Saturday, December 30, 2006

A Tale of Two Young Wingers: Quaresma and Messi at Barca

Porto and former Barcelona winger Ricardo Quaresma has been in great form lately, especially in the Champions League. This prompted someone to ask a Barca forum I frequent why Barcelona let him go after just one season (03-04), in part-exchange for Deco. Allow me to give my perspective on that question by way of a comparison.

By the way, I apologize in advance if parts of this post sound a bit tetchy. Quaresma's recent declarations struck a chord (by which I mean his attitude seems to embody some of what I dislike most in a player), and I can never resist defending Frank Rijkaard.


Quaresma was one of new president Laporta's first signings, and one of the least successful alongside Turkish keeper Rustu. He was only 18 years old, and failed to win a starting spot on his preferred right-wing position ahead of the likes of often-injured club icon Luis Enrique and Luis Garcia (not the Espanyol version - the one now at Liverpool). All of which is fairly understandable. But he also grumbled about being made to play on the left-wing and criticised Rijkaard for benching him.

That, of course, proved the end of him at Barca. He went on load to Porto and further hammered nails into the coffin marked 'chance to play for Barca again' by declaring that he would never return while Rijkaard was still coach - which might have looked smarter before the Dutchman won all those trophies.

Quaresma is now much improved at 22, more mature and playing very well indeed on the left. He claims that he would like to return to Barca one day - to put the record straight, so to speak, and demonstrate his actual ability. But he still claims that Rijkaard did not give him enough support at the time.

transfer bitterness

It's fairly logical that out of the players who have left Barca in the past 3 seasons, those who left with medals in their pockets typically have only good things to say about their experiences, while the others are less likely to look back fondly on their time at the Camp Nou.

There are exceptions, of course, but since they're mostly products of the youth system (Cesc, Luis Garcia). Neither Mark van Bommel nor Gabri Garcia got as much time on the pitch as they would have wanted last season, but neither complained about being on the bench at the time. They aren't complaining now either. And of course Henrik Larsson didn't, but that's Larsson for you.

team atmosphere

The above observation is also related to another point - open dissent is not tolerated at Barca. If a player has a problem about something internal - like not playing - they know not to take it to the press. Complaining about a team-mate or about Rijkaard is like ushering yourself out the door.

Occasionally you get someone lamenting their lack of playing time, like Thuram saying a while ago that he could not be content being on the bench so often, but not in a way that implies criticism of team selection. Above all, the atmosphere within the squad is all-important, especially with the scrutiny they're placed under every single day by the ravenous press.

youth and support

I'm writing a separate post about Rijkaard's record with youth team players, but suffice it to say that I think he's done very well by the young players at the club. Therefore Quaresma's lament about lack of support annoyed me for several reasons.

First, unless one is implying that an 18-year-old is deficient compared to an older player in some way, one cannot ask for more support than the older player is getting. And if the young player is deficient and in need of such support, then he should not be starting matches for a club like Barca. Either you're as good as the next, older, guy - good enough to play for the first team - or you're not just yet, and you should be patient and take it upon yourself to improve.

Second, everyone knows the pressure players are put under when playing for a big club with a large fanbase. Your own support can be unforgiving, and this is especially true with Barca. Cules are a special lot, after all - it doesn't take much to get the Camp Nou turning on one of their own, or abandoning an old favourite for a new flame.

(A good example of the latter, by the way, is the way Iniesta has been lauded lately. When he had to come off injured in the home game against Werder Bremen, he was granted one of the most enthusiastic receptions I've ever seen by the Camp Nou, with the entire crowd - or at least that's how loud it sounded - chanting "Iniesta, Iniesta," over and over. And then there was poor Xavi, waiting to come on in the 22-year-old's place. Remember the way he was received when he came back from that knee injury last season? Now he isn't even a guaranteed starter anymore, and his place high up in the fans' affection has been taken by another.

That said, Xavi has been with Barca since he was 11. At the age of 26, he's played 9 seasons for the first team - the most of any member of the current squad - and of course he is an outstanding player, a worthy successor to Guardiola's crown. All that earns you credit, not to mention affection. As soon as Iniesta stepped off the pitch, the chants stopped and as Xavi came on, a tremendous roar went up in his honour. So not quite unloved, then, but you see the change in favourites, and how quick it was.)

Anyway, digression aside, my point is that a player knows what they're in for when they sign for Barca. They're paid to handle that pressure. Very young men play at a very high level, for very famous clubs, and have done for a long time. Whether or not they can take the stress is up to them. Look at Raul, Xavi, Torres, C. Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney. Look at current under-20s like Walcott, Lennon, Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain, (Quaresma team-mate) Anderson and Cesc Fabregas. Look at Leo Messi.

an unfair comparison

I'll admit that the comparison I'm about to make looks deeply unfair. After all, Messi hasn't had to worry about forcing his way into the starting line-up ever since the Gamper Trophy match against Juventus just after he turned 18. But before that, he had been quietly making substitute and friendly appearances for Barca for 2 seasons. At the beginning of the 05-06 season, he was the latest wonderkid of the football world, having left such a deep impression on then Juve coach Capello in one game that the Italian was still raving about him half a year later, and dragged an unspectacular Argentina U-20 side to World Youth Championship glory. But when asked what he would do if he wasn't given chances on the first team, he replied that he'd be happy to wait his chance with the B side. Even before that, he'd accepted going back to the C squad from the B team (because they needed the help to avoid relegation) without fuss.

