Sunday, December 23, 2007

El Clasico: a preview through a look back at last season's classic

For all the hype about Super Sundays in the Premiership, and with apologies to the Milan derby which is happening on the same day, in my humble opinion there's nothing that quite matches up to El Clasico, the game of the century, Barca v Real, whatever you want to call it.

Remember what happened at the Camp Nou last season?

Barcelona and Real Madrid had both just been knocked out of the Champions League. Both teams were in a low ebb, one slip-up short of crisis. It was expected to be a low-key affair. Instead, we got this:

(Barcelona 3 - 3 Real Madrid)

It had everything one could want in a football game - drama, controversy, passion, great attacking play, and several protagonists in the shape of Ruud van Nistelrooy, Guti, both goalkeepers and, most of all, young Leo Messi, who cemented his status as a rising star and a hero of the fans by hitting a great hat-trick, the last scored in stoppage time to tie up the game with Barca down to 10 men.

I'll be honest - I missed that late equaliser because by that point, I couldn't stand to watch. It's brutal watching one's team trying to play with 10 men in any game, but in el derbi it's just about unbearable. Having said that, at times in the second half it was difficult to tell which team was a man down - and that's just as it should be.

It's El Clasico, after all.

There's no sense in intellectually analysing a game like this, because it isn't played out against a background of careful tactical planning and previous form, at least not once the players step on the pitch. This game is beyond that.

It's a fixture that has featured some of the world's greatest players throughout the last century. It has made and destroyed careers, and provided countless storylines for the world's press. It invokes passions that go far beyond football.

The Camp Nou will be full. There will be 250 or so Real fans stuck in a corner on the coldest, highest tier, isolated by the partisanship of the rest of the 98000-odd crowd. There's going to be a massive mosaic, perhaps the biggest ever.

And both sides will field 11 players, and they'll play a football game, watched around the world by millions upon millions of fans, to whom it means everything.

Visca el Barca!

A couple of links:

Phil Ball's preview of El Clasico. Includes a recap of last week's games, and excellent as always.

Not Barca, but thanks to Em at Dying Midseason for the link to this wonderful post in tribute to Juan Roman Riquelme.

(If you're wondering what's happened to me, the short answer is work. Hopefully normal posting will resume in January.)

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Lyon 2 - 2 Barca ('our forward line is how old?!' edition) and Barcelona derby preview

Against Lyon, a great European side, Barca's 3-man forward line had an average age of 20. Eto'o wasn't quite fit enough yet, Henry's body had finally given out after playing continuously while not 100% fit, and Ronaldinho was on the bench. Andres Iniesta, 23; Lionel Messi, 20; and Bojan Krkic, 17, a forward line crafted in the Barca youth academies, led the line in their stead. And they did a good job, I think it's fair to say, as did the rest of the team. A line-up which consisted of 6 home-grown players managed a good away performance against an impressive Lyon side without the superstar forwards, and without Deco.

In fact, they were excellent in the first 20 minutes, playing rapid, fluid football, and while the rest of the game was not as pleasing on the eye, what made me happy was the mentality on display, a sense of aggression and team work that had been missing from some recent Barca performances. That youthful forward line combined to produce a first goal made in La Masia from a swift counter-attack which took full advantage of their skills and pace.

It's good to see that the midfield doesn't get bossed around as much when Gudjohnsen is there to help Yaya out, but I think there's still a bit of bite missing which should hopefully be remedied when Deco returns from injury.

Both Yaya and Messi are one yellow away from suspension in the Champions League, which means that they'll probably be rested for the last game against Stuttgart, for which Carles Puyol is suspended because of accumulation of yellow cards.

One of the big talking points about the game was the fact that Ronaldinho was a substitute. I've already hinted at what I think is one of the reasons - the team configuration without him allows for more aggressiveness and speed, but I also think that if Rijkaard thinks that he's not ready to play due to either mental or physical fatigue, I trust the coach's judgement.

Rijkaard and the ref

The other big talking point is Frank Rijkaard's sending off. Stefan Farina, the referee, is fast turning into Rijkaard's semi-comedic nemesis. Some of you may recall that he was the referee in the controversial 2-2 draw between Barca and Chelsea at the Camp Nou last season, where he booked a billion players and attracted Rijkaard's ire for 1) deciding on 6 minutes of stoppage time when Barca were leading 2-1, and 2) ending the match on 5 minutes of said stoppage time after Chelsea got their late equaliser. I didn't blame him for the shambles both teams made of the game at the time, but this is the second time he's lost control of the players in a physical game, tried to regain it by booking everyone in sight, and made both teams unhappy as a result.

This time, Rijkaard's ire was attracted by what he saw as Farina's failure to spot fouls on Messi. To be fair to the ref, while there were strong challenges flying in, I didn't see anything especially outrageous. Frankie was probably in the wrong this time, although the fans seem to have appreciated his show of anger on behalf of his players. This is the first time Rijkaard has been sent off since becoming Barca coach.

The players claimed that Rijkaard was only expressing their frustrations, and Xavi has claimed that the players took the words of Rijkaard (in regards to having a 'winning mentality') to heart in their approach to the game, which enabled them to play the way they did.

individual players

  • Valdes really should have done better on Juninho's freekick. I know that the defenders bears some responsibility for not getting to the ball, but some of the blame has to fall on Victor. Made a couple of fine saves from the good chances Lyon did get.
  • Zambrotta looked a bit better, but still seemed to lack an understanding with the rest of the team, and has somehow become a defensive liability through his lapses in concentration, which is worrying. Did alright against his fellow Italian defender Grosso.
  • Milito was reliable as usual, and I've really begun to appreciate his ability to hit passes out of defence. It's something I really missed while Marquez was out of form.
  • Like I wrote above, Puyol is somewhat responsible for the first goal, but the rest of his performance was quite great, and as usual, he led the team by example.
  • Abidal did quite well on his return to his old stomping ground, and I don't really blame him for the penalty - he was in an awkward position, there was a chance that he might commit the foul, but it was a fair chance to take.
  • I'll probably end up saying this most games, but it bears repeating - Yaya Toure really is a fantastic addition to the squad. He disrupts the opposition's attempts to build play through midfield, plugs the gaps in defence and his work rate is excellent. And I haven't even mention his underrated skill on the ball - after all, he started out as a central midfielder, not a destroyer. All that and a powerful shot as well.
  • Again, something else I seem to repeat every game: Andres Iniesta. Fantastic. Passing, dribbling, tackling and tracking back, Iniesta does it all, and does it well, too. Even his shooting has improved.
  • Barca fans give Gudjohnsen a hard time because he's not the most technical player, and can miss some frustratingly easy chances in front of goal (e.g. that terrible miss from Messi's cross in this game), but give him credit for hard work. Without his work ethic, Barca's midfield would have been completely dominated by Lyon's, and the spirit of him and Yaya seemed to inspire the rest of the team.
  • Xavi's passing was as good as ever, although it's clear that he needs either Iniesta or Deco to partner him in order to be fully effective. By the way, congratulations to him for surpassing the man he models himself on - Pep Guardiola, for those who don't know - to become 9th on Barca's all-time appearances list, with Tuesday's game being his 385th for the club.
  • Is it just me or has Messi looked increasingly frustrated in the last couple of games? Don't get me wrong, he's still one of our most threatening players, and it's because the opposition devote 2 or 3 players to keep track of him that the other guys get any space to run into, but being ganged up on by so many opposition defenders all the time has to take a toll mentally. He does seem to be trying to connect with the other forwards, but an understanding takes time to form, and he's been the only constant of a forward line that has had to change all the time because of injuries and form concerns. Utterly cold-blooded penalty, as always.
  • As Sid Lowe said in the Guardian Football Weekly podcast, Bojan is still obviously a boy, and he looks frail out there being pushed around and physically overwhelmed by big defenders. Given the boy credit for trying, though, and for still managing to make an impact on the game with his penetrating runs and two great assists.
  • Ronaldinho only played 20 minutes or so and looked...alright, I suppose. It was hard to tell given the state of the game at the time. Made a couple of great passes and tried to go past people, which is what we all want to see.

"Now, he should not believe everything that is said in the press because it is great when they praise you, but the day that they criticise you they will not worry about how old you are." - Samuel Eto'o on his chosen successor, one Bojan Krkic.

Too true, Sammy. This and other sensible insights from Eto'o in an interview with the official website, where he also states how pleased he is about the way the team played against Lyon.

Aren't the Catalan papers supposed to be on Barca's side? The way I see it, Marca have been friendlier and less hysterical in their reporting lately than they have.

Usually, Sport are the ones in my bad books, but I see El Mundo Deportivo has now taken up the 'heroic' task of attacking Frank Rijkaard despite all evidence to the contrary. If that game was boring then I don't know what they were watching.

