figo to Real - who offered better conditions - lead to Gaspart tying his star players to unreasonably expensive contracts in order to prevent them leaving, despite the club being near-broke. Here's a telling illustration of the results of that policy: when he left office, paying Patrick 'Nightclub' Kluviert's took up 10% of Barca's wage bill. Gaspart spent 200 million euros in his 3-year rule on 16 players, most of whom have now been sold off at bargain prices. And how many trophies did this madness bring? None.

It was under these conditions that the 20-year-old Javier Saviola left his native Argentina for the seriously big time, to be thrown in at the deep end at one of Europe's most impatient clubs, with some of the most demanding supporters in the world.

At such a young age, he cost Barca an astonishing 33 million euros, which is a very large sum for 2001, plus 6 million for his agent. In comparison, Pablo Aimar cost Valencia 24 million at around the same time.

Here's another comparison. How much did Ronaldinho cost? 30 million. Samuel Eto'o? 25 million, and even then some fans were grumbling that the club overpaid for him. (Overpaid! The very thought of suggesting such a notion is hysterically funny now.)

In many ways, the Saviola transfer was a perfect representation of the excesses of the Gaspart era, and it set the stage for the problems of today.

"Saviola, Saviola, Saviola" - 3 seasons at Barca

The part inside the quotation marks came from an old frontpage headline of Catalan sports daily - entitled, imaginatively enough, 'Sport'. It came after Saviola had scored a hattrick for Barca. The wonderboy made a good start to life in Spain under coach Carles Rexach, forming a useful partnership with Kluviert (and that phrase tells you how quickly football changes - 01-02 wasn't that long ago). He scored 17 goals in 36 appearances - not bad, given that 'main' striker Kluviert only got one more. The fans became very fond of El Conejo. His commitment and hard-working attitude was refreshing, especially when put next to Nightclub Patrick and many of the other players.

Things began to go downhill in 02-03, however. Saviola was played out on the wings, where he was largely ineffective, by the returning van Gaal in a truly horrible run of results that ended with the coach's sacking. At that time, the club was just 3 points outside the relegation zone. Emergency coach Antic was bought in to save Barca's season, which he duly did, ensuring that Barca would not say goodbye to European football for the first time in its history by guiding the club to a 6th place finish. Javier also fared better under Antic, scoring 11 goals under his charge in the second half of the season to take his tally up to 16.

03-04 represents a historical upturn in fortunes for Barcelona as a club, as new president Laporta got very, very lucky with two deals. One of these was signing Ronaldinho as a consolation to the fans for not getting Beckham, which was what he'd promised to do if elected. The second was taking a gamble on Frank Rijkaard as coach after Koeman and Hiddink had turned the job down. It certainly didn't look like a smart hire in the first half of the season, as Barca remained mired in the bottom half of the table with a string of bad results leading to increasing calls for Rijkaard's head. Then the club bothered to listen to the coach and actually signed a holding midfielder during the January transfer window, and results took off. A 15 match unbeaten run left Barca with a second place finish, above Real Madrid.

So that's all great. What about Saviola? Rijkaard's 4-3-3 favoured the use of only one central striker, which was the increasingly useless Patrick Kluviert. So it saw Javier benched a bit, although he still clocked up 33 matches. More importantly, Kluviert - much like the Ronaldo of today - was frequently unfit and therefore injured a lot. This gave Saviola opportunities to start, and he grabbed them with both hands, forming a great understanding with Ronaldinho and Luis Garcia upfront. He finished with 14 goals - not a lot, but far more than Kluviert had managed, and just 1 off team top scorer Ronaldinho's 15.

rabbit overboard - transfers and loans

In the summer of 2004, an atmosphere of optimism enveloped Barcelona after the way the team had finished last season. Optimism, and increasingly daring ambition. The board splashed out on new players, including 2 great center forwards in Henrik Larsson and Samuel Eto'o. Saviola came back from his stint as a substitute in Argentina's Olympics victory to find himself surplus to requirements. He was loaned out to Monaco, where he had a torrid league season, scoring only 7 goals, but not a bad Champions League campaign, with 4 goals in 7 games.

He was loaned out yet again in 05-06, this time to Sevilla, missing out on Barca's Champions League triumph. Again he found it difficult to find the net in the league, managing only 9 goals, but things went much better in Europe. His first European trophy came in the form of the Spanish club's UEFA Cup win, during which he again performed admirably, netting 6 goals.

