On the Barca front, there's further good news about Samuel Eto'o, who has earned great credit during his recovery from injury. On the one hand, his absence has made Barca fans appreciate his importance and character even more, and now people who wanted to replace him with Fernando Torres at one point (in response to which I can only say that person knows nothing about football) think that he's irreplaceable - which is true. It works both ways, of course - I think Eto'o himself has matured during his unfortunate down-time. His behaviour in the past 3 months has been impeccable, earning plaudits from the fans for his determination and work ethic. Anyway, his nightmare is nearly over, and he's set to return to training on Monday. Oh happy day indeed.
To be honest, I was quite worried about the team at the beginning of the year, especially after the whole delayed arrival thing. Which, by the way, Ronaldinho still hasn't really explained, although Deco is now exempt from criticism in my book since he apparently presented medical documentation of his (pregnant) wife's sickness scare in Brazil to the club - which was the cause of his late arrival.
Neither of the Brazilians were in the squad for the Copa del Rey game, because they were doing double sessions of physical training to get fit in time for the big one this week: the Barcelona derby, an always exciting and contentious affair. Both Zambrotta and Oleguer should be fit for the clash, which combined with the recovery of Motta and Gio would abruptly end Barca's short injury crisis. And good thing too, since Espanyol's Olympic stadium is never an easy place to get a result.
...except that would be too easy. The latest is that while Oleguer will be fit, Deco will not be, having injured himself in training on Wednesday. It's a shame since he has such a good scoring record against Espanyol. Zambrotta has been declared fit, but Rijkaard has decided not to risk him.
Espanyol have their own problems, of course, with a rash of injuries ruling out several players including possibly veteran striker Walter Pandiani, which would be a big blow for them. Unfortunately my favourite young Argentine right-back Pablo Zabaleta will also miss the game through suspension.
Another little twist in the saga: Espanyol have all but announced that they intend to bid for Saviola after his contract expires in June of this year. Nice timing. I don't see this happening, but I didn't think Becks was going to MLS so soon either, so we'll see.
My hopes for the game? A win for Barcelona, of course, and no red cards would be nice too. I think last week's sparring match between Diogo and Fabiano in the Zaragoza-Sevilla game has satisfied the universal demand for perverse footballing entertainment for a while.
Alaves 0-2 Barcelona
Forca Saviola! He's now Barca's third highest scorer, after Ronaldinho (whose 14 goals, many of them crucial, have kept Barca alive so far this season and himself second in the pichichi table) and Gudjohnsen, which is incredible given how little playing time he's had. The press, who were rather nasty to him during the pre-season, have been won over and are pretty much firmly on his side - for the moment.
If it weren't for El Conejo, things could have been very embarrassing indeed. Barca had 70% of the possession and 29 fricking shots, only 7 of which were on goal. Poor Ezquerro in particular really needs to find his shooting boots.
Second-choice goalie Jorquera got a run out in place of on-form number one Valdes, which was nice, and Gudjohnsen got a rest, but other than that Barca played pretty much the first team, which is surprising from Rijkaard, since he's shown no sign of caring about the Copa before, until you realize that he doesn't exactly have a lot of choice where players are concerned right now. Mourinho's moan about having 'no players'? Frankie knows how you feel, Mou.
Gio and Motta who have been laid up in dry dock both got a run out as substitutes, and in Gio's case he got to play in midfield, which doesn't happen too often. Also notable: is this the first time Saviola and Gudjohnsen have played together? In any case, Saviola and Giuly seem to have a good understanding. Plaudits also go to Xavi and Marquez, the latter after his howler against Getafe, a match in which his other contributions were actually quite good.
Xavi deserves special mention though. The reason I prefer him ahead of Iniesta, despite the youngster's brilliant form, is because Barca control games better when Xavi is playing. He also made 8 successful interceptions in this game, which is astonishing for a midfielder who was never famed for his defensive efforts. What's Rijkaard going to do when Deco is fit? There's a nice selection dilemma for him.
(Curiously enough, Barca had never won at Alaves' ground before this game in 3 attempts. Not a team we enjoy playing against.)
Valladolid 2-1 Villarreal
Villarreal put out pretty much their strongest squad (without the dropped Riquelme) and got beaten away by second division leaders Valladolid. 'Striker' Guillermo Franco, whose continued inability to actually shoot on target has frustrated me for the longest time, even managed to get sent off. I'm not all that surprised, given his tendency to put in stupid tackles, get booked and then run around looking like a pissed (as in drunk) guy spoiling for a fight for the rest of the game.
Villarreal will probably still go through of course since they play the second leg at home, but they need to do something about their limp form and the general malaise first. As for the Riquelme mess, maybe I'll write an analysis of the problems later on, but for now I just feel too crushed about it all. My initial impression, however, is that the off-field problem is solely between the coach, Riquelme and the president.
There is some good news for them - Bobby Pires and Gonzalo Rodriguez are finally back in training after being sidelined with knee injuries at the beginning of the season. The Submarines can really use both of them right now, especially since Riquelme missed training yet again with a 'muscle injury', according to the club (yeah, right).
Atletico 1-1 Osasuna
10-man Atletico held on for a draw against manager Aguirre's former team Osasuna in the Calderon, increasing their run of bad results at home. A draw with ten men wouldn't be so bad if they didn't give up an away goal. Osasuna are not very good right now, especially away, so I expected Atletico to take this, despite missing Argentine goalie Leo Franco and a couple of other players through injury.