And the rising tide of opinion against Messi really proves that us fans are the most fickle creatures known to man. Like Eto'o said, criticism is a ruthless and blind thing when it turns against you. Football players aren't seen as human beings once they reach a certain level of stardom.

On a more positive note, Ronaldinho has been praised for taking to being a substitute without complaint. It's nice to see some of the papers ease up on him a bit (I wish Sport would follow suit), but the very fact that him not being disgruntled is news seems strange to me - for any other player, save perhaps Eto'o and Henry, it wouldn't be, and surely it's part of the professional conduct of any player to accept the coach's decision, if not with grace, then at least quietly?

player news ahead of the Barcelona derby

Edmilson has returned to training but is some ways from being fit, not that he's likely to play for us again, and Deco and Eto'o are both on track to appear against Deportivo if all goes well. (What I really want is to see both of them fit and firing in time for El Clasico.)

Our injury problems have hit a low point: Oleguer, Sylvinho, Thuram, Henry and Giovani are also unavailable, leading to poor Frank Rijkaard resorting to two youth team players in the form of Alberto Botia and Victor Sanchez to fill up the bench. Interestingly, this means that 10 out of the list of 18 are products of the Barca academy.

On the Espanyol side, our old friend De la Pena will not be fit enough to play, but the excellent Albert Riera has been included. Young Argentine (and personal favourite of mine) Pablo Zabaleta is once again fit enough to be named in the squad.

It's not just a derby - it's a match between two of the best teams in the league, third versus fourth. May the best team win.

Visca el Barca!

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Barca 3 - 0 Recreativo (return of the match report)

(graphic swiped from Sport)

Any other team might be pleased to win 3-0 (especially with most players coming off two international appearances) and gain some distance on our rivals at the top of the table, but as always, Barca are our own greatest enemy. It feels like forever since I've done one of my rambling, player-by-player match reports, so here goes.

How much can one take out of a game against a side suffering second-seasonitis, who had only 26% of the possession and no shots on goal? Well, for one, it provides a good study of the difficulties Barca have had breaking down opponents who defend in numbers both home and away, and secondly our reliance on scoring the first goal.

One caveat, though: Barca's Jekyll and Hyde syndrome means that home and away performances should probably be judged by different standards. We almost always score at home (in fact, today's game was the 50th league home game in a row that Barca have scored in), contrasted with our many difficulties in that department away, and we have a 100% home record so far this season, but haven't won away since we beat Stuttgart.


Difficult to find much to say about Victor Valdes, since he didn't have a lot to do, so we'll move right on.

Puyol and Milito are a great central partnership, as everybody had hoped they would be, so it was a shame when Puyol had to come off with an injury in the second half. The latest seems to be that while - thankfully - nothing is broken, Puyol is in a lot of pain (which makes sense, as he'd never have asked to come off without a serious problem), and the doctors have yet to make a decision on whether he will travel to Lyon.

Puyol's replacement, Marquez, hasn't quite regained the impervious form of 05-06, but neither has he been as bad as he was last season. Some decent play, and he's certainly a solid enough backup.

Milito had yet another good game in the blaugrana shirt. I have to say, he did cost a fair bit, but I think the purchase has been a wise one. Good central defenders are not that easy to come by these days. Great header for the goal, which is something I've seen from him several times in the Zaragoza and Argentina shirt. Hopefully he'll bring that form to Barca, too, since we're pretty dire at scoring from corners. This is our 93rd corner of the season, and the first time it has resulted in a goal. Not good stats.

The ESPN commentator for the Barca-Rangers game bitterly criticised Abidal and claimed - laughably - that he'd been very disappointing since joining. I don't know what he's been watching, but the general consensus amongst the fans and the press has certainly been that he's been a good signing who has performed the way we would want: good play going forward, solid defending. And so it was for this game. I didn't like him losing his temper and barging into a Recre player (in response to Recre refusing to put the ball out of play after Iniesta had gone down), especially while the team were 2-0 up, though. Not a wise move - what if he got sent off?

Is it just me, or has Zambrotta looked a bit off-colour in the last couple of games? I know he's coming off an injury, but he just hasn't looked quite right this season, especially going forward, and the neat inter-play that had developed between him and Messi by the end of last season has been missing. Still more reliable than Oleguer (who came on and did a decent job), but I'm starting to worry.


Another thing I'm starting to worry about: what are we going to do when Yaya Toure, who has provided a crucial link between defence and attack for us, goes off to the African Cup of Nations? Hope that Marquez is fit and well, I suppose, since Gudjohnsen's recent stint in midfield has gone downhill after starting well.

In this game, Guddy was playing a bit further forward - in the attacking midfield role he sometimes filled for Chelsea. He worked very hard, and deserves credit for that, but all the same old problems of last season still remain, namely: his ability to take chances is not great, and he's slow on the ball.

Xavi certainly struggled to partner him effectively, especially compared to his almost telepathic understanding with the injured Deco. As Marca pointed out, our third captain may not be a flashy player, but his contributions have always been vital to our performances, mostly via his passing. Had a hand in 2 of the 3 goals.

Iniesta started the game playing on the wing, but ended it playing in his natural midfield position, so I'll put him here. He was Barca's most effective player in the first 20 minutes in which the team laboured to create chances and continued trying to speed up the play and make the breakthrough in the rest of the game. Once he went back to midfield to partner Xavi, the forwards got much better service. By the way, he really is an excellent dribbler - one of the best at Barca, and that's saying a lot.


I have a confession to make: I don't know what Premier League fans are talking about when they say that Henry is a lazy player. He's worked pretty hard in every Barca game I've seen this season (and I've seen almost every game, even the friendlies), not only in attack but tracking back, tackling and harrying. An unselfish assist for Bojan's goal, and it's good to see how pleased he was about it, too - he couldn't have looked happier if he'd scored it. Speaking of which, there were a couple of opportunities in which he could probably have taken a shot instead of passing it, and if he weren't Thierry bloody Henry I'd say he's losing his shooting confidence. Almost every single refereeing decision went against him as well, which couldn't have been very fun. Just because he's a big, tall forward (by La Liga standards) doesn't mean he was fouling every time, dammit.

Before I talk about Messi, a couple of wise words from Guillem Balague on the recent heavy criticism of him in the press: have a go at Messi doesn't make sense because he has only had two bad games. Messi has had a year with hardly any rest and has been playing at a very, very high level.

Yeah, what he said. I was worried that Messi would be tired, having played the full 90 minutes in Argentina's 2 qualifiers, one of them at altitude and with Argentina down to 10 men for most of the game. He did look a bit tired at the beginning, but gradually came into it a bit more and became Barca's most threatening player, which meant that Recre devoted 2 players to marking him, with mixed success: he did create some good chances, but either the player on the receiving end wasted them (Zambrotta, Gudjohnsen, Henry), or he wasted them himself. Messi's passing continues to improve, and while one of his free kicks was rubbish, the other was quite good. (I'll be honest, whenever we get a free kick, I really start missing Ronaldinho and Deco.) The major problem now where Messi is concerned seems to be that his link-up play with Henry and Bojan isn't as good as it could be. Understandably, not much can match the interplay born of familiarity of the Ronaldinho-Eto'o-Messi front line, but there certainly could be some improvement to the current state of things.

Bojan continues to amaze. Here's a scary reminder: the kid's 17. What a cool finish, and his appearance certainly disrupted the Recre defense, with his speed on the ball if nothing else. He kind of reminds me of Messi a couple of seasons ago - a bit too individualistic, and he hasn't quite figured out when to pass and when to shoot, but that will come with experience. I'm certain he wouldn't shrink from a big occasion, either, to judge from his coolness in front of goal.

other observations

Good substitution by Rijkaard, taking off Gudjohnsen for Bojan. Not quite sure why he took Zambrotta off, but maybe we'll find that out in the next couple of days.

Because Barca played well when Ronaldino was injured near the beginning of the season, a lot of people are inclined to blame him for all Barca's problems. They do have a point, especially since Barca put in a few good performances when he was missing last season as well. However, not having Ronnie in this game didn't seem to make the team any less lethargic, although I suppose the fact that this game came straight after an international break may have had something to do with that. So, inconclusive on that front.

However, I think we've all seen what the two major injured players bring to the team by the effect their absence has had. I've said it enough times, but I don't mind repeating it: Samuel Eto'o drives the entire team forward with both his play and his mentality, and the same goes for Deco. Without both of them, we lack aggression, determination, and a bit of a cutting edge.

I see Sport are in full 'we hate everything about our team, except that one 17 year old, who should play all the time, and maybe sometimes that little Argentine we just trashed for having one bad game' mode. Great. (It's absurd to say Bojan was Barca's best player, guys, since he only played about 30 minutes, and while he had an impact, I'm not sure it was enough to override the 90 minute performances of players like Iniesta and Messi.)