It's not like the press eased off him in the beginning because he was 16-17 years old either - I vividly remember reading a match report (translated from Spanish) which harshly criticised his performance as a substitute in a match from the 04-05 season.

Rijkaard has used Messi carefully in the past, but he has never tried to coddle the Argentine. In one interview the coach said that if a Barca match was hanging in the balance (the way Argentina's game with Germany in the World Cup was) he would not hesitate to send Messi on in order to deliver the killer blow or rescue the team. As recently as the Champions League game in Bremen, in which substitute Messi scored the vital game-tying goal that in retrospect kept Barca's qualification hopes alive til the last match day, the Dutchman has proven as good as his word.

No one expected Messi to start El Gran Clasico against Real Madrid in the Bernabeu last year. Many expected him to be benched (because of his youth, and in order to protect him) against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge last season. Being booed constantly that evening as well as in the same fixture a season later didn't seem to bother him.

The chances Messi gets in the first team leaves him open to the pressure that Quaresma talked about, and the never-ending critical gaze of the press and fanbase. At one point this season Messi was being slated for 'effort without achievement' (effort in Spanish football does not seem to be seen as a merit on its own, unlike in say England) and bad form because he hadn't done anything game-changing for 2 starts in succession. Now that's pressure.


Rijkaard supports all his players, per their needs, but he will not go beyond his station, which does not involve holding the hands of players who can't cope with being benched, as well as being rich, talented and playing for one of the biggest clubs in Europe. If that's not enough, then that's too bad.

After all that unfocused ranting, a final point. Do I regret that Quaresma isn't displaying his great talent for us? Of course. I feel that way about all good players who leave the club. But if you look at the personnel down the wings for Barca now (barring injury), and the players coming up through the youth ranks, it's hard to feel like we've lost out.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

La Liga news round-up

  • The winter break has come at a good time for Barcelona, as it has been revealed that - as I suspected - some of the 'rested' players during the draw with Atletico were actually sitting out because of niggling injuries. In addition to Edmilson (not injured but sick, poor guy), Marquez, Gio, Sylvinho, Oleguer (and the already injured Zambrotta), Thuram will now be out for a month, as he torn a muscle in the game during the move that lead up to Atletico's equaliser (so we'll know not to blame the poor man now). What's with the muscle injuries?

  • Oh yeah, Deco was yellow-carded in that game for calling the ref 'crazy' repeatedly. I was so mad at Deco when it happened, but now I just want to giggle madly.

  • Villarreal president Roig has laid into star player Juan Roman Riquelme for his attitude and (lack of) contribution so far this season. I feel really bad for Roman. He was dropped last week and Villarreal lost, which is fairly predicable because they can't put together a move in attack without him. That said, they did lose 4-1 to Osasuna with him playing - the match that led to him being dropped. Still, no one ever said he was consistent. Roig knew what he was buying from Barcelona wasn't the happiest player in world football. Sadly, Roman's depressive personality has always affected his level of play.

  • Javier Irureta has quit as coach of Real Betis. Again, I feel bad for him. He did so well with so many clubs in La Liga, and this is his first 'sacking'. It's not his fault his club sold players from under him and then proceeded to undermine everything from his selections to team morale.

Friday, December 22, 2006

At least we didn't lose (again)?

Barca were held to a 1-1 draw by bogey team Atletico Madrid in the last La Liga game of the year, leaving the champions 3 points off leaders Sevilla with a game in hand. Not a bad league position considering how badly we miss Eto'o (and how leaky the defence is right now).

As for the game itself, I always thought we were going to lose because it's Atletico. They were the only side to beat Barca at home last season. Enough said. Then I looked at the squad list and was even more certain - Sylvinho suspended, Gio, Edmilson and Marquez rested, Zambrotta injured (in addition to long-term injuries Eto'o and Messi, of course). No left-backs, plus a frontline and midfield in desperate need of rest (how many games has Iniesta played without rest in such a short period?), in addition to a Ronaldinho who only got one training session before the game thanks to the FIFA World Player of the Year presentation in Zurich - something of a recipe for disaster, I thought.

And then I saw the starting 11 - Oleguer at left-back (WTF?), no Giuly. Kind of crazy, but it almost worked. And then poor Thuram got injured, so Motta had to play center-back, which was almost as scary as seeing Oleguer at left-back. Credit to the Catalan, though, he insisted on playing despite being injured and did a pretty good job.

We have got to stop conceding cheap equalisers - not that Argentine wonderkid (and 'new Messi') Aguero's strike was cheap, nor for that matter Drogba's. You would expect a team like Barca to be able to hang on to a 1-0 advantage, though, even if we're pouring forward in attack instead of sitting back. After all, that's how we got to the Champions League final.

The most infuriating aspect of the draw has to be Deco and Ronaldinho both getting booked for whining to the ref. It's behaviour unworthy of two great players, and bad for the team as a whole as the bookings will lead to both being suspended for the first game of the new year. No Deco and no Ronnie against Getafe - never an easy game to begin with. Thanks, guys.

Actual non-sarcastic thanks must go to Ronnie, too, for that cracking free-kick. Jet lag, what jet lag?

crocked strikers update

For your reading pleasure: an interview with Samuel Eto'o at ESPN Soccernet, where he offers his thoughts on a variety of issues, including how much he misses playing, Zidane's assertion that Eto'o should have won World Player of the Year, his pal Thierry Henry, the Premiership and his own recovery. Good stuff as usual, from a man with 'the brutal honesty of a Speak Your Weight machine in an American shopping mall' (TM Sid Lowe).

