Saturday, March 31, 2007

Barca transfer updates

This is why I dislike international breaks. Don't get me wrong, I love international football, especially big tournaments, but when the season's still going on it means that the hacks get really silly with their transfer rumour-mongering.

Some quick transfer news: Frank(ie) Rijkaard has once again stated that 1) he would like Ronaldinho to stay and 2) he will reject any offers from Milan to stay with Barca, as long as the club still want him. Needless to say, this makes me happy.

Same message from Roberto de Assis, it seems, who emphasised that he had not spoke to any other clubs about Ronaldinho. Poor guy can't even meet with the employers of other players he represents (Ricardo Oliveria, amongst others, mostly Brazilian) without a hundred Italian and Spanish hacks latching on to it.

Next up, Edmilson has spoken out on the (logical) rumours of his departure, given his recent loss of form, his position and advancing age.
"Rijkaard trusts me, not only on the pitch, but also in the dressing room," said the Brazilian. "I do not know if they are truly looking for someone [a defensive midfielder], because everyday I hear that five or six are to leave, and could count thirty who will join.

"However, if I do not continue [here], I will leave calmly, because I have won many trophies and given everything."
Basically, he'll stay if he can be useful, which suits me just fine. I still say we need another defensive midfielder, though. Preferably someone world class, and proven in La Liga.

Lilian Thuram seems to have softened his rhetoric somewhat, and is maintaining the same line as Edmilson: if he's used regularly, he'll stay. I daresay that won't be a problem for as long as he's in better form than Marquez, but beyond that, I just don't know. It would be lovely if he could retire in Barca, though.
"I hope that I will play for Barcelona next season. I will move elsewhere if the club tell me there are no possibilities for me [to play regularly]. If they count on me, there are no reasons to leave the club...First of all I think of staying at Barcelona and playing more often."
Speaking of which, apparently Juve want Marquez. He's really out of form, people. Doesn't the Old Lady's representatives watch La Liga or the Champions League?

Other Barca rumours: Jorge Andrade, the Depor defender; David Albelda, defensive midfielder and captain of Valencia (again); Eric Abidal's agent is still flogging him to us (no reported interest on our part yet, which is just as well given his lost of form this season); Dani Alves has also been flogged to Barca, who are interested but baulked at the price tag; and Saviola has been linked repeatedly to Spurs.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Barca news and press round-up

Barca have no games for 2 weeks. I'm actually pleased about this as it gives me a chance to catch up on blogging. There are about 3 unfinished articles and a couple of match reports coming up. But first, a news round-up.


10 members of the squad are off on international duty. Details:

Xavi, Iniesta and Puyol (Spain) - the usual suspects head off for vital Euro 08 qualifiers. Puyol is suspended for the Denmark clash in the Bernabeu, which is followed by playing Iceland in Mallorca.
Gudjohnsen (Iceland) - speaking of which, captain Eidur has also been called up for the aftementioned game.
Ronaldinho (Brazil) - Ronnie will head off to Gothenburg to play Chile and then to Stockholm to play Ghana as part of Brazil's friendlies schedule.
Marquez (Mexico) - captain Rafa will be involved in pre-Copa America friendlies against Paraguay and Ecuador back in Monterrey and Oakland respectively.
Gio Van Bronckhorst (Holland) - as a senior member of the Dutch squad, Gio will probably end up playing both Euro qualifiers against Romania and Slovenia respectively.
Zambrotta (Italy) - Zambrotta returns to the Italian squad for the Euro qualifier against Scotland.
Thuram (France) - the veteran defender has been called up for an Euro qualifier against the mighty Lithuania and a friendly against co-host nation Austria.
Eto'o (Cameroon) - Sammy finally makes his return to the Cameroonian NT for an African Cup of Nations qualifier against Liberia in Yaonde.

injury news

Deco has had an operation on his finger following the injury he sustained in a challenge against Recreativo. For what it's worth, club doctors say that he will be able to resume playing with 'special protection' in 3 weeks time - which is rather convenient. He'll have to miss Portugal's qualifiers in the next two weeks, and the visit of Depor, but he was booked for the aftementioned challenge and would have been suspended anyway. So it all works out. Hopefully he will return on time against Zaragoza, as his form was much improved in his last outing.