Friday, November 23, 2007

Barca roundup: the 'I'm not dead!' edition

Exams are over (hooray!) and I'm back, although currently preoccupied with...well, life in general. To be honest, I've just been thinking a lot, and there's a couple of posts I want to make about coaching styles, quotas in European leagues, and all that. But it's Barca that's really been frustrating me. Anyway, news first.

international round-up

France, Italy, Spain and Portugal have all qualified for Euro 2008, meaning that there will potentially be 8 Barca players at the tournament.

Thierry Henry
scored in France's game with Ukraine (2-2), which was a bit of a formality given Italy's earlier victory over Scotland.

All three Barca players played in Spain's excellent 3-0 win over Sweden, with Xavi and Iniesta in particular praised for their great performances. Iniesta scored Spain's second and Xavi was once again applauded off the pitch at the Bernabeu. (By the way, though I still dislike Aragones, congratulations to Spain for qualifying in such style in the end. What a group of young talent.)

Iniesta and Xavi also started in Spain's 1-0 win over Northern Ireland, in which the entire first-string defence (including Puyol) was rested, with captain Xavi scoring the deflected winner.

Zambrotta played in Italy's crucial 1-2 victory against Scotland but was kindly rested in the last game against the Faroe Islands.

Eidur Gudjohnsen played in Iceland's 3-0 defeat at the hands of the footballing giants of Liechtenstein.

Bojan Krkic scored once again and played well in the Spanish U21 side's 3-0 victory over Poland. Remember, the kid's still only 17. Astonishing talent.

Speaking of which, Leo Messi and Gabi Milito both played the full 90 mintues in Argentina's 3-0 victory over Bolivia and 1-2 defeat against Columbia. Messi played well in both games, scoring a great opener against Columbia while the team were down to 10 men. Milito struggled in the Columbia game once Tevez was sent off, but played fairly well against Bolivia.

Ronaldinho played the full 90 minutes in Brazil's 1-1 draw with Peru but only 60 minutes of their 2-1 victory over Uruguay, in which both he and Robinho were apparently booed by the Brazilian fans when substituted. Geez, Ronnie really can't get a break anywhere.

injury update

Good news: Deco's back and running, but he still needs time to heal and get fit. Even better news: Samuel Eto'o has started training with a ball again.

other (mostly cheerful) news

Congratulations to Andres Iniesta, who recently celebrated his 5 year anniversary in the first team squad by telling the press that he'd like to retire at Barca. I believe you, Andres.

Congratulations also to Victor Valdes for now holding the record for the longest time a Barca goalie has gone without conceding in Europe at 466 minutes and counting. Barca have yet to concede in the Champions League this season, and this added to the clean sheet kept (fortuitously, it must be said) against Liverpool last season in the return leg means that Valdes has broke the previous record which was 406 minutes and has stood for more than 30 years. (It's a bit of a reflection on how leaky defences, especially in Europe, are a Barca tradition to be honest.)

Frank Rijkaard made some interesting observations regarding Leo Messi recently, the most interesting of which is this: he believes that Messi will move to an attacking midfield position in the future. Rijkaard also talked about the progress Messi has made in the past few seasons, mainly in tactical discipline and awareness.

Lilian Thuram
recently spoke to the 60 kids at La Masia on his experiences. He emphasised the importance of education, reminded the kids to always ask 'why', and urged them to focus on Iniesta as an example to be followed, both as as player and as a person.

less cheerful news aka perpetual state of 'crisis'

As much as I am angered by the attempts of the press - and I'm not even talking the Madrid press, just the Barca rags - to fan the flames of a supposed 'crisis' which leaves Barca a massive 4 points off the league leaders, at least some members are still trying to do their job. El Pais has a good summary of the latest goings on, which mostly concern the ever-honest Edmilson opening his big mouth once again and leading to the press going off on a merry round of speculation about who he meant by the 'black sheep' of the Barca family.

Out of the players who have come out and defended Rijkaard recently - Puyol, Messi, Eto'o to name a couple - Puyol was most scathing in his assessment of the players' own responsibility, and Messi was the most forthright in telling the press to back off in their attempts to bait Rijkaard.

Now, I'm very fond of Frank Rijkaard. I think he's a class act who has the rare poise needed to deal with the hysteria that often surrounds Barca, and someone who really understands players. For example, Bojan Krkic spoke a little while ago about how Rijkaard always knows what to say and when and how to say it.

One of the qualities I most admire in Rijkaard is his unflinching acceptance of blame for every setback and defeat. However, admiring it doesn't mean I agree with it. As Puyol said, it's wrong to blame the manager entirely given the culpability of the players in the performance.

(On the subject of away form, I'd like to note that Barca didn't win away for about 4 months last season, or in other words for most of the time that Samuel Eto'o was out injured. And I'd also like to note that Barca were level on points with Real Madrid, the champions, at the end of the season.)

As a Barca fan, I'm used to the hysteria that surrounds every defeat and every setback. But you know what made me really angry? The Barcelona media's Mourinho stunt. I find it really hard to believe that a large majority of Barca fans would want Mourinho to replace Rijkaard. Leaving aside the animosity, we all know that the Camp Nou is capable of turning its collective nose up at trophies if they're not won in sufficient style. (As if Mourinho hasn't had enough of that demand with Roman at Chelsea.) Also: how personally insulting is it to Rijkaard to suggest such a thing, given the evens of the past 3 seasons?

More on the away form issue later.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

A few quick notes on Rangers v Barcelona, and Guardiola is innocent!

  • Dare I say it - this was our best away performance so far this season. I was happy with what I saw, bar the last few minutes.
  • That handball was a penalty. Not complaining, but in some ways this game reminded me of Arsenal's games against CSKA Moscow last season: one side dominated completely, had a lot of shots and yet were unable to score (although Arsenal were even more unlucky). Fair enough, sometimes that happens, and we can't whine when we don't take our chances. A point is not a bad result for Barca in Scotland, where we are traditionally very bad.
  • Carles Puyol was just incredible at rightback, especially in the first half. I'd forgotten how good he was at getting forward. Immense performance from the captain. I'm so glad he's back. The entire defence did well, in fact.
  • Rangers may not play the kind of football I like to watch, but they're excellent at what they do, and may they go far in this competition.
  • Lord have mercy and save me from the idiocy of Tommy Smyth.

Smyth: it's a strange game to give Gudjohnsen his first start of the season.
Derek Rae: [has to remind him that maybe, just maybe, the reason for Gudjohnsen getting a start is Barca's current injury crisis in midfield]

Smyth: Barcelona haven't created many chances.
[Barcelona have just had 12 shots in the first half.]

If I were a fan of Scottish football, I'd also find his patronising tone offensive. Oh, look, they can play an offside trap. Well, Tommy, Rangers beat Lyon 3-0 away - I think they know how to play football pretty well.

It's enough to make one really miss Ray Hudson.

In other Barca news, Pep Guardiola has finally been cleared of his 2001 doping charge. Good for him. I always believed he was innocent, and not just because I like him so much.

Now, can we have some fit players please?


Television pictures showed that a Ronaldinho effort came off the hand of Alan Hutton but the incident was missed by referee Konrad Plautz.

But, even though a spot-kick could have made all the difference to the final outcome, Rijkaard refused to criticise the Austrian official.

"I don't think you don't win because of one decision," he pointed out. "You don't win because sometimes you make the wrong decisions instead of making a goal. But that's football, it's the wonderful world of football. I think it was a good game, it's just a shame that there weren't any goals to see on the pitch."

Ah, Frankie. Never stop being so awesome.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Barca news ahead of the Villarreal game

Club football is back with a bang with some interesting games in Spain this weekend and the return of the Champions League midweek, amidst the sound of club coaches grumbling about their charges returning injured (poor Arjen Robben) or tired.


Gabi Milito
and Leo Messi scored the goals for Argentina as they beat Venezuela away to top the qualifying table with 6 points. Hasta El Gol Siempre has a match report, and I definitely recommend checking out Messi's goal.

Congratulations to Thierry Henry who broke Michel Platini's record to become the leading scorer in France's history. He scored both goals as France made hard work out of beating Lithuania by dominating but not breaking the deadlock until late on. The second in particular was very nice. Eric Abidal and Lilian Thuram also played.

Spain played a (brilliantly timed) friendly against Finland which was described by the press as a training match. (It was a 0-0 draw, naturally.) Puyol, Iniesta and Xavi all played 45 minutes.