Young Argentine striker Sergio Aguero is having quite a good season so far, and for me he's been far more impressive than strike partner Fernando Torres. Critics have pointed out that Aguero has gone missing in some matches, but I believe that's more down to his playing style being somewhat incompatible with Atletico's. Aguero needs to have the ball at his feet near the penalty area to be effective, but Atletico aren't the type of team who like to keep possession. So it's not easy for him to be doing as well as he is, although of course his pace is helping in that respect.
Rayo Vallecano 0-0 Sevilla
A second-string Sevilla side were held to a 0-0 draw by third division Madrid side Rayo Vallecano, who boast the most awesome (slightly mental) female club president in Spain. Needless to say that Sevilla will be confident of picking the minnows off at home in the second leg.
Malaga 0-3 Zaragoza
Congratulations to Barca cantera (youth program) graduate and Andres Iniesta best pal Sergio Garcia for his brace against Malaga (who were in the first division last season) for Real Zaragoza. They put out a fairly strong squad, which doesn't surprise me. Zaragoza have a great track record in the Cup and I expect them to take it seriously, since after all the winner gets an UEFA Cup spot, which would be nice insurance to have if somehow they manage to botch it in the league. I doubt that will happen, but you never know. It would be an understatement to say that Zaragoza will be confident of going through, even if they play a bunch of reserves in the second leg at home.
By the way, I caught some of Zaragoza v Sevilla, and Aimar is on great form. Just wonderful to watch his passing and dribbling. He's even making successful tackles. In my opinion, he's the next best thing Argentina have to an on-form Riquelme, and if he continues on like this I'll be very annoyed if he doesn't start the friendly against France in early February.
Mallorca 1-2 Deportivo
Reserve Baby Depor (Embryo Depor?) won away at Mallorca, with on-loan Barca striker Maxi Lopez scoring what I suspect could be just a consolation goal for Mallorca at the death. Still, congratulations to him for finally getting another one. I doubt Mallorca have what it takes to get a result in the return leg in such a difficult ground. Looking at Depor's team sheet and counting the number of former Barca cantera players makes me smile and wince at the same time. It's good that the likes of Rodri and Verdu (part of Messi and Cesc's age group, I believe) are part of what could be a great new era for Depor, but what a shame that they had to leave Barca to get regular first team football.
Getafe 1-1 Valencia
Getafe got a good draw at home against Valencia (who also put out their first team, go figure), although they will be distraught at conceding a very, very late equaliser after having taken the lead so early. At least their shiny new striker Paunovic got the goal, which is always nice. I thought given their injury problems Flores might want to be careful in the Copa, which supposedly no one in Spain cares about, but it appears that everyone is going for it this season.
Oh yeah, to the small section of racist idiots who abused Valencia's excellent defender Miguel: the whole club gets a bad reputation because of you. I hope you're pleased with your bigoted selves. It's sad, because Getafe's president Angel Torres (a Real Madrid member) is a pretty cool guy, and coach Schuster's doing a good job with his team. That should be the news coming out of their stadium, not this crap.
Scary and awesome Argentine center-back Roberto Ayala's tranfer saga goes on at Valencia, with the Argentine center-back (reportedly targeted by Liverpool and Chelsea) stating his desire for a new deal - which he is not going to get. While coach Quique Sanchez Flores wants him to stay on, sporting director Carboni doesn't. (Kind of like the Saviola situation at Barca). Also, while Ayala was wonderful at the World Cup and continues to put in some excellent performances, he's had problems this season with form and injuries. And he's 33. So that's that.
Poor Vicente is injured yet again. When will the misery end for him? At least Angulo has been in good form lately.
Real Betis 0-0 Real Madrid
Real Madrid were held to a goalless draw by improving relegation battlers Real Betis. Both teams played half a first team squad, although one can't really be sure who's first team at Real Madrid these days. Higuain and Gago both started and looked promising, which is good news for us Albiceleste supporters. Err...not much else happened, I'm afraid.
At least there was an improvement from the last couple of games, with signs of a return to Capello's early season style of uninspiring forward play but great solidarity at the back. Roberto Carlos had to come off injured, further compounding Capello's injury problems (since his back-up Marcelo got injured in training right after his first game in Spain), but at least new boy right-back Torres (not the Atletico Madrid forward) did alright. Interestingly, Capello said that Torres (who seems like a keeper - nice kid) could start again in the league game against Zaragoza, which means that either Helguera or Cannavaro will be dropped, in Cannavaro's case for the second game running - unless of course Capello is stupid enough to play Sergio Ramos at left-back again, and I don't think he is. Although it is understandable that anyone facing the prospect of having to start Raul Bravo tries everything else before resorting to that.
The next big piece of transfer news after Becks to MLS is that Ronaldo is officially being shoved out the door by Capello. I'm surprised teams aren't rushing in for his signature - fat or not, he can still score goals with great technique and instinct alone, as he showed in the World Cup. That said, I have a lot of respect for the player he was, but slightly less for the player he is now. The way his career has gone is incredibly sad. So ends the galactico era, I guess.
By the way, Luis Fernandez seems to be doing very well with Betis so far. I've always maintained that they have too much talent to go down, and it seems like some defensive solidarity was exactly what they needed to pick things up. As long as they don't leak too many, players like Dani and Sobis should ensure that they win enough games to survive. All of this makes Barca's rescheduled trip to Betis' stadium on the 24th even more interesting.