transfer news

The only credible transfer news lately has been about who's not going anywhere. Belletti renewed his contract, finally putting those AC Milan rumours to rest. The new one-year extension will take him through to 2009. Jorquera also recently agreed improved terms and will be available to give reliable if unspectacular performances in Spanish Cup games until 2008.
Zambrotta has come out and denied that he wants to go back to Italy - apparently after settling in, he's finally beginning to enjoy himself in Spain. I'm very pleased about this, as Zambro is my favourite (non-Argentinean) full-back (not just in Barca, but in European football) and I would very much like him to continue playing for us.

Rijkaard has also spoken out on the constant speculation linking him with a move to AC Milan. He feels that he 'owes a debt' to the club for putting their faith in him and basically in his own roundabout way said that he would not leave unless results compelled him to, or if the club didn't want him anymore. He's a polarising figure amongst Barca fans, but personally I would rather have him than anybody else, even with all his tactical flaws. Hotheaded he may have been as a player, but his behaviour as coach has been impeccable and many times by his words and actions he has made me proud to support Barca.

news story of the day

Most football fans could probably name a favourite retired/former player from their club off the top of their head. Barca fans have a lot of choice - Maradona, Cruyff, Rivaldo, Suarez and so on, not to mention members of the Dream Team.

My personal favourite happens to be someone who achieved nothing at senior international level and retired after years in the wilderness after being tainted by a ban for allegedly taking illegal substances. That doesn't sound too great, especially considering some of the other options, but he was and continues to be hugely respected in Spain, even amongst Madridistas. They say that he was the only Barca player the Bernabeu never booed. He is the reason Barca's youth academy has become a mass production line for a certain type of midfielder. Ask Fran Merida, Cesc Fabregas, Andres Iniesta or even Xabi Alonso who they idolize, why they became the players they are today; ask Xavi who he measures himself by; and they'll give you his name.

He was known as that rare species, an articulate and intelligent footballer whose soft-spoken elegance led to years of ignorant innuendo about his sexual orientation. He was a passionate advocate for the Catalan team and its occasional captain. He gave up law school for football.

I am of course talking about the inimitable 'Pep' Guardiola.

Guardiola's understanding of football is total and intuitive, but he is also capable of explaining the concepts with clarity in simple terms. One day, he is going to make a fantastic coach.

When he speaks, people listen. And he chose to speak in defence of Ronaldinho:
“He’s got a right to imperfection and also needs to be judged by his performances over a period of time, not with a game-by-game judgement from critics. He may have dipped a little from what he was doing before, but it’s inhuman to expect any football player to be on the top of his form, beating personal records and carrying a team on his shoulders the whole time. Nobody in the history of football has maintained that standard all the time."
He also said that he wanted Rijkaard to stay, defended the recent use of 3-4-3, and praised the 'extraordinary class' of Messi while urging people not to pressure him on the goalscoring front.

and a light-hearted note to end on...

I've been wondering where Edmilson has disappeared off to in the last few weeks. He wasn't picked for Brazil and he hasn't played for Barca for a while. I hope he's doing alright. Poor guy's not had the best of luck at Barca, injury-wise.

UEFA magazine had a rather amusing and endearing story about the Brazilian, which I'll quote in full here:
Footballers and their cars, eh? Or 'rides' as some of these whipper-snappers will have it. All flash, and no doubt with the latest mod-cons like go-faster stripes and CD players. Thank God for FC Barcelona defender Edmílson to restore some motoring sanity, professing his love for that most honest of jalopies, the humble tractor. "If I wasn't a footballer I would have become a long-distance truck driver," he told Britain's Daily Telegraph. "Even today, when I go back to my father's farm, I love to drive his tractors." Practical, reliable and sturdy. And tractors are not bad either! (Thank you very much, and good night.)

Saturday, March 17, 2007

La Liga title race: state of affairs

A little while ago I said that rounds 23-26 could be decisive for La Liga's title race this season. Now that's gone by, let's review.

Round 23: Valencia v Barca (could be decisive in whether Valencia stays in the title race), Sevilla v Atletico (do Atletico have what it takes? Are Sevilla out of steam?)