Deco played 90 minutes yet again for Portugal as they beat Kazakhstan 2-1 in a victory which was reportedly more laboured than the 2-0 win over Azerbaijan. (If Portugal somehow contrive to miss out from a group featuring such luminaries, then there should be an inquest. Happily, they appear to now be on course.)

Eidur Gudjohnsen played for Iceland as they went down 3-0 (!) to Liechtenstein. Oh dear.

Ronaldinho played and scored in Brazil's 5-0 victory over Ecuador in the Maracana stadium. This was a much needed result for them after the way they played against Columbia, and apparently Ronnie is starting to look a bit better.

Giovani Dos Santos played the first 45 minutes for Mexico as they went down 2-3 to Guatemala. To be fair to him, Mexico only began to collapse in the second half, although I've heard conflicting things about his performance.

Villarreal v Barca

The big story of this game is the reunion of old Arsenal and France pals Robert Pires and Thierry Henry. So we've got Pires being encouraging and positive about Henry, as he's been since the beginning, while warning team mates to watch out for that Messi guy too. The official site has an article detailing the past history between the two, and's preview also focuses on them.

Problem: Ronaldinho didn't even make the Friday training sesson, so he's obviously in no condition to play 90 minutes on Saturday. Worryingly, his natural substitute Giovani doesn't get back until Friday either, although he did make training. If Yaya Toure were fit, the easy solution would be to play Iniesta in Ronnie's left-wing position, but he's not, so that won't work either. Ronnie has been left out of the squad, which is probably a wise decision, given that it will keep him fresh for the Rangers game, but I'm not sure what the alternatives are going to be in this game.

Villarreal were the last side to defeat Barca, the 2-0 result in El Madrigal perfectly summing up the malaise of last season. Ironically, that game sent Villarreal on their amazing winning run which lasted for 8 matches - straight to the end of the season. To be fair, Frank Rijkaard's Barca has often found Villarreal away a difficult game to deal with. I have painfully vivid memories of the 3-0 thrashing in the 04-05 season orchestrated by one Juan Roman Riquelme.

Other news

Barcelona have drawn CD Alcoyano of the Spanish third division in the Copa del Rey. The official website also has this great story about a Barca B game against Alcoyano: In the 2005/06 season, Alcoyano and Barça B took part in a bizarre match that saw Barça B travel to Alcoy on no less than three occasions to complete the 90 minutes. First the Barça B party had to return from Alcoy after the match was suspended due to heavy snowfall. At the second attempt the match was once again suspended in the 50th minute after a technical fault left the El Collao stadium without electricity. It was a case of third time lucky for Alcoyano, who finally won the match 2-0.

Samuel Eto'o is now a Spanish citizen, which means that the only non-EU player on the roster is Yaya Toure.

There's an interesting interview with Thierry Henry from the New York Times, where he talks about his charity work, the differences between Spain and England, and his love for Basketball amongst other things.

Update on Giovani's contract situation: the boy himself says that negotiations will probably be completed in November or December, if things go according to plan.

Txiki gave a recent interview in which he said that the club were looking to give Messi and probably Iniesta a better contract. Messi's dad and agent Jorge has come out and said that they're not actually too bothered about a new, better contract, which is about the first time I've heard that from an agent.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Barca round-up: internationals, Villarreal, and other news

I've got exams coming up yet again, so expect less posting for the next 3 weeks or so. Pity, it's such an exciting time.

Internationals round-up

Att Luis Aragones: if you're going to fly Puyol out to Denmark and then say he's not fit when he patently is, then just leave him in Spain next time and save him the travelling. No need to take him along if he's not fit as you claim, after all.

Good to see the Barca duo of Iniesta and Xavi both playing well and contributing in Spain's 1-3 victory over the Danes.

Actually, let me just detour for a moment:

I don't like Luis Aragones. I think his decisions are often boneheaded and that he needs to never open his mouth in public. However, I personally feel that the way the media have talk about the absences from the squad have been very disrespectful to the excellent players who were selected and deserved their shot. Case in point, Raul Tamudo, who had a great season last time around and has started brightly after coming back from injury this time. Just because he doesn't play for one of the big two doesn't mean he's not good enough for Spain. Espanyol have been playing well anyway, and credit to Aragones for reflecting that in calling up 3 of their players. While I'm at it, credit also for finally playing Cesc, Xavi and Iniesta together.

(Or you could go and read Sid Lowe's new column, which makes the same points I did, except in a better, actually amusing way.)

Thierry Henry got his 41st goal for France in their 0-6 win over the Faeroe Islands, thus equalling the record set by the great Michel Platini and becoming his country's leading goalscorer. Abidal and Thuram also played the entire game, Abidal - rather unusually - as a centerback.

Congratulations to Deco, who got his 50th cap for Portugal and had a hand in the first goal to set them on their way to a vital victory over, er, Azerbaijan. Seriously, though, Portugal needed those points.

Eidur Gudjohnsen scored a brace but couldn't prevent Iceland from going down to a 2-4 defeat against Latvia. Good to see him fit and firing again. In fact, congratulations are due because his goals have made him Iceland's leading scorer with 19.

Bojan scored his first goal for the U21s as they beat Poland 2-0 in a European Championship qualifier.

Leo Messi and Gabi Milito helped Argentina to a 2-0 home victory against Chile in their opening World Cup qualifier. (For more on the Argentines, my ramblings on them are now located at the Argentina World Cup Blog.)

Brazil - featuring our very own Ronaldinho for the first time in a while - were by all reports unimpressive as they drew 0-0 against Columbia away. Admittedly, not an easy fixture, so it's not a bad result at all, but the performance certainly raised a few eyebrows.

Mexico also drew their friendly against Nigeria 2-2, with Giovani Dos Santos winning the penalty which Cacho converted into their second.

Villarreal matters

Our first game back is a difficult one, against high-flying Villarreal, who only slipped up last week because they were visiting Osasuna, where Barca couldn't score. We have had problems with this game before, especially in El Madrigal, with last season's defeat there a particularly traumatic result given the situation at the time. The fixture list after that is a pretty gruelling one, especially since the game after this one is in Glasgow against Rangers, but we'll get to that later.

Robert Pires, for one, cannot wait for face his old friend Thierry Henry for the first time in a decade. A wonderful player who is in great form, and a bit of a Madridista himself, so he'll be extra motivated.

Speaking of Thierry, there's a new great, lengthy interview with him - especially recommended for Arsenal fans, actually, even if you were stung by his departure. As for this Barca supporter, I found it quite endearing, even if I'm never going to agree with him about his version of events in that Paris final.

Other club news

Fortunately for Frank Rijkaard, Bojan only had one game to play, and he's back in Barcelona, giving the coach a whopping 4 players to work with. A bit threadbare, I think you'll agree. Those four: Valdes, Ezquerro, Sylvinho, and the returning Bojan. Oh yeah, there's also A team part-timer Marc Crosas, who was actually injured for a couple of days, which temporarily left Barca in the ridiculous position of having no fit holding midfielders at all, despite having four of them on the books. In any case, he's now fit, but we currently have no rightbacks, since Oleguer's not been feeling well lately either. He's still working on a specific recovery program, alongside backup keeper Jorquera, who I assume picked up a knock in training. No wonder Rijkaard let B team coach Guardiola take combined training for a couple of days.

I'm getting a little antsy about Giovani's contract situation. The rules state that players can't sign a professional contract until they're 18 years old, and until then they can be bought for very little (I believe the extra sum is 20 million euros in this case), hence the quick action being taken to offer Giovani a contract as soon as he turned 18 and joined the first team. The boy himself says that negotiations are on-going, which is good to hear, but my worries won't be appeased until he puts pen to paper. (And no, AS, this does not mean he's going to Real Madrid. The boy himself says it would be wrong for him as a Barca-developed player, and I believe him.)

Speaking of young talent, October 16 was the day Leo Messi made his offical debut for Barcelona 3 years ago, in the last 10 minutes of the Barcelona derby at Espanyol, and since then, Barca fans have been lucky enough to witness the development of a very special player. In that time, he has played 78 games for Barca (including quite a few substitute appearances), scoring 34 goals and giving the fans plenty to shout about. Still only 20 years of age, so hopefully we will get to enjoy his skills for years to come. Congratulations to him.

There were 7 Barca players on the FIFA World Player of the Year list. This award, I should point out, is largely being given for performance during last season, which makes it hard to crow about the number of nominees when I can remember how some of them played back then.

Apparently Samuel Eto'o has been coming down to the changing room before games to see the players, according to Victor Valdes. By the way, it's nice to see him actually attend games, which is something that I feel injured players who are in the city and mobile enough to get around should try to do. But that's just a personal preference.