According to local media, Eto'o is as good as his word and has been working his socks off to recover quickly. Just don't overdo it, Sammy!

Lionel Messi - the original, one and only - also did an interview with local paper Sport, translated by the good folks of He talks about the importance of Frank Rijkaard, his mentor Ronaldinho and reveals amongst other things that fellow Argentinean international and long-time friend (from his U20 days) Pablo Zabaleta, who plays for city rivals Espanyol, visited him almost everyday when he was stranded at home on crutches for a month. Aww, good to see that bitter city rivalry doesn't come before Argie solidarity.

Messi will return to Argentina tomorrow for the later stages of his recovery. Hopefully he has learned from his last experience and will not rush his comeback this time.

Lastly, former Celtic and Barcelona great Henrik Larsson has began training with Manchester United. I'd like to take this chance to wish Henke every success in his time at United. Here's hoping he leaves Old Trafford a hero, just as when he left Celtic Park and the Camp Nou.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Champions League last 16: early predictions

A lot can change between now and February, it's true, but the essential quality of a team who can win the Champions League shouldn't vary greatly from week to week anyway. So here are my early assessments, which I'll update as the ties get closer.

FC Barcelona-Liverpool FC

The pick of the bunch, for me, along with the next one down. There are obviously a lot of storylines surrounding the tie: the 05-06 holders versus the 04-05 winners; Garcia, Zenden and Reina returning to Catalonia, Rafa Benitez, Mark Gonzalez and Xabi Alonso trending familiar ground; and so on.

It's hard to predict a result, given the bumpy form of both teams (which suggest that neither are favourites to win the whole thing), although things seem to be looking up for Liverpool lately. A lot will depend on the injury situation and the fixture list, the latter of which will be a major disadvantage to Barca. It will be very difficult for the Spanish side, and I really doubt that the games will be great spectacles even if we do get through. Those who think otherwise need to check their expectations against the team's lack of consistency.

Real Madrid CF-FC Bayern Munich

A classic match-up between European giants. In a lot of ways, I think the sense of occasion surrounding this tie will be greater than the matches themselves. Real Madrid also lack a bit of consistency in their performances - sometimes they can actually produce pretty good football - but even when they play awful, negative stuff they can still get the result. Unfortunately Bayern aren't exactly the most exciting team to watch either, not to mention they are a diminished force this season with the personnel changes that have gone on. I think Real Madrid to go through, but not by a whole lot.

FC Internazionale Milano-Valencia CF

What kind of reward is Inter for topping your group? Poor Valencia. They do have an awful, awful record against Inter, including some big defeats at home. Plus, their situation in La Liga isn't very good right now, what with all the points they dropped when major players were injured. That said, they are looking much better now, and will probably have most of their players back by the time this game rolls around. It's hard to say what will happen, because both sides have a track record of letting a perfectly good thing implode on them.

Inter are expected to win Serie A this season, so they are under some pressure. Whether or not they will crack again this time is up in the air - the squad does seem to handle big occasions slightly better now. I'd still question Mancini's coaching skills, but what a squad he has at his disposal. But Valencia also have a large, high quality and - most impressively - very Spanish squad when they're not having an injury crisis. I have a feeling Valencia are getting tougher, just as Inter are. Another close one, I think. Valencia to give Inter some scares, but Inter to hold on -just - and go through.

AS Roma-Olympique Lyonnais

This should be interesting. Lyon are in great form despite having a very depleted forward line through injuries. In reality, they can replace almost anyone, even the excellent Fred, but as long as Juninho is there and firing they're okay. But if he gets injured they're going to struggle. Roma are notoriously poor travellers in Europe, but the home leg in Rome will provide a stiff test for Lyon's ambitions. The French champions have the advantage of not really having to think about their league, since they have a ridiculous lead there already, unlike Roma, who still dream of catching Inter and winning the title but have a bit of chasing to do. Lyon to go through pretty comfortably, as they always do at this stage.

Celtic FC-AC Milan

It depends on how much Milan want this. That seems like a ridiculous thing to say, but I can't really see what's preventing them from doing better, apart from desire. Even with injuries they should not be nearly this bad. Celtic are almost never to be beaten for their fierce desire and commitment in Europe, and their domestic situation is much better than Milan's.

Of course, if Milan can win the Champions League, they can stop worrying about securing 4th spot in Serie A. Let's face it, they shouldn't have been allowed into the competition this year at all, but they got a lifeline from UEFA, along with one of the easiest groups I've ever seen. Nice. If they don't win this tie it will be all their own fault.

Celtic are almost unbeatable at home, but Milan should really take the home leg, even if the injury problems persist. That said, right now Gila is the only one of their forwards actually scoring, which is not a good situation considering his record of 0 goals from the CL last season. Difficult one to call, as it depends on a lot of factors that can change very quickly, but for now I'll go for Milan to squeak through by a couple of late, late goals at home. As they always do.

FC Porto-Chelsea FC

Much as I would like Porto to pull off an upset - not for the reason you might suspect, but more because I would like on-form Argies Lucho Gonzalez and Lisandro Lopez to advance in the Champions League - I don't think it's going to happen. The English champions are too well-organised, too strong mentally and physically and too resourceful. Their current injury concerns and problems at the back should be sorted by then, too. Whatever their players are saying about concentrating on the Premiership, make no mistake, they think this is their year to win the CL. Tournament favourites (yes they are, no matter what anyone tries to spin you with) Chelsea to go through easily.