Valencia 2 - 1 Barca: Valencia wins resoundingly, keeping them in the race
Sevilla 3 - 1 Atletico: I think it's safe to say that Atletico do not have what it takes to make an assault on the CL places by themselves. At this point, Sevilla were still going strong.

(Champions League Round of 16 first leg: Barca v Liverpool, Inter v Valencia, Real v Bayern)

Round 24: Atletico v Real (Can Atletico finally win a Madrid derby?)

Atletico 1 - 1 Real: No. Even though they only have themselves to blame.

(Champions League Round of 16 second leg)

Round 25: Sevilla v Barca (potential title decider, if both sides are still in it by then)

Sevilla 2 - 1 Barca: both sides were still very much in it, and the result is a significant one, not only points-wise but also in that Barca have a favourable head to head result against Sevilla courtesy of their 3-1 victory at the Camp Nou.

Round 26: El Gran Clasico (always a big game, no matter what the occasion, and also a potential title decider this time)

Barca 3 - 3 Real: the Clasico weekend finished up with Barca back on top thanks to Leo Messi and Sevilla exhibiting vertigo syndrome, but Real are still in it too with 12 games to go.

looking ahead

Barca have played the other top 4 teams both home and away (with mostly bad results, it has to be said), which would seem to give them an advantage in the run-in. Exactly half of their remaining fixtures are home games. Considering their home record (unbeaten), the most tricky fixtures would seem to be Recreativo, Atletico and Zaragoza away.

Real are hard to predict because they have the best away form in the league but can be rather fragile at home. The visit of both Sevilla and Valencia loom large on their calendar, as does the always tricky trip to Zaragoza and to new boys Recre. For what it's worth, 7 of their remaining 12 games are at home.

Sevilla have yet to play Real at the Bernabeu or Valencia at the Mestalla, although 7 of their 12 games are at home, where they've only lost once. It remains to be seen whether they have the mental strength to keep up their title challenge, especially with a distracting but important UEFA Cup campaign on the side. Away to Osasuna (because of their home strength) would seem to be their toughest fixture, aside from the two mentioned above.

Valencia need to worry about the Champions League, unlike Barca and Real, which would be the one thing I can see standing between them and a push for the title. Like all the other sides except for Barca, they have 7 home games left at the Mestalla, where they've only lost once this season. They do have tricky visitors in the form of Sevilla, Zaragoza and Recre, though. Away to Real will also pose a tough challenge.

So here's how the next few rounds shape up:

Round 27: Zaragoza v Atletico (important in terms of CL or UEFA Cup positions)
Round 28: Osasuna v Sevilla (tough ground to visit for the top teams)

(Champions League quarterfinals: Chelsea v Valencia, UEFA Cup quarterfinals: Sevilla v Spurs)

Round 29: Zaragoza v Barca (tough ground, good team, a fixture with some history)

(Champions League quarterfinals: Valencia v Chelsea, UEFA Cup quarterfinals: Spurs v Sevilla)

Round 30: Valencia v Sevilla (Valencia need to win this if they want a shot at the title. Ditto for Sevilla, although I suspect they might be happy with a point by this time.)
Round 31: Real v Valencia (Real need to win all their games to have a shot at title, but this is also important if they're not going to be left behind in terms of CL positions.)

I suddenly feel really bad for Valencia. They're not going to have a good time for the first half of April, are they?

Sunday, March 11, 2007

All hail the Messi-ah

To quote an Argentina supporter immediately after the 3rd goal: EL NUEVO PIBE DE ORO POR DIOS!

Looking around the forums, I see a lot of grumbling about Rijkaard's tactics, about the defence, and (inevitably for El Clasico) lots of arguments between Barca and Real supporters about the referee.

But you know what, I don't care about all that right now. I don't even care that we'll probably be 3 points behind Sevilla tomorrow. As far as I'm concerned, what a battling performance. What a game, fully living up to the reputation of El Clasico. It had everything you could ever want out of a football match (okay, maybe with the notable exception of decent defending): goals, drama, controversy, and a soon-to-be-legendary performance from a rising star.