That brings us to this season, which is the last on Saviola's contract. It's clear that Barca tried to sell him during the transfer window, but to no avail. Reportedly the club received many offers, but most were either outside the Argentine's requirements (he only wanted to play in either Spain or England) or they got spooked by his salary demands. No offer came that would suit both parties. Desperate to trim the squad (and cut down on salary costs), the club eventually offered to let him leave as a free agent. Yet in the end, Javier opted to stay.

the current situation

the squad

By even the most hostile reports, Saviola has not made a negative impact on the team spirit at Barca. He gets along well with a lot of the players from his last stint at Barca, particularly Ronaldinho and Xavi, with whom he has an instinctive partnership. Popularity in the dressing room is not hard to come by for an amiable guy who simply stays out of trouble and works hard, and maybe that's why Javier is so well-liked amongst the squad.

Under previous coaches, the Barca dressing room used to be plagued by the Dutch gang, who were all powerful. The current group of Brazilian players who dominate the squad are careful to avoid the tag of a clique and have great relationships with both Argentineans, which is a great credit to them. One only has to look at the problems Inter had with Adriano and their 7 Argentineans to see what can happen. Not at Barca, thankfully.

the press and the fans

A survey in one of the Catalan sports papers found that most fans were of the opinion that Saviola had stayed at Barca for the money. His case divides opinion bitterly on fan forums. The aftementioned papers, who often sing the same tune as the club management had been attacking him for weeks on end during the transfer window.

Despite this, most want him to start ahead of Gudjohnsen now that Eto'o is out injured, and the faithful at the Camp Nou week in week out love him. No sooner had he appeared as a substitute against Valencia, his first official appearance for Barca after 2 seasons - 854 days, to be precise - out in the cold, an appearance which was much heralded by the home faithful and described by Sid Lowe in this excellent Guardian column, then some fans unveiled a giant 'FORCA SAVIOLA' banner, as captured by the TV cameras. The response to him coming on against Zaragoza was an ovation and a massive roar; the response to his stoppage-time goal against Zaragoza was ear-drum shattering and went on and on.

Overall, there seems to be a shift in the balance of power. The press are now being easier on him, perhaps confused by the conflicting signals sent out by the coaching team and the board. There's a lot more talk about his good attitude, his popularity within the squad, and how his hard work in training (not to mention goals scored) has perhaps earned him a starting spot. Even some of the more anti-Conejo fans have come around to this last idea. After all, it's difficult to sustain a vendetta against someone who just puts their head down, works hard and doesn't complain, even more so when that someone has bags of skill that the team urgently needs.

club management

Just for purposes of clarity, when I say 'club management', I mean the president, the director and their gang, who make a lot of transfer-related decisions and aren't necessarily loyal to the coach. (In fact, director Beguiristain was all ready to stick the knife into Rijkaard's back when he wasn't doing so well.)

Here's Rijkaard's explanation of the transfer process at Barca:

"If I think the team need something extra I discuss it with Txiki Beguiristain, our technical director, and with [then] vice-president Sandro Rosell and president Joan Laporta. Then they go to find the players who fulfil those criteria. Where they come from is immaterial. The priority is having the right players for the needs of the team."

To be fair, they also have to worry about the financial aspects of the club.

There's a lot of gossip about who's really pushing for what in the Saviola saga, and the following is my own view of events. I've arrived at these conclusions by a mix of what's accepted as conventional wisdom in Spanish football circles and reasoning based on hard evidence.

Firstly, the management's position. Let's be clear what the sticking point is. Javier's very expensive contract - 55 million euros is the sum Barca have spent on him - ends in June of next year.

It's not hard to see why a board as financially careful as Laporta's want to sell him in January. They've probably pressured Rijkaard not to cup-tie him for that purpose, hence his non-appearance in the Champions League so far this season. (I hope to be proven wrong on this point, but that's what events so far point to.) Barca has spent a lot of money on Saviola and the money-men would like to get some of it back by selling him on, instead of letting him leave on a free at the end of the season.