PSV Eindhoven-Arsenal FC

I actually forgot about this tie at first when I was writing this post, so that tells you just how interested I am. Still, Arsenal should beware PSV, who can play in the style that the Gunners find most frustrating and do it quite efficiently. It may not be pretty, but it might just work. Ronald Koeman is a pretty smart coach who's only getting better at this CL business.

A lot depends on which Arsenal turns up for the games, but I think PSV have an outside chance of an upset here. Not because they might outplay Arsenal, you understand. If PSV do end up going through, Arsene ain't going to be happy, because it will probably be because they've just parked the bus and hit them either on the counter or with a set-piece. Not good for football, but very possible.

Lille OSC-Manchester United FC

This game might seem even more boring than the previous one mentioned, but at least it has a nice backstory to it. Lille got two good results against United last season during a horrible group stage in which they managed to finish bottom, below what many British pundits call 'the French minnows'. Personally, I'd like to remind them that those so-called minnows are regulars in the last 16, and are always there or thereabouts in the French league, finishing either second or third behind the giants Lyon.

(Side note: If you look at their record, United really are generally very poor away from home in Europe, aren't they? And I thought Barca have been wobbly away from home this season...)

Anyway, now that Barca have avoided drawing United, my fondest hope in this tie is for Larsson to come on, score - preferably the decider - and leave a hero. Why not? It seems to happen everywhere he goes.

But that's just my personal fancy. Realisticly, United need to beware the same things as Arsenal - Lille are fairly tight at the back, not to mention mentally tougher from their trials and tribulations in Europe for the last few years. Witness their defeat of - a very poor, it must be said - Milan on the last match-day. Barring an injury crisis, United to have too much attacking power for the French team - but only if Fergie remembers to stick to 4-4-2.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Champions League draw reaction: Barca-Liverpool

Let me make one thing very clear from the start: I have a lot of affection for Liverpool, some of it stemming from their Spanish connections and some from their semi-mythical status. By the latter I mean the rich history of the club, both triumphs and tragedies, and of course the way they earned their place in European Cup folklore in the 04-05 season. They may not be the richest club around (pending that takeover), or the most successful in the Premiership, but in my mind they do have a place in people's memories that is not easily taken away. Please bear that in mind as you read on.

the match-up

All I'm reading from British press is how Barcelona are no good right now without Eto'o, so they're ripe for the plucking by the fearsome might of Liverpool, who will no doubt win. Because...just because. It's kind of pissing me off.

Personally, I didn't want to draw Liverpool, because as I said above I have a lot of respect for their history, the wonder of Anfield, their shrewd coach - a former (and current?) Madridista who is no doubt relishing this chance to put Barca in their place - and their team play. They'd be very hard to break down, and almost impossible to overcome at home. Plus, historically they've had great results against Barca, who haven't beaten Liverpool or even scored against them at home (!) in recent years. However, the biggest blot on that record is the most recent meeting between the two sides, when Barca won 1-3 at Anfield (!) before drawing at the Camp Nou in the second group stage of the old Champions League.

By the way, to those busy polishing up Rafa Benitez's excellent record against Barca while he was Valencia coach: he never faced this Barcelona. (More embarrassingly for us, we really don't do well against Valencia in general, especially at home.) His last season in Spain was also Frank Rijkaard's first. Valencia won at the Camp Nou during his awful start on the job, but they were beaten at their home ground later on in the season, just another statistic in the wonderful run a patched-together Barca managed to put together to finish second that season, above Real Madrid.

Of course, the threat that Benitez poses is best illustrated by the fact that Valencia won the title that season, by being organised, by rotating - basically all the same things he's doing in Liverpool. But the point remains that this current Barcelona is a different animal.

(For example, we managed to get knocked out of the UEFA Cup by Celtic in that season, while in the season after - following the great reconstruction of the squad - we became the only team to have beaten the Scottish side at home in European competition - a record that still stands.)


In my opinion, Liverpool are favourites, but a lot of that comes from the fixture list for the two sides before each tie. Sure, Liverpool have to play Manchester United, but Barca have to visit Valencia (never easy or fun, plus they're title contenders - this is a game I'm already writing off as a lost cause) before the first leg, and Sevilla (who have a perfect record at home so far, and may very well be ahead in the table by then) before the second leg.

Last season, the massive lead Barca had in the league by February allowed them to concentrate on the Champions League and rest players in the Liga ties. If it weren't for those CL games, Barca would have won the title much earlier - as it was, they limped over the finish line a bit, drawing far too many games they should have won instead around March-April. (An illustration of the ease with which the title was won in the end: there were 12 points between Barca and Real, despite Barca all but throwing their final 2 games.)

But this year none of the Spanish sides have that luxury. In fact, the only team I can see with that advantage so far is Lyon. Maybe Inter will have pulled away enough by the end of February too, but who knows with them.

Having said all that, come on - Barca are hardly quaking in their boots and suffering from an inferiority complex (although if you compare our European record, maybe it would be justified), given our recent form and the prospect of having Eto'o and Messi back by the first tie.

If we have at least Eto'o back, I believe Barca are capable of getting a result at Anfield, if we play at our best. That said, keeping a clean sheet in the first leg will be of supreme importance (ah, that pesky away goals rule), perhaps even more than establishing a good lead (which we're unlikely to do - I'd be pleased with 1-0).