Lastly, Gonzalo, I think it's gotten to the point where Laporta has usurped Calderon's lovingly granted title of President Tourettes. Lord.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Barca 3 - 0 Atletico, presswatch and other news

(I've recently taken over the Argentina World Cup Blog, so that's where all Argentina-related posts will go in the future.)

Atletico were the last team to beat Barca at Camp Nou in the league back in February of 2006. Since then, Barca have gone 30 games undefeated at home, of which 22 were victories. So you could say that this was a bit of a test.

  • The midfield, especially Deco, who has regained the form of his first season and is once again the complete player, and Iniesta, who has really taken to the holding midfield role with intelligence and aplomb.
  • Messi's amazing run continues. It's worth pointing out that he has now scored 20 goals in his last 23 games for Barca, starting with that hat-trick against Real Madrid in March, but the biggest difference between the Messi of this season and, say, two years ago is that he can now take on the responsibility of carrying the team forward.
  • Whisper it, but Ronaldinho is starting to look fitter. I don't want to tempt fate, because we've had so many false dawns before, but maybe, just maybe, he is going to be fully fit soon.
  • Puyol looks great after his comeback from injury, and the much-anticipated partnership with Milito seemed to work like a charm.
  • Oleguer has played well since Zambrotta got injured. Shocking, I know. But since we went through the double-winning season with him playing rightback in almost all the big games, you'd think more people would remember that he is a decent player - not great, certainly not as good as Zambrotta, but not that bad either.
  • Glad as I am that the '3 little ones' midfield is working, we've got a problem coming up quite soon: Deco is on 4 yellows. What are we going to do when he gets suspended?
  • took our foot off the pedal when 2-0 up: dangerous hint of complacency?
Barca now have their 6th consecutive victory and are unbeaten so far this season, which sounds pretty impressive but as Frank Rijkaard would no doubt point out it wasn't easy.

It is interesting that, as usual, he has been keen to criticise the players for their lapses in victory, this time about losing concentration in the second half. This is part of what I like about him - when we lose or draw, he doesn't get overly negative, and when we win, he never gets carried away.

Javier Aguirre
was classy as always in defeat, crediting Barca while refusing to blame poor old goalkeeper Christian Abbiati for his blunder.

Lastly, this match was notable because it finished with 8 home-grown Barca players on the pitch, and that was just on our side. (Atletico's Luis Garcia being yet another Barca youth product.) Given that those 8 players were Valdes, Oleguer, Puyol, Xavi, Iniesta, Messi, Giovani and Bojan, the cantera certainly looks to be in good health.

other news

Puyol, Messi and Ronaldinho have been named in the FIFPro World XI for the 06/07 season, which makes Barca the best represented team in the XI and tells us that these guys are very popular, if nothing else, since the vote is taken amongst their peers. I say that because neither Ronaldinho nor Puyol (much as I love him) were at their best last season, both for fitness reasons. Messi, well, I think there's little question that he is deserving.

13 players have been called away on international duty. Unlike Laporta, I will not say that player should take it easy, but here's hoping that everyone returns fit and ready to play. Here are the call-ups:
  • France (Euro qualifiers against the Faroe Islands and Lithuania): Thuram, Henry and Abidal
  • Spain (Euro qualifier against Denmark and friendly against Finland): Puyol, Xavi, Iniesta
  • Portugal (Euro qualifiers against Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan): Deco
  • Iceland (Euro qualifiers against Latvia and Liechtenstein): Gudjohnsen (who is apparently fit again)
  • Spain U21 (Euro qualifier against Poland): Bojan
  • Argentina (World Cup qualifiers against Chile and Venezuela): Messi and Milito
  • Brazil (World Cup qualifiers against Colombia and Ecuador): Ronaldinho
  • Mexico (friendlies against Nigeria and Guatemala): Giovani
I previously mentioned Cesc Fabregas' comments about how Henry intimidated the other players at Arsenal. (I should probably make it clear that the comments were made in a friendly spirit and that Henry himself agreed with Cesc.) It is funny how his role has changed at Barca, though, because while still playing a guardian role to the youngsters, he's no longer the one great star. This has been echoed in his latest comments, which I found interesting:

"I learn so much every day playing and training alongside people like Lionel Messl, Samuel Eto'o or Ronaldinho," he said."But Thuram is also still doing it and I use that to gain inspiration too."

He also made a good point about the work put in by the squad, which is not always recognised when people talk about stylish victories:

"It is a great team when you win. We have extraordinary players and everyone is talking about us," he continued."But even with all those great players it is not always easy."

Lastly: scoring poll, anyone? Who's going to score first, Giovani or Bojan?


Phil Ball on fine form about Valencia's problems and a history lesson on Levante; the ever-amusing Sid Lowe on Barca-Atletico; Tim Stannard of La Liga Loca with a great rant about the current Spanish TV dispute that is depriving audiences all over the world of some fine football; and a nice article on the FIFA website about the Messi-Aguero rivalry and friendship and their respective rises to fame and fortune.

non-Barca news

This is actually kind of Barca related - club legend Hristo Stoichkov has left second divison club Celta Vigo for 'personal reasons'. The press says he was sacked, but the club president maintains that is not the case.

The UEFA Cup draws are out. Atletico have a reasonable draw in Group B, with Panathinaikos, Lokomotiv Moscow, Copenhagen and Aberdeen. Villarreal have AEK Athens, Fiorentina, Mlada Boleslav and Elfsborg in Group C. Finally, Getafe rounds out the Spanish teams in Group G, where they will face Anderlecht, Tottenham Hotspur, Hapoel Tel Aviv and Aalborg.

Monday, October 08, 2007

La Liga: state of affairs in Europe

My take on Barca's win over Atletico will come later. For now, an update on how the Spanish teams are doing in European competition.

Champions League

The official UEFA website has the group standings after two games.

Sevilla 4-2 Slavia (Sevilla goals by Kanoute, Fabiano, Escude, and Kone)

I'm sure this victory came as a great relief to Juande Ramos, as it arrested a 4-game losing streak and gave them something to build on in the group. Fortunately for them, they have one of the easier groups, and should eventually progress - fingers crossed - despite their current dodgy form. For now, Sevilla sit second in the group with 3 points, level with Slavia.

Lazio 2-2 Real (Real goals by van Nistelrooy (2))

Not the result Schuster would have wanted, given Lazio's troubles in Serie A this season, but it was never going to an easy ground to go to, and a point is certainly good enough keep Real on track to progress. They have the advantage of two of Europe's greatest goalscorers in the Champions League, van Nistelrooy and Raul, and it's certain served them well so far. Real are top of the group, level with Olympiakos on 4 points, and poised to look down from their perch as the other three teams battle it out for the other spot.

(By the way, I see that Schuster has proclaimed Real's defence the best in Europe. Perhaps he has a very short memory?)

Valencia 1-2 Chelsea (Valencia goal by Villa)

Oh dear. Almost every journalist writing about this game presumed that Valencia would win, given the supposed chaos and discontent at Chelsea. I thought so too. Credit to Chelsea, they did very well to win the game, and Drogba's goal was sublime, but surely Valencia could have done better, especially after taking such an early lead. If conclusions are to be drawn from this game, one could perhaps say that Chelsea aren't nearly as bad as everyone feared given Mourinho's departure, and Valencia, despite their winning run in the league (which has just been broken this weekend) aren't quite in the best of form. From what I've seen, there's still some problems in midfield, and some would also point to the departure of Ayala in the last transfer window as the source of uncertainties in defence. In any case, Valencia are second in the group on 3 points, level with Schalke. I'm fairly confident in their ability to progress, but Schalke are a substantial lurking threat.

Stuttgart 0-2 Barcelona (goals by Puyol and Messi)

I've already written about this game, although not at length. I should probably mention that Stuttgart were very unlucky and probably deserved a goal, although as Frank Rijkaard said, Barca really should have put the game to bed in the first 30 minutes instead of wasting chance after chance. In the context of the group, Barca are top on 6 points, level with Rangers, which puts them into a good position heading into the double header with the Scots.


Given the great success of the Spanish clubs in last season's competition (3 of the semifinalists were Liga teams - Espanyol, Sevilla, and Osasuna) we can only hope that this season's entrants can do the same. Curiously, there are 4 completely different teams this time around (the other team from last season being relegated Celta Vigo). Sevilla of course have moved up in the world to the Champions League, while Espanyol and Osasuna's fine UEFA Cup runs affected their form in the league and the domestic cup and they could not qualify.

Zaragoza 2-1 Aris Thessaloniki (Zaragoza goals by Oliveira and Sergio Garcia; 2-2 agg, Aris win on away goals)

I can't help but like Zaragoza, who along with Villarreal seem to be the most 'South American' teams in the league. It was great to see them do so well last season and I looked forward to seeing them in European competition. Unfortunately, Zaragoza's early season slump in the league extended to their form in the UEFA Cup, and they were eliminated by the Greek side. It is no doubt an incredibly disappointing result for the club and their fans, but the one consolation is that they can now concentrate on getting their league form back, which they now seem to have done. This season's battle for European places looks likely to be fiercer than ever, and if they're to have another shot at European competition, Zaragoza have to have their act together.