Reportedly Saviola actually wants to renew his contract, but even he must know that's not possible, especially with its current salary demands. Even if he were to accept a contract on reduced terms - which, let's face it, would be no great shame since the likes of Xavi and Puyol had to do the same at the beginning of the Laporta era, only to earn themselves better contracts after successful seasons under Rijkaard - it seems like Javier is permanently out of favour with Beguiristain, and not likely to ever be back in it. There are commonly 2 reasons cited for this. The first is his unwillingness to renegotiate his contract, and the second his insistence on going to the Olympics in 2004 to sit on the bench for Argentina.

As Saviola himself tells it, he came back to find himself out of favour and was quickly sent out on loan. The fact that the club had signed Henrik Larsson and Samuel Eto'o during that time probably didn't help matters. Beguiristain is probably the biggest obstacle to Saviola getting games while at Barca and certainly a decisive factor in any decision about his future, especially since his word seems to be final on transfers.

coaching staff

Everybody says that Rijkaard doesn't like Saviola, and that's why he's not getting games. I think this is rubbish. The latest reports before Javier got injured hinted at divisions within the club on whether or not to play Saviola. After the above discussion about the technical staff, it's easy to guess who's arguing for what.

I think after the Depor game (his first start this season in the league) and the cup game against Badalona Saviola had actually worked himself up to about almost equal status with Gudjohnsen in the coach's eyes. Even though he didn't get to start against Zaragoza, Rijkaard was becoming more willing to throw him on, if Gudjohnsen's particular qualities weren't making an impact.

The bottom line is that apparently Rijkaard prefers a target-man type forward as his center striker in the 4-3-3, which is why he wasn't even convinced by the purchase of Eto'o. I'm not sure how much I buy this theory, given his previous success with using Saviola as the tip of the forward 3, but I do see the possible objection about using him when the other forwards don't exactly have much physical presence in the box. It would be very easy to muscle them out of games. This throwaway comment from the Eurosport livescore of the Depor match made me laugh out loud at the time, but it is illustrative:

"Saviola loses out to Lopo, tough leading the line solo when you're only a little wabbit."

On the other hand, he knows the system that Barca play in and have a good understanding with players like Ronaldinho, Xavi and Messi. That results in great, defence-ripping passing moves. And of course his pace and technique are wonderful.


For those who don't know, Saviola pulled a muscle in the Zaragoza game, where he once again put in a great performance, which would have surely earned him even more chances. He'll be out for at least a month. As that would make his return date mid-December, a lot of this post wold seem a little redundant, especially if Barca try to offload him in the January transfer window.

Personally, I don't think this is going to happen. From what Beguiristain has been saying about the possibility of getting a player in the transfer window for cover (basically that it would result in Barca having '8 forwards' when everyone is fit - a number which includes Saviola) and their actions near the end of the summer transfer window, I'm guessing that club management are finally resigned to letting him go for nothing at the end of the season. The other option, a new contract - which Saviola reportedly wants - doesn't look too possible right now, as I wrote above, but who knows what can happen between now and next June?

This whole saga has been extremely frustrating for those of us who want Saviola to be an option for the Argentinean NT, because he can't do that if he's not playing regularly for a club. He managed to have a good World Cup after a mediocre club season, and his striking partnership with Crespo is still the best we have. Plus, it's always annoying when the career of someone with so much obvious potential and talent is stalling because of a stupid combination of factors.

Edit: to clarify a couple of things regarding Saviola's contract.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

If it ain't take on Barca's transfer needs

There will always be transfer speculation surrounding a club such as Barcelona, and even more so now, with so many players out injured. This is my opinion on the team's short term and long term needs and how they may best be fulfilled.

short term

Most obviously, with the current injury list, we seem to need some striking cover. Reportedly the club are considering their options on this front. As the technical staff have pointed out, however, signing a player in January would leave the unlikely result of the squad being far too overloaded with strikers once the injured players return to fitness. So that leaves out the likes of Albert Luque, especially since he wants more playing time. As much as I love the idea of having another Catalan player in the squad, it doesn't seem practical. We already have a winger who doesn't get nearly enough playing time in Santi Ezquerro.