Benitez - who has certainly set out his stall psychologically by making some very strong comments, which you can see on Liverpool's official website, (by the way, Rafa, Valencia aren't our bogey team - that dubious honour goes to Atletico Madrid) unlike the comparatively warm and fuzzy 'it'll be a fantastic encounter!' from the direction of Barca's official site - claims that he thinks the sense of complacency which shackled Liverpool against Benfica last season (personally, I thought it was more an inability to score at that point in the season) is creeping into Barca.

Point taken if you're talking about some of the fans, who really need to realize that Barca haven't exactly been playing perfectly for patches of this season, but I doubt Rijkaard will allow it to gain headway with the players. If anything, our perilous situation in the Spanish league means that we do have to be constantly on our toes, looking over our shoulder with respect for the threat posed by other teams. That said, if Barca do play with a sense of complacency and lose, then they will deserve to.

more press criticism

I've really got it in for the British press today, haven't I?

A typical tactic: seizing on Barca president Laporta's random comments about the Beatles instead of the part where he admits that Barca were not favourites to win the tie, and that they had to be humble in order to get a result. Laporta's not that much of an idiot.

While we're on the subject of the press - and idiots - Clive Tyldesley is trying to be one. Both part of the press and an idiot, I mean.

His article on the draw is the finest example of ignorance of European leagues by a pundit I've seen in a while, and I've had to endure commentary from the likes of Tommy Smyth of ESPN. Points that made me laugh: his suggestion that Real Madrid have greater squad depth than Barca (are we talking about the side with only one proper playmaker here?); saying that Valencia are in a similar position to Villarreal at the same point in the last season; that sucking in your domestic league is somehow going to help you win the CL; and last but definitely not least, that Bayern Munich are a 'handy' third in the Bundesliga and therefore well positioned (I think they're a lot more used to being a 'handy' first and probably not too pleased that they're not up there, Clive).

But it's not all bad: Kevin McCarra of the Guardian gets it right, as he almost always does. (Except when he called Chelsea's games with Barca this season 'pleasing'. For who? Everyone was angry about something by the end of that mess.) Good balanced analysis, including that point about Benitez and Rijkaard's tenures I made above that most people are missing.

more reactions

Here's Samuel Eto'o's take:
"I still don't know when I will be back, but barring no surprises, I will be there for Liverpool," he stated.

"Liverpool is a difficult opponent, but I like them."
Frank Rijkaard was trying to focus on the pesky Cup final he has to prepare for:
"I am not thinking about that now," he said. "I am concentrating on the final here. Liverpool is a strong team, with a great history, but I am not thinking about it."
By the way, Deco's (fairly astute) assessment of the draw:
"I didn't spend too much time worrying about who we might get drawn against because we finished second in our group and we knew we'd be facing a top team. Liverpool are a strong side and they are going to make things very difficult for us, particularly in England. We have to win at home, even if it's only 1-0. At the very least we have to keep a clean sheet."
(Deco's a pretty fun interviewee. Here's his response to the question "what would it mean to Barcelona to win the FIFA Club World Cup?"
"In Europe it's seen as a fairly important competition if you win. But if you lose, then it's really important.")
a final (pleasant) thought

Whatever happens, at least it has promise to be a more peaceful tie than Barca's last couple of outings against English teams, or rather team.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Thoughts on the FIFA Club World Cup

Now that the tournament has passed its half-way point, a few general thoughts. Check back in a couple of days for my evaluation of the Barca v America match, plus a general assessment of the players' form at this point of the season. I will say one thing now - this fun cartoon from Catalan daily Sport from before the game really does sum up how far Barcelona have come as a team in the last few years. General translation (from a kindly Spanish speaker): "Without Van Gaal on the bench and Bogarde in defence, it won't be so easy for Piojo Lopez." 'El Piojo', of course, being the once-great Argentinean striker Claudio Lopez, who scored 12 goals against Barca in 15 games while he was playing for Valencia.

El Piojo is no longer the devastating force he once was, but Barca is no longer the wounded, sick giant it once was either.

By the way, if you're looking for coverage of the tournament - since there seems to be none in the British press -'s contest-winning bloggers are doing a great job.

the format

Some of the 'smaller' teams (ie from regions other than UEFA and CONMEBOL) are complaining that the format is rigged for the South American side and the European one to meet in the final. They're right. This needs to change for the tournament to get more exciting. I've seen people suggest adding the UEFA Cup winners (and their equivalent in the other Federations), which seems like a good idea. Perhaps a seeded group stage? Too many teams would probably bring about the same complaints some people have about the group stages of the Champions League and the World Cup (which I think are rubbish, but it is an often-cited complaint).

And then of course there's the problem of finding a big enough gap in the calendars of all the teams to play so many matches - not easy given the variation in season times between the leagues. For example Barca are in the middle of their campaign right now, and probably didn't want to take time out to fly to Japan. Most of the teams from other federations just ended their season recently, and are probably a bit tired. It's not fair on them to be playing a team in the peak of fitness.

One suggestion I've seen for the timing of the CWC is pre-season, which seems good to me. It's an adverse time for the Europeans, but they've got tons of other advantages already anyway, so they shouldn't moan. Besides, it's just like a pre-season tour, except the players will actually get some competitive games in and have a chance to work on their fitness. Commercially it's also similar, because it grants the team more exposure to a different market.

Which brings me to hosting issues. The Japanese love their football, and do a great job organising the tournament, plus turning out in force to the games (and ensuring that Barca pretty much have a home crowd), but hosting it there every year is not good for the CWC itself. Every continent should have a chance to host, given the nature of the tournament.