Erciyesspor 0-5 Atletico (goals by Aguero (2), Jurado, Rodriguez, Forlan; 0-9 agg)

Having had a couple of scares in the Intertoto Cup, Atletico put on two displays befitting a club of their stature and cruised through into the group stages. Luis Garcia - who I'm pleased to see back in Spanish football - and 'Kun' Aguero were very impressive over the two legs. It remains to be seen how the gruelling schedule of UEFA Cup football will affect Atletico's challenge for at the very least a Champions League place given the deficiencies in their squad when it comes to the defence.

Twente 3-2 Getafe (Getafe goals by Belenguer and Granero; 3-3 agg, Getafe win on away goals)

Getafe, who qualified for the UEFA Cup because they were Copa del Rey finalists (having beaten Valencia and Barcelona over two legs to get there) barely scraped through to the group stages, having scored two goals and then conceded two in extra time. Given their struggles in La Liga, where they are second bottom on 2 points, having yet to win a single game, this is a pretty good result. However, if they continue to struggle in the league, I'm not sure an UEFA Cup campaign will be very helpful.

BATE 0-2 Villarreal (goals by Cani and Angel; 1-6 agg)

Villarreal have had such great results in recent years in European competition, and it's wonderful to see them back in Europe again. I'm hoping they can go far this season, given the quality of their squad. As in the case of Atletico, though, they have to be wary of the effects an UEFA Cup campaign can have on the struggle for a Champions League place in the league.

Here's one for nostalgic Barca fans: Henrik Larsson's Helsingborg overcame a 2-goal deficit in the first leg, winning 5-1 at home against Heerenveen of the Netherlands to go through 8-6 on aggregate. No prices for guessing who scored 3 of the 8 goals for the Swedish side over the two legs.

This is not Europe related, but for interest's sake, I thought I'd mention that we have a winner in the La Liga sack race: perhaps rather predictably, it's bottom club Levante's Abel Resino. Ironically, Resino was the man who took over in January and led the club to survival last season, but 1 point (!) from 7 games so far this season sealed his fate.

Friday, October 05, 2007

News ahead of the Atletico game

Stuttgart 0-2 Barca

A 2-0 away win against the German champions, who hadn't lost at home for 19 games - yeah, I'll take that. We've never had an easy time in Germany, and this was no different. This result, combined with Rangers' fantastic win, have left us very well placed in the group.

However, Rijkaard criticized the forward line for being wasteful and hinted that the star players would have to work harder. The players who were interviewed - including Valdes, Oleguer and Deco - seemed to agree.

"The only thing he can't do is play in goal." - Rijkaard on Andres Iniesta.

And damn right, too. Iniesta is a brilliant talent who is criminally underrated. Frankie also praised the crucial saves made by Valdes, the great job Abidal did as an emergency centerback, and the fitness of Ronaldinho.

Congratulations to Xavi for becoming the player who has played the most international club matches for Barca at 86 games, 70 of them in the Champions League. Remarkably, he's still only 27. His first Champions League game, incidentally, was that memorable 3-3 draw at Old Trafford in 1998.

Congratulations are also due to Leo Messi, who has scored 7 goals in his last 5 consecutive games for Barca. The Argentine is currently top of the scoring charts in both La Liga and the Champions League, despite not being an out and out striker. So you could say that he's got some form at the moment. This bests his record last season of 5 goals in 3 consecutive games. (It's worth pointing out that despite missing 3 months through injury and thus only playing 36 games for Barca last season, he managed 17 goals, a remarkable tally.)

So, 5 victories in a row, 15 goals scored, 3 conceded. Not bad. 11 of those goals came courtesy of Messi and Henry, which is a pretty scary statistic (the others are an own goal, Iniesta, Marquez and Puyol).

injury crisis time

This was the state of our defence after the Stuttgart game. Available players:

defensive midfield: Marc Crosas
rightback: Oleguer
central defence: Thuram (yes, we've only got one fit central defender. Oh dear.)

Thankfully, both Puyol and Milito trained on Thursday, so it seems that they will be fit to face Atletico Madrid, fingers crossed.

The news on Marquez is not as good. He's going to be out for a month with a torn muscle in his right leg, which means we've got no defensive midfielders for a month at the very least. Any more of this and I'm going to start missing Motta. (He's injured too? Oh. Poor guy.)

So here's the injury list as it stands currently:

Long term - Eto'o (2 months, torn leg muscle), Zambrotta (1-2 months, torn leg muscle), Toure (1-2 months, torn femoral biceps), Marquez (torn leg muscle), Edmilson (2-3 months, knee problems)

Short term - Gudjohnsen (knee trouble)

I'm starting to see a theme here with the long term injuries, and I don't like it.

Barca v Atletico

Atletico are never easy opponents for Barca, and the state of our defence does not inspire confidence at the moment. Mr Guardiola? Can you spare, say, your entire defence? The first team needs to borrow them.

On the other hand, our 'black beast' and former chief tormentor Fernando Torres has now left for Liverpool, which is nice, if not for the fact that he's been replaced by Diego Forlan.

The Barca website builds the game up thus:

All in all, Sunday’s match in the Camp Nou looks set to be a classic encounter: fourth versus fifth, two historic rivals, two attacking teams, the two top scorers and two teams in great form.

Atletico star Sergio 'Kun' Aguero has been speaking about the great start to the season made by both himself and good friend Leo Messi. The two little Argies top the goalscoring charts in Spain with 5 goals each. Not bad for a pair whose combined age is 39.

The game will also see the return of some familiar faces to the Camp Nou. Unfortunately, as I mentioned above, Thiago Motta is unfit and will not travel. Fellow youth team graduate Luis Garcia will be returning, though, and I hope he gets a good reception. I've always liked him, and he certainly contributed a lot to Barca's rise in the 03-04 season. Also returning will be Simao Sabrosa, who had the misfortune of being signed by Louis van Gaal at a time when he wasn't ready for La Liga. He has now developed into a mature player as well as a skilful one, and will no doubt be a handful for the Barca defence.

On a different note, here's a great article about Barcelona's cantera, or youth system.

Lastly, it seems like former Barca assistant coach Henk ten Cate, who is now coach of Ajax, will indeed be joining Chelsea - the club he branded 'pathetic', amongst other things, during Barca's turbulent meetings with them in 04-05 and 05-06 - as an assistant coach. This is the man who allegedly kicked a Chelsea staff member up the backside. I'm strangely saddened by this.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Barca news ahead of the Stuttgart game and a quick update on the Phoenix

I picked a bad time to be away, didn't I? Events in the past week have been strangely reminiscent of the 04-05 season: great play, great sense of team spirit, tons of injuries. Perhaps it's a good omen, as Barca won the title that time, but I hope the squad remember that they did it by sticking together and working hard through the bad patches.

Here's an amazing statistic: it's been 10 months since we last won 4 in a row. 10 months! That goes some way to explaining why last season was a failure, doesn't it?

I liked this from the Independent:
When over 20,000 people turn up to see you sign, you want to give them what they want. Scoring three times on a ground where in the last two seasons Barça have only been able to pick up a point was a good way to start delivering.

Exactly right, and thank you, Titi. I can't help but think about what would have happened if he had signed a season earlier and been there when Eto'o got injured then, but I suppose it's just great to have him now in Sammy's absence.

Other related matters:
  • Henry and Messi have really hit it off.
  • A very happy birthday to Frank Rijkaard, who turned 45 and was able to celebrate with a victory.
  • Henry did a bit of his post-match interview in Spanish, and was apparently pretty good.
  • Congratulations to captain Puyol on his return. Hopefully his form will return with a bit more game time.
  • Fair play to the Levante fans, who applauded Messi off the pitch. I believe they're the second (non-Barca) Spanish club to do so, after the wonderful fans of Cadiz a few seasons ago, who I still miss. (Come back to the top flight soon, guys!)
team news

Unfortunately, Gianluca Zambrotta is going to be out for a month with a torn muscle. This is a big blow given the sale of Belletti during the last transfer window. Having Oleguer and no one else in the rightback position for a month is not an ideal situation, much as I like the Catalan.

In the same vein, and arguably even more importantly, Yaya Toure is also out for a month with torn femoral biceps. Thankfully it seems that Marquez will be fit enough to take over the defensive midfield position for the next month, but Toure has really made this position his own and this is a bad time for him to get injured. On the other hand, Marquez does have cover - albeit inexperienced cover - in the shape of the uncanny Guardiola lookalike, young Marc Crosas.