Moving on, I have to say, regardless of the credibility of the reports, I'm attracted by the idea of getting Henrik Larsson back on loan for 3 months. It appeals to the sentiments of Barca fans who love him, and works in a practical sense because he knows the club and the system. Besides, the Swedish season has just finished, and doesn't start back up in another 4 months. That said, as his current club have said, while a loan deal would appeal to them financially, at the age of 35 Larsson could probably use a long break between seasons, instead of spending it playing, especially since he essentially hasn't stopped playing since the beginning of the 05-06 season, going straight from Barca to the World Cup, and then from that straight back into club football in Sweden. In the end, though, much of it will depend on what Henke thinks about it. I wouldn't be surprised if he refused, even if the club decides to ask. After all, he'd left in the perfect way. No need to risk changing that.

Whatever happens, I hope the club proceed with caution, since our last couple of emergency signings in January haven't exactly worked out. While I'll always be grateful to Maxi Lopez for that Chelsea game, and Albertini for answering our distress call at no great gain to himself, their impact hasn't been that great. In our last majorly injury-ridden season, it was actually the players we already had who really dug deep and pulled through together. Maybe there's a lesson in there.

long term

I'm a firm believer in evolution rather than revolution when it comes to improving the squad. As far as I can see, there are two positions that might prove problematic in the next couple of seasons - left-back, holding midfield and the right wing.

Left-back first. This is an obvious one, given that both our left-backs are over 30 and have their share of critics. Sylvinho is a wonderful wing-back, but has his defensive problems and I don't know how many more years his legs can take of running up and down the left flank all game. Gio is better balanced, but still easily exposed by fast, nimble wingers, and at 31 the second oldest member of the squad. Again, the physical demands placed upon the full-backs in the 4-3-3 system could take its toll.

I'd prefer the coach promoting a young left-back from the youth system to gain some experience with the senior players with a view to taking over, if a suitable candidate exists. If not, it would be nice if we could sign someone young. The current technical staff seem to prefer players who are already used to a European league, especially those from the 'smaller' leagues like Holland, Portugal and France, which seems like a good approach to take. In any case, there's no hurry, so any decision should be taken with caution, which means hopefully no splashing out of large amounts of cash on a 'star' player (by which I am indeed alluding to the Abidal rumours).

Moving on to holding midfield. Barca have had problems in this position for years. Our holding midfielders - Edmilson, Gerard and Motta - seem to be desperately unlucky with injuries. We spent most of 04-05 with all 3 unavailable. Motta missed at least half of 05-06 with various niggling injuries, when not in danger of getting sent off. Edmilson has been somewhat lacking in form this season when not injured. Motta has had one good game. With 2 players covering one position, you don't except to have to draft in less defensive midfielders (Xavi, Iniesta) or a center-back (Marquez) to fill the position effectively.

Furthermore, Edmilson isn't getting any younger at 30. He's been plagued by injury for the last couple of seasons, an alarming trend that doesn't look like going away. Motta, 23, is one of the youngest players in the squad, so he has a lot of room to grow. It's interesting to note that he's been in the first team on and off from 2002, and yet he's still got the same problems with clumsy tackling and more importantly his unstable temperament. I think a lot of this is due to the many lengthy injury lay-offs that have stunted his development as a player - he's never played more than 20 games in a single season. 2005 was almost a complete write-off. Rijkaard really likes Motta because he thinks the Brazilian is a player in his own image, and I sure hope that is the case. When he has a good game, one can see what Rijkaard means. He's better going forward than Edmilson, holds possession well and takes a great freekick too. And of course even a team like Barca need a physical player.

Having said all that, even if Motta does develop into a player who can do the job, I think there's a case for reinforcements in this position. Not necessarily by buying from other clubs, since it's not quite an urgent problem. As always, my preference is for a youth team player to get a chance to come up and establish himself. If that's not possible, then perhaps signing a young player used to European football who won't cost insane amounts of money. Sadly, that last bit rules out players such as Argentinean Javier Mascherano, languishing at West Ham. Someone like, say, fellow Argentinean Lucas Biglia, now of Anderlecht - just as an example - would fit the description. He's just as good as the far more lauded Fernando Gago - who is now seemingly headed to Real Madrid - and would come far cheaper.

Lastly, there's the right wing. I know this sounds a little crazy, given that Barca have Leo Messi in that position, but given how injury-prone he's proven to be, and the fact that Ludovic Giuly, while excellent, is not getting any younger, we should be looking at future prospects - leisurely browsing, really, given the lack of urgency, but still browsing. Giuly is 30 right now, and given both the demands of the position and his physical condition can hardly play 75 minutes without running out of gas. He's still working his ass off and putting in vital performances for now, but what about 2 or 3 years down the line?