What a player young Leo Messi is. As big a fan of the lad as I've been, I've had doubts about him this season, and there's been plenty of quiet grumbling amongst Barca supporters about his occasional over-playing (sound familiar, Man Utd fans?) but there's nothing like a hat-trick in El Clasico to shut people up.

I think he's finally coming of age. One thing's for sure, his place in Barca's pantheon is secure. Those of us who worry about Barca after Ronaldinho can rest easy. And Cristiano Ronaldo has some proper competition.

Here's an encouraging thought for Argentina supporters, too: Gonzalo Higuain, Fernando Gago, Lionel Messi - 3 excellent Argentinean players played a huge part in the biggest club match in the world, and all 3 are below 21 years old. What kind of team are they going to make together with all our other young talent?

Much more on the game later.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

El Clasico Preview

What's with the fixture list this weekend? Look at the big games on offer: the Milan derby, the Old Firm derby, Bayern-Bremen, Lyon-Marseille and of course El Clasico.

Barcelona are missing Giuly and Zambrotta through suspension. Gio and Motta have also been left out of the squad, the latter due to Rijkaard's decision to give him some days off to sort out personal problems. (Motta really needs to step up soon, or I can see him being sold or loaned off at the end of the season no matter how much Rijkaard likes him.)

Real Madrid on the other hand still have Beckham, Reyes and Cannavaro out, only now they've been joined by Roberto Carlos in the sickbay. If I knew he was injured I wouldn't have been so hard on him in my last post. Injuries just suck no matter who they're happening to. They do have the best away record in the league on their side, though.

Neither team are in great shape physically or mentally, and I bet neither expected to be in this kind of hole at the beginning of the season. Real have nothing but the league to play for, which might make them more dangerous, while Barca can't afford to drop any points if we want to catch Sevilla.

There's not much else I have to say - after all, it's El Clasico. Everyone knows how important this game is. There's no point in me trying to predict the starting line-up or the result, so I'll just leave you with this last heartfelt sentence:

Visca el Barca!

Champions League results round up and quarters draw

I know I've said this enough times before, but: there really isn't much that can beat the Champions League for drama, is there?

Valencia CF 0 - 0 FC Internazionale Milano (2-2 agg, Valencia through on away goals)

Well done to Valencia. They had arguably the most difficult task of all the Spanish teams, and managed to succeed where Barca and Real failed. I'll be cheering them on now for the Cup (especially given the quarterfinal draw), although it's hard to see how they're going to make it with Baraja out for the rest of the season, Vicente injured yet again and bans sure to result from that rather comical brawl with Inter. Poor Argie Nicolas Burdisso is never going to look the same again.

Joking aside, the fact that Burdisso and Dacourt had to play in midfield because Inter were missing Vieira and Cambiasso had a big impact, which I predicted in my preview. And of course Valencia are excellent at grinding out results when they need to.

My prediction was: Valencia to squeak it, and I was right.

Chelsea FC 2 - 1 FC Porto (3-2 agg)

As predicted. Credit to Porto for at least giving it a good go, though. If this current team can hold on to their star players and continue to develop, they may as yet make something of themselves in European competition. Chelsea on the other hand are now favourites to win the Champions League. I'm not so sure, but they've got to be at least up there.

One last, overdue note: Didier Drogba. What a player. I still bitterly dislike his antics, but as the man himself pointed out once, you can't argue with his work rate. Or his goal-scoring record.

My prediction was: Chelsea to go through. Me and every other wannabe pundit in the world, and we were right.

Liverpool FC 0 - 1 FC Barcelona (2-2 agg, Liverpool through on away goals)

Light-hearted note first: the rule of the yellow away strip held (5 wins and 2 draws in Europe), which makes me ever more convinced that the awful orange away kit was a bad idea.

On a more serious note, this is not an easy game for me to write about, but I have to say, congratulations to Liverpool, they deserved to go through, and good luck to them for the rest of the competition. Fair play, too.

And good for Gudjohnsen - he desperately needed a goal. Sure, it didn't amount to anything, but in terms of pride and morale I think it was important to at least leave Anfield with a victory. After all, we all know what's coming up this weekend.