It's said that everyone bar the Europeans takes the CWC (and its predecessor the Intercontinental Cup) seriously. In fact, the contempt shown towards the tournament by the English-speaking press is really annoying. If all the other teams take it seriously (and they do), the fact that the whole of Europe treats it like a joke is a serious indication of a lack of respect. Or perhaps those people are simply too secure in their belief that European football is superior in everyway to the football played everywhere else in the world. (Least some of you need reminding, Liverpool were beaten last year by San Paulo, who also beat the Barca Dream Team in 1993. And then there's the victory I regard most fondly as someone who appreciates Riquelme's magic - Boca out-playing then-great Real Madrid to defeat them in 2000.)

Sure, as a Barca supporter I'm not too pleased that the team have to jet off in the middle of the season to Japan, but since you have to participate you might as well take it as seriously as your opponents do. It's encouraging so far to see that Barca are taking the tournament seriously, spurred on no doubt by the Dream Team's failure, and by the South Americans in the team, who know what this trophy means back home. Well, that, and the latest example of Rijkaard's ability to motivate: he apparently told them that the Milan team he won the Intercontinental twice with as a player won because they went to the tournament with the desire to bring back the trophy.

(Oh yeah, early Champions League draw reaction: aww, dammit.)

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Barcelona's right-wing dilemma

I'm easily delighted by the little glimpses one is sometimes privileged enough to get of the inner workings of a team. For example, Frank Rijkaard said after the first leg of Barcelona's Champions League semi-final with Milan that he'd had a chat at half-time with the man who eventually scored the tie's only goal. Rijkaard asked Ludovic Giuly how much longer he could play, and the reply was 20 minutes. Of course, he then went and scored before the 20 minutes were up.

It's a nice little story, reflecting the kind of relationship Rijkaard has with his troops
("One thing you can say about me is the good relationship I have with my players, from No. 1 to No. 24,")
but it also illustrates a potential problem that Barca have to confront sooner or later. While Giuly is playing wonderfully right now, just when we need him to, he has rarely been able to play out the full 90 minutes since joining in 2004. The 4-3-3 employed by Rijkaard is physically demanding on all the players, but the man on the right wing has an especially heavy burden. His counter-part on the left, Ronaldinho, is the only one exempt from defensive responsibilities (which is just as well since he defends horribly - are you listening Dunga?), but he must track back constantly into midfield, or to put pressure on the opposing side's winger and fullback, as well as running all over the business end of the field, interchanging positions with the striker and Ronaldinho.

In one match last season, Messi - who is better at defending than most realize - lost the ball to his fullback (not exactly a regular occurance), chased the full length of the pitch and won it back, by which time he was almost by his own side's corner flag. Similarly, the sight of Giuly chasing the fullback all the way into their final third is a familiar one. Messi is a young man with frightening pace and power, so he can cope just fine, although I'm still uncomfortable with him playing 2 full matches in 4 days - he inevitably runs out of steam near the end of the second.

Giuly, on the other hand, is a fabulously commited and elegant player who runs his heart out, but in Barca's system he fades after about 75 minutes into a game. Barring unforeseen circumstances, he's the first player to be substituted every time. I admire him greatly, and he is one of the most popular players in the dressing room with his easy-going manner and good sense of humour, but he is 30 years old. If he cannot cope with 90 minutes of football now, what about 2 or 3 years down the line?

He considered letting his contract lapse and going to a club where he would be playing more regularly during last season, when Messi was keeping him out of the side, but decided against it in the end. Congratulations are in order to the Barca managament on this, by the way. Good work securing that contract extension quickly instead of letting the rumours (Liverpool were apparently interested) run and run. After how injury-prone Messi has proven to be this season (no thanks to defenders like Zapater, Emerson and Ricardo Carvolho), Giuly might actually end up seeing more playing time than his rival for the spot yet again, after the Argentine's frustrating injury setbacks last season kept him out of the later Champions League games.

My point in discussing Giuly and Messi and their respective issues (one is injury prone, the other can't play 90 minutes) is to express concern about the right-wing position. It's a good thing Gio Dos Santos might possibly have a future in this position, although of course despite the hype he's totally unproven at the top level.

The other point in talking about Giuly is to lament his bad luck with the national team. Through first injury and then falling out with the coach, he's missed every single major tournament going despite being undoubtedly good enough to start for France. The likes of Malouda and Ribery are great, but I don't see how one can doubt Giuly's claim to a place, given his ability. At the age of 30, he has only 11 caps. Missing the World Cup this year must have been a major blow. Unless Raymond Domenech regains some of his sanity (not too likely) he looks set to miss out on Euro 2008 - his last realistic shot at an international tournament - as well. Incredibly sad. But having won the Champions League days after he failed to make the World Cup squad must have been sweet.

(Incidentally, with all the press laments over the lack of an outstanding striker at the World Cup - hey, with all respect to Miro Klose, they said it, not me - how sad is it that Cameroon missed out? If you saw the brilliant hattrick Sammy Eto'o scored against Angola - who qualified, unlike Cameroon - in the African Cup of Nations, it's hard not to think about what he would have bought to the tournament. His tears after they failed to qualify is one of the saddest things I've ever seen in football. Ah well, he's young, there's always the next one.)