Encouragingly, there are quite a few impressive youngsters coming through from the youth teams who can play in the forward positions. 2005 U17 World Cup Silver Ball winner Giovani Dos Santos looks like a good prospect, if only Barca can hold on to him. Unfortunately one of the methods Barca are employing to ensure that Dos Santos doesn't leave involves not pushing to get him Spanish nationality, as an EU passport would make it much easier for other clubs to snatch him. I say unfortunately because this lack of an EU passport works both ways - he can't play for the first team, at least not this season, even if one of the non-EU slots on the team is freed up by his Mexican compatriot Marquez finally getting Spanish citizenship. Even so, this position looks alright for the future, unless - going by track record - Arsenal suddenly take an interest.

In conclusion, I don't think big spending is the answer to any problems the team may have right now. Barca already did that 2 season ago, when we bought in 7 players in the transfer window and made the current squad what it is. If it ain't broke, don't fix it. At least not yet.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

something's rotten in the city of Barcelona

At least the ruby and blue half. Let's look at the injury list, shall we?

Defenders: Belletti (second time this season, out for 2 more weeks)

Midfielders: Xavi (unsure, hairline bone fracture), Iniesta (swelling and pain, probably a few days), Edmilson (second time this season, 10 days with a sprained ankle)

Forwards: Eto'o (at least 3 more months with a meniscus break), Messi (third time this season, 3 months with the dreaded metatarsal break), Saviola (4 to 6 weeks with a strained thigh muscle)

This is like the 04-05 season all over again (where, if you need reminding, Barca somehow managed to stumble over the title-winning finish line while only having 13 fit players for most of the season), except the people who're getting injured are even more central to Barca's play. Eto'o was our best forward until he got crocked in the Champions League. Messi was in superb form until he got injured against Chelsea, and then again in the match against Zaragoza. Saviola has been better than Gudjohnsen by quite a bit lately until he got injured. Iniesta was playing brilliantly.

To lose 4 players in a single game (Messi, Saviola, Iniesta and Edmilson) for periods from a few days to 3 fricking months is just awful. For our next game against Mallorca, we'll still be missing Belletti in defence, which should not be a problem, but even if Xavi and Iniesta are both fit, we'd have no defensive midfielders if Motta's red card appeal doesn't come through.

The biggest problems will be in attack, since a forward line of Ronnie-Gudjohnsen-Giuly, with poor Ezquerro a marginal factor, will be expected to carry Barca for at least a month, through 2 must-win games in the Champions League and of course the league and any other fixtures. It's not a bad forward line, and I'm sure everyone will band together like they did 2 seasons ago and fight with all they have, but we are very, very stretched for cover right now. Another injury - God forbid, touch wood - would be pretty damning.

On the other hand, maybe there's hope for Valencia now, if their injury curse has left them and arrived at Barcelona instead.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Quick poll of Barca fans

So, if you had to choose between 3 points and being back at the top of the league table and losing Leo Messi to injury for 3 fricking months while you're struggling to qualify for the knockout stages of the Champions League, what would you pick?

I'm pleased with the win, but God. What bad luck he's having with injuries. I don't think he's played 10 games without missing 2.

Last but not least, for now - Forca Saviola! God that was satisfying.

(Am back from academic hiatus, so expect a flood of backed-up posts soon.)

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

football press watch: barca in crisis?

Phil Ball's columns on the Spanish league are often full of readable prose, astute insight and a touch of the personal. This week's offering, while suffering from a highly unfortunate title, is no different. His sensitive and sensible assessment of Barcelona's condition in a black week for the club off the pitch is highly welcome and highly recommended.

In my opinion, while our recent run of 1 win and 2 draws in 5 games might look appalling at first glance, one does need to take into account the fact that 2 of those games were against Chelsea, and 1 was against Real Madrid. Furthermore, drawing against Depor was hardly unexpected given the circumstances off the pitch, well covered by Phil in his article.

I firmly believe that the team can pick themselves up and go on to better things, even amidst the on-field and off-field problems. And if you're a depressed Barca supporter, do keep in mind how many points we had at this point last season - 16 - compared to 20 right now. There's no harm in starting slowly if we can get into gear soon.