Olympique Lyonnais 0 - 2 As Roma (0-2 agg)

Wow, what an upset. I don't know about you, but this was the result that really shocked me. Great work by Roma, and terrible from Lyon, who no doubt expected much more from this campaign given their squad's potential and their progress through their domestic league.

My prediction was: Lyon to go through. Obviously, I was dead wrong.

Arsenal FC 1 - 1 PSV Eindhoven (1-2 agg)

What a game from Alex! Must have been a bit of an emotional rollercoaster for the poor guy. Ronald Koeman's teams have this knack of reaching above their actual skill level through organisation, hard work and (it must be said) riding their luck. It's not pretty, but it's very effective. He did it with Benfica, and he's doing it again with PSV.

As for Arsenal, it was the same old story. They created enough chances to win the game many times over, but no one could put the ball in the back of the net. Believe me, Barca fans know all about that particular frustration, but that's the way football is, I suppose.

It's rather sad, really, since they do have a very talented young squad, and yet their season is pretty much over barring fighting Liverpool for 3rd place in the Premiership, which isn't exactly an inspiring battle-cry.

(I'm pleased to note that Sun Xiang of PSV became the first Chinese footballer to start a game in the Champions League. He also helped set up Alex's goal, if I'm not mistaken.)

My prediction was: I'll go for Arsenal, but it'll be close. I was wrong. It was close, but not like that.

Manchester United FC 1 - 0 Lille OSC (2-0 agg)

Not as easy as it could have been for Man Utd, but in this instance I can't really blame Sir Alex for not using 4-4-2, since he's missing so many attacking players. (But I have to say this: Silvestre instead of Heinze? Seriously?) United were not at their best against a determined but limited team, and probably made their fans suffer a bit unnecessarily.

I'm glad my wish that Larsson would give United fans something to remember him by came true. The man's a byword for reliability, and he's got a great sense of occasion. Of course he was going to score.

My prediction was: Manchester United can walk it at Old Trafford, if they remember to stick to 4-4-2. Except they didn't, and laboured to victory instead.

FC Bayern Munich 2 - 1 Real Madrid CF (4-4 agg, Bayern go through on away goals)

Oh dear. You've got to feel sorry for Capello, his best laid plans shattered by an embarrassing slip-up in the first 12 seconds of the game. For God's sake, from their own kick-off! It has to be said that I think there isn't much difference between the two teams - in fact, Real can probably play better football. But they had very bad luck with injury to crucial team members (Beckham, Reyes, Cannavaro) and going to Germany is always difficult.

(Roberto Carlos has just announced he's leaving at the end of the season. I'm sorry to say this, given how great he used to be, but it's probably about time to quit while he's ahead.)

My prediction was: Bayern it is. And I was right. Real are just as fragile as Barca, so the kind of lead they had really wasn't enough.

AC Milan 1 - 0 Celtic FC (1-0 agg, Milan through after extra time)

A heroic performance from Celtic. I don't want to sound patronising, because after all they've worked so hard over the 2 legs with little reward, but I bet this did no harm to their reputation Europe-wide. Very impressive, and I look forward to seeing them back in the Champions League next season.

As for Milan, now that they're through to the quarterfinals I think they're proper contenders. But they're not a great team. (I haven't seen a truly great team in this year's Champions League yet.) Still, they're very good at the knockout stages of European competition. (Like I predicted: ability to score late goals when they really need to at home, check.)

My prediction was: Milan's experience will come through in the end. Hopefully Celtic will at least fight the good fight (not literally) though. And that's exactly what happened. Almost depressingly predicable, that one.

the draw

1) Milan v Bayern Munich - ooh, intriguing. Very much in the traditional of grand old European showdowns. Except neither team are in top shape, really. I'd expect Milan to outclass Bayern, at least based on current showings.

2) PSV Eindhoven v Liverpool - but they just played each other in the group stages! I think Liverpool need to be wary of PSV, despite the results earlier in the season. Koeman's crafty coach, and so is Benitez. It's going to be interesting to watch the tactical battle, if nothing else. I think Liverpool will make it through this one.