Friday, December 08, 2006

A tribute to the quiet Dutchman: Frank Rijkaard

There will always be those who doubt Rijkaard's talent as a coach, because of his previous record, because he has such fantastic players to work with. But one does not have to look far to see where many coaches have tried and failed with a team of mythical talent - in fact, you only have to look 1 point down the league table. Of course, I refer not to the utilitarian, almost Chelsea-like (but that's another post) Real Madrid of today, but to the excesses of the past 3 seasons. Once upon a time it was unfathomable that a team possessing the genius of Zinedine Zidane, the deadly finishing of Ronaldo, the creative instinct of Luis Figo - you get the idea, I could go on for a bit - could play so badly and fall to opposition of much lesser pedigree. But genius players are also human beings. The art of managing a great team is, in my opinion, two-third man management and one-third tactics.

Reasonable people can disagree about Rijkaard's tactical prowess, but there's no doubting the fact that his man-management skills are impeccable. Having struggled in PSG with a coach who did not know how to handle him, Ronaldinho's greatest tribute to Rijkaard's worth is perhaps the claim that
"Frank Rijkaard understands me perfectly."
Deco reckons that the Dutchman is the perfect manager for Barcelona. And here's Lionel Messi, with ultimate proof of the players' support of the coach:
"I owe everything to Rijkaard. Let me put it this way: if I hurt myself for him, I would not feel the pain."
Both Sammy Eto'o and Ronnie have celebrated goals scored this season by running to Rijkaard on the touchline, and both celebrations were curiously timed. Eto'o's came after rumours of a rift between him and the coach, and Ronnie's when the talk was all about the possibility of Rijkaard leaving Barca to coach AC Milan or the Netherlands NT. I've already quoted Ronaldinho on Rijkaard, but the most telling thing Eto'o - one of Barca's most important players, as demonstrated by how much we've struggled without him - has said that reflects on Rijkaard is his typically blunt assessment of the reason for Barcelona's success. In his own words:
"Do you know what is Barcelona's big secret? There are no [expletive deleted, use your imagination] in our dressing room."
To put that in context, he was talking about the politicking that sometimes occurs in squads where certain players will refuse to pass to certain other players in games for personal reasons. This was allegedly the case with Michael Owen at Real Madrid for a while. On the Barca side, there were some rumours at the beginning of last season that Xavi did not get along with Van Bommel and therefore did not want to pass to him in games. Now, the rumour itself is obviously insane because 1) everyone would notice if Xavi suddenly stopped passing to one of his fellow midfielders considering how many passes he makes per game and 2) Van Bommel scored his first goal for Barca off a Xavi pass not long after this rumour was bandied about. But anyway, it illustrates what Eto'o was talking about.

The fact that the squad is so harmonious (even if you think all the talk in the press about how happy the players are is all PR, we have probably the lowest public bust-up/argument rate in the Spanish top flight) is a great tribute to Rijkaard's ability. Apparently he doesn't like a big squad because it becomes hard to keep everyone happy where playing time is concerned - a concern well illustrated with poor Lilian Thuram's frustration at not playing regularly, and that of Henrik Larsson's before him. But Rijkaard has shown that he can minimize the number of fringe players in a squad where there are pretty much 2 men for each position. Everyone plays, everyone contributes to the results. Just one example - Gio and Sylvinho probably have one of the more unique job-sharing arrangements around, covering the left-back position between the two of them without any problems.

He shows great concern for not only the talent of a potential signing but also their personality, and how that will contribute to the mix. Hence the signing of Gudjohnsen and Thuram. Gudjohnsen is perhaps not the best goalscorer we could have bought, but he is a great squad player and would never poison the atmosphere - very important when the first choice forward is a man as brilliant and slightly unhinged as Sammy Eto'o. In the same vein, Thuram took over the role of Larsson - to be a calm voice of experience, a role model of professionalism for a young team. (Both were - are - also excellent, classy players, of course, but that's the other side of it.)

You could argue that in contrast to Real Madrid's aging galacticos, many of whom had won everything in sight already, Barcelona's young team, hungry for glory, would have been easier to motivate. But after winning the league title in 04-05, and starting the 05-06 season at a stroll, many in the press speculated that the stars - particularly Ronaldinho and Deco - no longer had the hunger to win more titles. (This is slightly ridiculous in the case of Deco, a man who will never stop chasing victory, glory and recognition as long as he lives - a drive only equalled in the squad by Eto'o. Perhaps he was starting to expect to win too easily.)

Anyway, Rijkaard dropped Ronaldinho and Deco for a potentially tricky away fixture, causing a small earthquake in the Catalan press. It was all done peacefully - 'rotation' being the word used - and nobody complained in public, but that didn't stop the wild speculation. The team won 1-4 without them, and both were great in Barca's Champions League fixture after that league game. The rest, as they say, is history.

What about this season, then? No-motivating-needed Sammy Eto'o was struck down with injury (the most important of a clutch of unlucky injury problems), Ronaldinho struggled to find form, Deco started brilliantly then sunk into a bad patch, the new signings were bedding in far too slowly and Puyol was being plagued both by physical problems and emotional anguish. The team played so slowly at times it looked as if we were going the way of the galacticos.

Call me whatever you like for having this kind of faith in such an unfathomable man, but I always thought Rijkaard could whip them back into shape. Not that I expected him to bring out the stick instead of the carrot, but whatever works. Barca may not be playing quite as brilliantly as they were at this stage last season, but then think about the injury situation. As one bright spark at the Guardian pointed out, what would Manchester United look like if Ronaldo was out for 3 months, Saha for 5 and Solskjaer for 6 weeks (well, okay, that's not a hypothetical - poor Ole.)