(I am contemplating a piece specifically about our on-field problems, but the caveat stands. The sky hasn't fallen down. Yet.)

Monday, November 06, 2006

what a weekend of football results around Europe!

An amazing weekend in terms of results as the league leaders of Germany, Spain, France and 2 of the English big four stumbled in their respective leagues. Congratulations are in order to plucky Cottbus, who held Werder Bremen to a 1-1 draw; Deportivo, who battled out a 1-1 draw with Barcelona; Rennes, who beat Lyon 1-0 with the dismissal of their captain and star midfielder Juninho; West Ham, who upset Arsenal 1-0, and last but certainly not least Spurs who beat Chelsea 2-1, as captain John Terry was sent off.

There were also unexpected defeats to Real Madrid, who went down 2-1 at home to Celta and Milan, who lost to Atalanta, but I no longer consider the latter to be in the Serie A race at all, so that's that. Congralutions also to Sevilla who now go top of La Liga, one point clear of Barcelona off the back of their win over Osasuna - more about that in my La Liga round-up to come.

I know many of these results were born of controversial refereeing decisions - or at least the managers will say so, Wenger, Mourinho and Ancelotti alongst those who have already started complaining. Some of them are even correct to do so. But as Frank Rijkaard said before Barca-Chelsea, it's the loser who complains about the result. When the rub of the green goes against you - and it usually doesn't go against a big team, we all know that - that's sad, but ultimately you can't blame the match officials for everything.

A related question is whether Champions League fatigue is one of the reasons for this. I think there's probably a good case for it - Chelsea can be forgiven for being a bit exhausted both emotionally and physically after that epic battle against Barca, and so on. It's interesting to note that Manchester United, who rested several starters and lost their CL game against Copenhagen, went on and won their weekend Premiership game.

In conclusion, it's good to see several of the big leagues opening up a bit. There are real title races going on now in most of the big leagues - maybe not France, as Lyon's lead is far too big, but definitely Germany, Spain, Italy and even England. Good to see.

Currently working on: that 'state of affairs' post about Argentina, and one about Barca's little rabbit, Javier Saviola. And of course a La Liga round-up.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Barca squad news for Depor clash: tragedy strikes

At times like these football seems less important than ever. Barcelona captain Carles Puyol has pulled out of the squad to face Deportivo La Coruna tomorrow following the sudden death of his father in a work-related accident.

R.I.P. Josep Puyol. May you look down upon your son with pride.

I can't imagine what our wonderful captain is feeling right now. This is just awful. Puyol has such a big heart, and he wears it on his sleeve. The condolences already pouring in are proof of the respect he commands all over the world, and of course the heart of all Barca supporters goes out to him.

The squad is also missing Xavi, Gudjohnsen and Eto'o through injury, but this latest news has left me in no mood to comment further.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Champions League: early predictions

I don't think we've seen a team that look like they could sweep all before them yet. Sure, that sometimes means nothing in this competition (see Liverpool 04-05, Porto 03-04) but what I mean in this case is a team who are showing consistent form in the group stages so far. Compare Barca's group stage results last year with what they're like this time around: in 05-06 they won all their group stage games, only drawing one away in Greece. They scored 16 goals and let in only 3. This time they're struggling to qualify. But more on that later.

Take a look at the usual suspects. While Arsenal should be contenders because of the quality of their squad and how well they can play, they still have trouble finding their way through a well-organised defence, as their domestic form and both results against CSKA have shown. It will be interesting to see what Porto can make of them second time round. Manchester United? They just got beaten by Copenhagen. Yeah, it wasn't a full-strength side, but that illustrates their problem. I think it's probably better for Sir Alex to focus on winning the domestic battle rather than obsessing about another European victory - his squad's far too thin for both, especially considering the ridiculous amount of games in the English calender (2 domestic cups? what?) Injuries to a couple of players would damage the ability of his squad severely.

Liverpool can never be discounted. Rafa Benitez is very, very good at winning cup competitions, as his record shows. Contrast their domestic form with their CL form. At their best, they don't let anything through in defence and break decisively in attack. It might not be the type of football I like to watch, but it works very well. That said, you do get the sense that they could struggle a bit because of the amount of ground they need to make up domestically to even get near Chelsea and Manchester United at this point. Still, they look the most likely of the English clubs to challenge, with one exception I'll discuss at the end.