Speaking of Toure, he has publicly apologized for injuring Zaragoza's Matuzalem with what was an unacceptably dangerous tackle. Having already made an apology to the player in private after the game, Toure wanted to make it clear that he had "not come to Spain to be dirty, but to play football", and I believe him. The tackle was wrong, but Toure's response has been impeccable.

Congratulations to Carles Puyol on a big occasion: the 29 year old will play his 350th game for Barca against Stuttgart.

Speaking of which, here's the squad list. It does include Ronaldinho, Marquez and Gabi Milito (who requires more tests before he'll be cleared to play), and doesn't include Yaya Toure, Gianluca Zambrotta, Samuel Eto'o, Edmilson (injured) and poor old Santi Ezquerro (rested).


Coverage of the weekend from Sid Lowe (general round-up and Real) and Phil Ball (on Messi, 'the best player in the world'). As always, well worth reading. And Pete Jenson from the same Independent article quoted above on Henry, Messi, and Rijkaard's birthday.

The lecturer of my media class just said: "the media is not interested in anything positive. They're only interested in confrontation and negativity." Admittedly, he was talking about politics, but it applies equally to football. Sid and Phil are consistently good because they're balanced, interesting, and at the same time not obsessed with negativity and sensationalism.

Wellington Phoenix 4 - 1 Perth Glory

Congratulations to the Phoenix on their first ever home victory, which moves them up to 4th in the table. Great stuff, especially from Brazilian midfielder Daniel. When I was in Wellington, I was impressed by all the advertising around town for the Phoenix's games and the team's visibility, compared to what the late lamented Knights had in Auckland. The fans impressed me too, making a right old racket in the Cake Tin (otherwise known as Westpac Stadium) even though they only numbered about 10000. Very good signs for the team in general.

3 apologies and 2 thank yous (a quick note on Barca)

Dear Thierry Henry:

I'm sorry I ever thought you had lost your spark forever. I'm glad you play for us.

Dear Yaya Toure:

I'm sorry I doubted your suitability for the defensive midfield position. You have been wonderful. Get well soon!

Dear Txiki Begiristain:

I was wrong, and I apologize. You have signed well this time. Please continue in this vein.

Dear Frank Rijkaard:

I never doubted you, and I never will. Thanks for being a class act.

Dear Leo Messi:

Thank you for being unpretentious, and modest, and fantastic.

I'm now back from Wellington - which was great fun - so expect some catch up posts soon, including one about the Argentina squad for the upcoming World Cup qualifiers. Let's just say I'm not too impressed.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Barca v Sevilla, Nou Camp Nou and the Ronaldinho crisis

Barca 2 - 1 Sevilla

A very important win for Barca, especially given the pre-game celebrations for the 50th birthday of that beautiful stadium, the Camp Nou.

  • Henry looks better with every game. Desperately unlucky for the nth time in front of goal, but as the man said himself, give him a month to get fitter and used to the team.
  • The new signings have really toughened up the defence.
  • Andres Iniesta. He's been a victim of the good form of Xavi and Deco, which is a bit unfair given just how consistently good he's been.
  • Leo Messi. As Hernan Crespo once said, 'a promise that's turning into reality'.
  • Oleguer. Oh dear. I appreciate that it's not easy to come into a game late on having not played for a couple of weeks, but it's hard to avoid the conclusion that had he not come on, Barca might not have had to endure a late scare.
  • Ronaldinho - more on which in the next section.
Sevilla president Del Nido said that Barca deserved to win and that they had no complaints about the defeat (which frankly caused me to wonder if he's had a personality transplant), but the statement made in the spirit of fair play is very much appreciated. Coach Juande Ramos was fair and gracious, as always.

I thought Frank Rijkaard's post-game comments were very appropriate, and especially liked his remark on Messi's goal celebration.

other news

The big one in terms of the club is the unveiling of the plans for the renovation of the Camp Nou. The Guardian also has a nice piece on the news. Some of the details on the new facilities are great. Personally, I have come to like it almost in spite of myself. It's daring and different, and that's as it should be. If you're a sceptical Barca supporter, give it time. You may come to change your mind like I did. My personal favourite thing about the current Camp Nou - the open bowl shape - will unfortunately be lost, but it's a small price to pay for a roof for the watching faithful. Come to think of it, it is rather strange that one of the best stadiums in Europe leaves the majority of its spectators to get rained on.

Congratulations are due to Deco, who will play his 100th league game for Barca against Zaragoza, barring any misfortune.

However, the big story of Barca v Zaragoza has to be the duel of the Milito brothers, who have gone their separate ways club-wise once again after 2 seasons of playing on the same team. Hopefully we won't see a repeat of the incident in one of the Racing-Independiente derbies they contested on opposite sides back in Argentina, in wich Diego (the older of the brothers, incidentally) demanded that Gaby be sent off for a rough tackle on him.


Great writing as always from the usual suspects on La Liga: Sid Lowe on Ronaldinho, the stadium and Messi, and Phil Ball on the same issues. Also, for once someone makes sense at, also on Ronaldinho.

Nou Camp Nou

While I agree with Phil on the increasingly embarrassing and erratic behaviour of that megalomaniac Joan Laporta, I find his lament on the corportisation of Barcelona strange, to say the least. Surely it's far too late for that? It's a sad fact of life for fans of top-flight football in any major league, after all. Additionally, renovating a 50-year-old stadium to ensure comfort for the spectators and better access for the disabled, amongst other things, doesn't seem terribly wrong to me. Again, it now seems slightly ridiculous that a stadium which aspires to be one of the best in Europe has no roof, leaving the majority of fans to get drenched on rainy match days.


Any discussion on Ronaldinho must begin with one statement of fact: as Sylvinho said a few years ago, 'he's important for Barcelona on and off the field'.

On the field, he has, as Laporta, Rijkaard and several players pointed out this week, changed the history of the club. Enough said.

Off the field, he has bought many new fans to the club all over the world (especially amongst the young) and serves as a great recruitment tool for the Barcelona youth system in South America along with Messi.

What the board have had to consider is the effect of selling Ronaldinho on Barcelona both those fronts, especially if his form is, as Rijkaard said, 'recoverable'.

(What frankly amazes me is the sheer power of the Ronaldinho brand - the (British) commentators kept telling me during the game against Lyon that he was the best thing since sliced bread when that was evidently not what was happening on the pitch. Which I suppose just demonstrates my point.)

As Phil points out in his article, this whole business with his injury has been more than a little distasteful. However, it must be said this does not actually appear to be an attempt to cover up him being dropped for being out partying 48 hours before the game against Osasuna. Why? Well, apparently Ronnie protested his innocence over the partying incident to Rijkaard, who said that he believed him. So it would be inconsistent of the club to administer a punishment.

Secondly, it was apparently Ronaldinho himself who offered up injury as a reason for not playing against Sevilla. So any cover-up originated within his own camp. Now, is he actually injured? Maybe. What is clear is that after his lack of discipline last season was covered up by Barca (that whole 'he's not missing training, he's in the gym' thing), some people have had enough and no longer trust either him or the club when they announce his status.

What is also clear is that Ronaldinho has a fair bit of support within the dressing room, although not as much as he used to with the departures of Belletti and Motta, and Rijkaard has given him his full public backing. With that in mind, I applaud the Dutchman's actions in taking Ronnie off in previous games when he hasn't looked fully fit and up for it. If anybody doesn't play well, it's logical that they get taken off to have a rest, while a (hopefully) more effective player comes on. So why the fuss when it happens to Ronaldinho? After all, wasn't one of the reasons for the dressing room unrest last season the appearance of the club having one set of rules for Ronnie and one set for everybody else?

That said, I'm not ready to give up on him just yet (although as you can probably tell, my patience is running out), keeping in mind what he has contributed to the club in the past 4 seasons. Remember, 3 games ago everybody loved him. I know us Barca fans can be fickle sometimes, but that's taking it a bit far.

P.S.: I will be travelling to fair Wellington this weekend, home of Wellington Phoenix of the A-league, of course. Unfortunately I won't have time to catch a game while I'm there, though. Enjoy the football, and posting will resume as normal when I get back.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Barca news round-up: what a difference a day makes

Barcelona 3-0 Lyon

  • 3 points against arguably our most difficult rival in the group
  • Messi continues to improve all aspects of his game
  • Henry really needed that goal
  • Great to see Giovani and Bojan get their Champions League debut
  • That defence: Zambrotta-Marquez-Milito-Abidal. Excellent, and they should start every game until Puyol is fully fit. Lyon only had one shot on goal.
  • Deco has really responded to the pressure (credit to Rijkaard for motivating him once again), Xavi is as tidy as ever, and Iniesta is just brilliant. It's a hard choice for the coach to make, having to pick two out of three.
  • Toure has made a great start to his Barca career, really earning the admiration of the fans with his work rate and skill. Same with Abidal.
  • Far too wasteful in attack. So many great chances went begging before Messi's goal.
  • Ronaldinho still doesn't look quite right. I believe his substitution was the correct decision.
  • Henry also looks a bit off the pace, although that should change as he gets used to the way Barca play.