Or say, if Chelsea were missing Drogba for 5 months and Robben for 3. How about a closer to home comparison - if Real Madrid had Van Nistelrooy out for 5 months and Robinho for 3. That's the kind of situation Barca are in at the moment, but having qualified for the knockout rounds of the Champions League (just) and remained on top of La Liga (just) so far, it's not going so badly. That's down to the way the players have responded to the situation, but a lot of the credit for that also has to go to Rijkaard, for the way he's cultivated that mindset.

And how does one motivate a group of players who have more than 100 trophies between them (no kidding, and this is only counting major tournaments, league titles and cups)? In the most important match of the season so far against Werder Bremen at the Camp Nou, Barca flew out of the blocks, had 5 clear chances inside 20 minutes, scored 2 and had the game wrapped up. This was a bit of a surprise given that, as Giuly admitted a while ago, "the team have gotten used to starting badly." Not this time.

Even more importantly, in the second half the team had the confidence to sit back and absorb pressure for 45 minutes, secure in the new-found knowledge that what has been at times a leaky defence this season would not concede. That was something new, too.

What was in Rijkaard's team talk to inspire such a reaction?

Take it away, the greatly improved Eidur Gudjohnsen:
"Before the game, the manager just said to enjoy it. What happens, happens but he said to imagine the people who dream of playing in front of 100,000 fans and to experience a fantastic night like this."
Not exactly Queen Elizabeth I before the Spanish Armada, but Rijkaard's unique grasp of the psyche of a great player - which he was, not too long ago - ensured that he knew exactly what to say.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Argentine striker Cavenaghi to leave Spartak Moscow: yay!

Much longer posts on the Champions League to come, but I had to post about this. Cavenaghi is one of my favourite young Argentinean players, and he had such a bright future ahead of him before foolishly choosing (or some shadowy investment group choosing for him) to go to Russia. In terms of sheer talent, he's probably the best young prospect Argentina have to succeed Crespo in the future. (There's also his successor at River, Gonzalo Higuain, but we don't know if he's going to play for Argentina or France yet.)

I'm forever moaning about him rotting in Russia, so to hear that he's now free to find himself another club (and that he's looking at Spain or Italy) is fantastic. He really did not settle at Spartak after being so brilliant for River and for Argentina at youth level, and this is a real chance to get his career back on track. Looking at the trouble he had adapting in Russia, I'd say he should try to find a Spanish club to play for. Given his complete lack of form for the past 2 seasons, it's probably asking a bit much for Barcelona or Real Madrid to come calling, but that's even better. Cavenaghi's only 23, he doesn't need that kind of pressure. Any struggling club in La Liga willing to take a bet on a young, talented player - for free! - could really strike gold, if they're brave enough to go for it. God knows there are enough clubs in La Liga who desperately need goalscorers.

Here's a crazy, Championship Manager-esque idea, just for laughs: Mallorca have Maxi Lopez - who Cavenaghi kept on the bench at River - on loan from Barcelona. He's not exactly in free-scoring form there, but neither is the rest of his team. Maybe they're looking for someone. Even better, Cavenaghi's old mate from River, former first choice goalkeeper for both club and country German Lux is joining the club. It could be a nice little reunion. But first Cavenaghi has to prove his best goalscoring days have not passed him by already at the age of 23.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Does that mean I have to follow ManU for 3 months now?

By now, everyone and their dog probably knows that Henrik Larsson - one of my favourite players and probably one of the most beloved and classy players still active in top flight football - is going to Manchester United on loan in January 2007 for 10 weeks during the winter break of the Swedish season. Congratulations to ManU - what a clever piece of business.

When I first saw this news, I felt sad. Irrational, I know. But I think I got a taste of what the Celtic faithful felt like when Larsson showed up in a Barcelona kit, although of course their depth of feeling would be stronger, given what 'Henke' means to them.

From a Barcelonista's point of view, I will say this - the club management better have some good news about Sammy Eto'o's injury that they're keeping from us, otherwise they've messed up, because they were the ones who were first linked to this sort of deal. Barca won't be short of strikers in January, but a man who can play on either wing or as a center forward, all to excellent effect, would be an asset for any team - as he showed in his time at the Spanish club. Plus, on a purely selfish note, I miss watching him play.

To those who doubt his ability to play in the Premiership, you only have to look at his performances for Barcelona. (For those who need reminding, my tribute post to the great man covers most of it.)

Here's Barca coach Frank Rijkaard's comments on the move:
"I have to congratulate the player and the club. He is a great player and he deserves it; he demonstrated it here and I hope everything goes well for him".
As usual, I agree with him.

He's just won the Swedish Cup with his hometown club Helsingborgs, adding to an impressive collection of trophies and gifting them with qualification for the UEFA Cup. At 35, my only concern would be that he's lost a bit of his old pace, and as everyone keeps saying the Premiership is a fast league. Still, finishing and tactical intelligence doesn't go away with age.

One caveat, though - Henke won't be happy to sit on the bench and wait for one of the first choice forwards to get injured. There won't be any drama because Larsson is the consummate professional, but make no mistake, he will be trying to force his way into the starting line-up. It's in his nature to despise rotation, even while never complaining about it. (Kevin McCarra of the Guardian has a good article about the subject.)

I sincerely hope that he has a great time there and leaves ManU with a medal or two in his pocket, although of course not at Barca's expense. Oh yeah, those who are saying he'll sign a permanent deal at United? Never going to happen. This is Larsson we're talking about - a man who knows just when to make his exit.