Moving on to Italy, I think a lot of people were discounting the Italian teams at the beginning for various reasons related to the match-fixing scandal. But they are notoriously good at cup competitions. Roma don't look like winners, frankly. Their squad is too small and lacking in quality to sustain compaigns on both fronts, especially since their fans want to have a go at winning Serie A this season.

Inter on the other hand do have a big enough squad, but they're also notoriously liable to fall apart in the later stages of big competitions. I watched them play very well in their win over Milan, but got the sense that a well-organised defence (which Milan's wasn't, I can assure you) could stop them. Crespo's a great forward, and Cruz is producing the goods as usual, but Ibrahimovic isn't the most consistent striker in the world and Adriano is next to useless at this point. They're fairly solid at the back, which is very useful in cup competitions, but somehow still fail to convince me that they have the will to go all the way. Opposing arguments are welcome - I'd love to see good old Zanetti lift Big Cup if my team can't.

Just like Liverpool, Milan can never been discounted, even when they seem to be a bit down domestically. They lack a forward who guarantees goals because they let their best go to Chelsea and didn't replace him. That's going to be a big problem when the going gets tough. Kaka can't hit hattricks in every game. And then there's the defence. I get that most of these guys are legends, and Maldini still looked great when he came on in the Milan derby, but I don't understand how the club could have allowed their backline to become such a collection of monuments without bringing in young talent.

Can't Evil Overlord Berlusconi splash out some money to pluck promising young defenders out of the smaller European leagues to learn under the greats? Costacurta is over 40, you know, and 32' Television Set Cafu (nickname courtesy of the Guardian) isn't getting any younger. Even Nesta hasn't been on form this season after suffering injuries before the World Cup. Anyway, they've got some problems both up front and in the back. I don't see them going all the way, unless of course the draw favours them ridiculously, as happened in the group stages.

I wrote a while ago about how Valencia are the only ones who look like potential winners of the Spanish big three. It looks even worse for those of us who love La Liga now. Real are looking better under Capello, who after all is very experienced with winning cup competitions, but I think they still have some issues to sort out at the back. The real test will be what Lyon can do at the Bernabeu. Real are capable of winning games even if they don't play particularly well, which is a plus in the CL, but right now they are very much reliant on the form of a few players up front (Van Nistelrooy most importantly, and Robinho). Injuries could be a problem as the season drags on because of that. They also need to fight on at least 2 fronts.

Capello's choices so far seems like an indication that he's not taking the Copa del Rey seriously, but that still leaves the league, where Barca aren't going to take anything lying down and a whole host of clubs are nipping at their heels. In conclusion, they haven't really put in a performance to convince me yet (keeping in mind I am the type of person who criticized the Barca midfield after we won 5-0), although there are some good signs.

Valencia are a tricky bunch. I thought they'd be proper contenders at the beginning of the season, both in Europe and at home. Their squad is huge, brimming with talent, and they are a very well organised team. They have 2 brilliant strikers in Villa and Morientes who can't stop scoring, great wingers, a balanced midfield, and a solid backline led by the formidable Roberto Ayala. But their luck with injuries has been absolutely rotten. Half the first choice XI is injured. They've lost their wingers, pretty much all the midfielders and a whole lot of defenders as well. If this injury problem isn't sorted out soon, they can forget about challenging for the league.

Happily they've already qualified for the knockout stages of the CL, so they can focus on getting a complete squad back together in time for those fixtures. If they can manage that then perhaps they will go far. I'm not convinced by the consistency level of Quique Sanchez Flores' team, though. They always seem to crumble at key moments - see their attempts to keep up with Barca in the last 2 seasons, one of which resulted in them being overtaken by Real Madrid near the end and the other just as unsuccessful. By losing to Celta and Racing successively they seem to be showing similar symptoms this time round. That's something they'll have to fix. The CL is unforgiving to teams who fall apart under pressure.

Now we come to the defending champions. Like I pointed out at the beginning, not the best start this time compared to their barnstorming group stage run last season. Admittedly we have a harder group this time, but that shouldn't be an excuse for a team with title winning aspirations. Before even talking about Barca's chances of winning, they have to get out of the group stage, which in itself is going to be very difficult. They need to beat Levski away and then Bremen at home. Bremen in particular are on fire at the moment. Like Deco said, Barca will need to battle to the death at Camp Nou to win on the last matchday.