The bidding to renovate the Camp Nou has been won by prestigious architects Norman Foster. The plans include the addition of another 10000 seats, taking the stadium capacity to a ridiculous 110000 and is expected to cost 250 million euros.

Congratulations to Xavi, who equalled the club record for most number of appearances in international competition with his 85th match for the club in UEFA and FIFA club competitions. Remember, he's only 27. The Catalan had this to say about the honour:
"It is a beautiful number to help celebrate an important win," smiled the 27-year-old Spanish international midfielder. "I still feel young. I feel important within this squad and the fans continue to show me great affection.
I damn well hope the club continues to make the third captain of the squad feel important. He's a hugely underrated player and always wonderful to watch.

Congratulations are also due to Bojan Krkic, who became the youngest player ever to play in the Champions League not only for Barca, but in the history of the competition at the age of 17 years and 22 days. The previous Barca record holder was the man who he replaced, Leo Messi, who was an ancient 17 years, 5 months and 13 days when he started the game against Shaktar Donetsk 3 years ago.

Lastly, it gives me great pleasure to announce that club captain Carles Puyol is finally back in full training with the rest of the squad, who gave him a warm welcome back. We've missed his leadership and his spirit.

However, Puyol hasn't been included in the squad to face Sevilla.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Shorter Barca news and comments

I don't think I need to write a match report - it was the same old problems, after all. That's the depressing part, although I'd argue that it's far from crisis time just yet. The team are in an awkward position right now with a string of tough matches coming up that they have to get results in, but if they can't rise to the challenge then they don't deserve to compete for any silverware anyway.

Frank Rijkaard
's critics had predicted that he wouldn't dare use the two new wonderkids Bojan and Giovani in a proper game, and he surprised them yet again. However, he was somewhat forced into the decision by the injuries to Messi and Eto'o, and the state of affairs that led to Giuly leaving. No doubt Ronaldinho's poor showing - which led to his substitution on 65 minutes - also influenced the decision. But congratulations to Giovani - and to Gaby Milito - who started their first match for Barca, and to Bojan, who made his official debut for the club. The 17-year-old striker broke Messi's record for the youngest player to start a league match for Barca, and it's too bad that the occasion did not come with a win.

By the way, the Catalan press would do well to lay off Rijkaard - any problems that Barca have are deep-rooted and mostly not of his making. I can't even say how frustrated I am with certain players right now. More on which later, I'm sure. In the mean time, I mostly agree with Deco, although it's hard not to be sceptical about some of his claims.

The good news ahead of the daunting Champions League clash against Lyon to come is that Messi is back in training, although Thuram seems to have picked up a knock.

As for the match itself, and indeed the weekend in general, I direct you to Phil Ball, who as usual is wise and fair. His comments on the Spanish NT are great too, although my opinion of Aragones is, shall we say, somewhat lower than his.

Also good to see the English-speaking press (the always astute Kevin McCarra, in this case) taking more notice of the phenomenon that is Sevilla. I hope they have a wonderful Champions League campaign this season.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Barca news round-up

I could write about Argentina's win over Australia, but I'm still not sure what I think about that performance. Encouraging in some ways, but utterly infuriating in others, and there's no time left to get it right. But anyway, the daily grind of club football returns, and with it the Champions League, at long last.

Everyone got back from international duty with the arrival of the players who had participated in Brazil v Mexico, and no one seems to be injured, except:

Messi got a thigh strain against Australia. The club seems to be saying that it's not going to require a long lay-off, and he might play against Lyon, but I know better than to trust their minimal information medical bulletins. We know that injuries are part and parcel of the way Messi plays, but a long spell on the sidelines yet again is the last thing he needs. The moment he went down clutching his leg and then covering his face with his hands in Australia I thought of him making that exact motion when he got injured against Chelsea in 2006, and was reassured when he was able to continue. Unfortunately it seems that my first instinct was correct.

On the plus side, Gudjohnsen is fit again. That's not sarcasm, by the way. With Eto'o out we could use his help.

Excitingly, 17-year-old wonder kid striker Bojan Krkic is in the squad to face Osasuna. The absentees are the aftementioned Messi, long term injury victims Puyol (whose recovery is coming along nicely), Eto'o and Edmilson, and the suspended Rafael Marquez.

Osasuna have proven to be difficult opponents for Barca in the past, especially away, and a victory would confirm that the team are on the right course. It won't be easy, but I hope for a change from the 'can't be bothered to win' attitude that got us a draw last season.

In other news, the Wellington Phoenix got their first win of this season with a 1-2 away victory over big-spending Sydney FC. They desperately needed a win to reassure the fans that they weren't made of the same (unfortunate) breed as the now defunct New Zealand Knights, and they went to Australian and got one. Well done.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Argentina vs Australia squad news

This is the list of 21 players who have been called up for the friendly against Australia, to be played in Melbourne (in the famous Melbourne Cricket Ground) on the 11th of September:

Goalkeepers: Roberto Abbondanzieri (Getafe, Spain), Oscar Ustari (Getafe), Sergio Romero (AZ Alkmaar, the Netherlands)

Fair enough, given the situation with Carrizo (which I'll touch on below). I'm becoming increasingly concerned about playing time for Ustari at club level as well.

Defenders: Daniel 'Cata' Diaz (Getafe), Gabriel Heinze (Real Madrid, Spain), Fabricio Coloccini (Deportivo La Coruna, Spain), Nicholas Burdisso (Inter, Italy), Javier Zanetti (Inter), Gabriel Milito (Barcelona, Spain), Martin Demichelis (Bayern Munich, Germany)

I can understand the need to experiment, but I would have liked to see Garay get another call-up. He's definitely a solid performer, and the defeat to Norway cannot be blamed on him. (Playing Gabi Milito at leftback, however, has to be one of the strangest decisions I've ever seen. With all the players Argentina have, you'd think we would have a couple of leftbacks to spare when Heinze isn't available.) I've put Demichelis in this category because Basile has called up so many defensive midfielders that I doubt he also wants Demichelis for that position. Still not too sure about Coloccini, although I hear good things about him at club level playing rightback.

Midfielders: Fernando Gago (Real Madrid), Maxi Rodriguez (Atletico Madrid, Spain), Jonás Gutiérrez (Real Mallorca, Spain), Javier Mascherano (Liverpool, England), Cristian Ledesma (Olympiakos, Greece), Federico Insúa (Club America, Mexico)

Gago must be getting concerned about his amount of playing time at Real now that the double pivot era seems to be over, especially when he's competing with the brilliant Mascherano. Gutierrez has been called up a couple of times, and he's done well for Mallorca in the past, but to be honest, I'm not sure he's the answer. Ledesma is a bit of an unknown for me, although I've heard good things. Insua has been on good form since going to Mexico, and it will be interesting to see if Basile intends to give him the responsibility of being the playmaker.

I'm still advocating for Aimar and D'Alessandro, but they've been off-colour for Zaragoza so far this season, so we'll have to wait and see.

Forwards: Javier Saviola (Real Madrid), Lionel Messi (Barcelona), Sergio Aguero (Atletico Madrid), Hernán Crespo (Inter), Carlos Tevez (Manchester United)

I'm glad to see Aguero called up, since he's very much deserving. Other than that, my concern is still the lack of no.9 options other than Crespo.

Unfortunately, Diaz, Crespo and Maxi Rodriguez have all had to pull out of the squad for various reasons. This means that Basile is left with a squad of just 18 players to face a difficult opponent on their home ground.

That doesn't even touch on the urgent and very serious problems that Basile must address before World Cup qualification starts with a match against Chile, which is our next game:
  • Many of the countries went to the Copa America with an experimental squad in order to prepare for the qualifiers. We didn't.
  • This lack of preparation has been compounded by the inactivity at club level of several important players, like Crespo, Riquelme and Carrizo (who has been loaned back to River but is at risk of not starting).
  • Riquelme's case is the most severe, since he won't get called up if he's not playing at club level, and Basile had built the team around him in the Copa America.
  • The team doesn't have the time to look for a new playmaker and to calibrate their strategy to that player.
  • There is uncertainty in defence with the retirement of previous leader Ayala.
So to sum up, we don't know how we're going to play, and who should be playing. Needless to say, this is not a good situation to go into the qualifiers with.