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.


Greg G said...

Looking forward to the match with Liverpool. They have trouble scoring, and are still not quite 'clicking' yet. Barça will have only themselves to blame if they lose to the Reds especially if we have Eto'o and Messi back by then (is that possible?). The Catalans are in better form overall, and they have a deeper bench.

And if Los Meringues have a deeper bench than Barça let Capello put Raúl and Ruud 'on holiday' for a couple months and see where they're at afterward. Hah!

As for the Brit press, they also seem to believe that Barclay's Premiership is the best league on Earth. To be perfectly honest I'd rather watch Levante vs Mallorca, then Wigan vs Pompey. Spanish referees are poorer, but the Spanish game is more pleasing to the eyes, so to speak.

Finally, Chelsea. I think they had 30-some fouls in the last Barça encounter, and 6 yellow cards. That's the definition of industrial football. Not industrious, industrial.

linda said...

I don't want to jinx anything, but Eto'o should be back by then, and probably Messi, though I doubt the latter will be fully match-fit. We really haven't put any consistent form together this season, which worries me, but you're right in saying that our bench is deeper.

Ruud is crucial to this Real. I always said that they'd be in crisis if he got injured, so the purchase of Higuain is a good move, although who knows how he'll fit in. Not to take anything away from Raul, but I think his importance to the current Real is more symbolic and inspirational than anything else. There are better midfielders in the squad (and that's what he's essentially playing as). Also, the defence needs Cannavaro, they look stale without Guti and so on.

To me, the biggest difference between the Spanish and English leagues (barring exceptions like Long-ball Mallorca and Short-Passing Arsenal of course) is that in the Spanish league, passes are played to feet more often, whereas in the English league players often hit passes for other players to chase as quickly as possible without complete precision. Makes the English game look very exciting, but I like the Spanish style better. Especially when it's Barca, and they're playing well. And you know, Spanish referees may suck, but at least we don't have Graham Poll.

As for Chelsea, like I said in my match report of Barca-Chelsea, if I started ranting I'd never stop. Mostly it's Mourinho, though. I wouldn't dislike Chelsea if they had a coach with some actual class.