Assuming we do scramble out of our group somehow even with no strikers (one crocked, one half-crocked, the rest aren't actual strikers), a lot will depend on when Samuel Eto'o gets back, and what kind of form he's in. I believe based on the Chelsea game that Barca as a whole are finally finding some form, but the striker position is still our crucial weakness.

Moving away from the big 3 leagues and on to other contenders. Lyon are arguably the most in-form team in the CL right now. Their problem seems to be falling apart at the later stages. It will remain to be seen whether or not they can change that this time round. One massive advantage is their formidable lead domestically - they really don't have to work too hard to win the title, which will leave more resources for challenging in Europe. I'll reserve judgement on them until they play Real again.

Bayern Munich started this season by declaring that they'd be happy to be in the knockout stages. They've got great results in the group stage, but I'm not convinced they have what it takes to go too much further. Poldoski hasn't settled in; Mark van Bommel, while a good player, is no Ballack; they look shaky at the back and have a tricky domestic campaign this year with Bremen looking stronger. All in all, I don't see what's going to take them far.

Speaking of Werder Bremen, they would have a fair shot of getting past the round of 16 if they managed to qualify. Now, given my allegiances and the situation in the group I have to hope that Barca get through instead, but if it does happen (to much wailing and gashing of teeth on my part) at least Bremen are a positive, attacking team. To qualify they have to get a result at home against Chelsea and then away to Barcelona. Given their recent domestic form that looks very possible, although last season they arrived in the Camp Nou on the back of similar barnstorming domestic feats and were well beaten.

That said, they have improved from last season. Klose is as deadly as ever, especially with young strike partner Aaron Hunt helping out up front. Frings is as good as ever, and even their much-mocked defence is improving with the impressive Naldo and new signing Mertesacker impressing in particular. When on form, they can trouble the defence of any team. I'm stuck hoping that they don't qualify, which is not a nice position to be in because they play lovely football. Still, how insane is group A? The league leaders of England, Spain and Germany battling it out for 2 places.

PSV have looked pretty good at times this season, and they're always contenders, but I'm not sure how genuine their challenge will prove to be in the later stages. Same goes with Porto, if they manage to get through the group stages. I think one of the dark horses this time around could come from their group, namely CSKA Moscow. Their defence is notoriously wall-like and they've got quite a few skillful Brazilians up front, not to mention an exciting homegrown winger. A Villarreal-like run? Maybe. They've got the necessary qualities.

All of which brings me to the team who look most like winners right now. That's Chelsea. They have a big squad, no matter what Mourinho insists, full of quality players. They have a healthy mix of experience and young talent. They have a manager who knows how to win in this competition. Their only weakness as far as I can see is vulnerability along the wings, but hardly any teams use the wings properly these days. Lyon might give them a hard time, but otherwise they have the potential to beat anyone else, and they know it. Of course, whether or not that attitude will prove to be a stumbling block depends on how well Mourinho can regulate his team's mental state, and he can do that very well indeed. Unless they meet nemesis Liverpool again, or an on-form Barca with Samuel Eto'o back, I don't think too many teams stand a chance against them.

Barcelona crocked strikers update

I know we have no strikers right now with a tough away game coming up agains Deportivo La Coruna, but it's not all bad news, Barca fans. Here's the latest on what our crocked goalscorers are up to.

Gudjohnsen's injury isn't as bad as first feared. Carvolho did a number on his ankle, but it's not so bad and he could even be back against Depor. I'm still hoping Rijkaard plays Saviola though, because we all know what happened last time one of ours tried to rush back from an injury (see Messi, 05-06).

Speaking of rushing back from injury, Sammy Eto'o has been spotted walking unaided to the astonishment of even his doctors. Reportedly he's recovering much faster than is normal - which doesn't surprise me, given the last time he was supposed to be out for 6 weeks it was only 10 days. I do hope that he doesn't rush things unduly. It's best for all concerned if he can return fit and ready to play. For those of you not keeping count, he's supposed to be out for 5 months. An optimistic assessment based on his quicker recovery time has him back mid-February.

Only 3 and a bit months to go. I know Rijkaard will be counting down the days.