3) Roma v Manchester United - unconventional match-up, but very interesting. Roma can give United trouble, especially if they're still having injury and form problems by then. A lot depends on how fit Roma's own razor-thin squad is, too. Hard to say, especially given United's need to concentrate on their title race. I'll delay judgement on this one, but I have a sneaking feeling that if United aren't careful, they could stumble here.

4) Chelsea v Valencia - this is the draw that made me happiest. Valencia are the kind of team that knows how to play against teams like Chelsea, and they have a canny coach in Quique Sanchez Flores who will be a match for Mourinho. The only problem is that Valencia's injuries are mounting up again: Baraja and Vicente for starters. I think those two are more important than whatever suspensions UEFA will hand out for the brawl against Inter, since Navarro isn't a starter and Marchena, who's the only other one up on charges, isn't essential either. Maybe it's wishful thinking, but I'll call it for Valencia. Barring yet another meltdown, I think they can do it.

semi-finals: W4 v W2, W3 v W1

My pick for the competition overall? The bookies in England have got the English clubs at the top of their lists, with Chelsea favourite. I can see that logic, since the 3 English clubs are fairly well-placed, but my instincts say not to rule out Milan or Valencia either.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Champions League last 16: previews and predictions

I was discussing Champions League prospects with someone, and he bought up the idea that this year could see all four semi-finalists end up being Premiership teams. Personally, I would like at least one La Liga team to advance at least to the semi-finals, although none of the 3 have it easy, unlike all 4 Premiership teams.

Valencia CF - FC Internazionale Milano (2-2 agg)

Valencia is in the best position of all the Spanish clubs, but they also have arguably the most formidable opposition. No offense to any Reds out there, but you've got to admit Inter's form is pretty frightening. So it's a good thing Valencia has those 2 valuable away goals. If David Albelda weren't suspended I'd be confident of Valencia holding Inter to a 0-0 draw at home to go through, but they're a lot less solid without him. To balance this out, Patrick Vieira and Esteban Cambiasso are both unavaliable for Inter through injury, which is bad news for them since even a squad as large as theirs can't compensate completely for the loss of 2 players who perform similar functions in midfield.

(Optimistic) prediction: Valencia to squeak it. Nothing against Inter, in fact I rather like them because of the Argentineans, but I'd like to have at least one Spanish club in it for the long haul. And, you know, only two Spanish clubs have ever won the Champions League.

Chelsea FC - FC Porto (1-1 agg)

Porto are a good team, but they're no match for Chelsea. This was a very good draw for the Blues, and I don't expect them to throw anything away. If Porto somehow manage to scrape through, it would be a minor miracle, because on quality terms they really haven't got enough to compete against Chelsea, even without John Terry.

Prediction: Chelsea to go through. As they say, anything can and has happened in the Champions League, but the Blues are simply too solid.

Liverpool FC - FC Barcelona (2-1 agg)

This is it. The big one. I've seen Liverpool bloggers referring to this game as season-defining for them, in light of Premiership and Cup results, and while Barca are still in with a shout for both the League and the Copa del Rey a lot depends on how this game plays out for us too. We all know about Liverpool's strength at Anfield and their ability to defend solidly and counter with great effect.

Barca, on the other hand, have to go all out. Which isn't too different from our usual approach anyway, but as Rijkaard says we really don't have much to lose at this point. The trident of Ronaldinho, Eto'o and Messi might finally be reunited, and persumably Deco and Thuram will be restored to the starting line-up. I have a hunch that Zambrotta will be used as left-back with Oleguer on the right, since Gio and Belletti have been left out of the squad. As for the rest, it's anyone's guess. Like the Barca press keep saying, we need a miracle. Or just the whole team, playing at their best - no, beyond their best.

Barca have been through a lot of ups and downs this season - from the sublime to the ridiculous; injuries, slumps, in-fighting, disappointment as well as those moments of great football we all live for. Frankly, I'm a little emotionally wrung out by it all. But that's football. I'm not going to predict anything for this game. We all know what the obvious conclusion is. The odds are stacked against Barca - and I have to point out, due in large part to the team's performance at the Nou Camp. But nevermind all that. I'm not even demanding a result that allows us to go through.

Remember that epic game at Stamford Bridge? No, not the triumph of last season, but the heartbreak of 2 seasons ago. It's a bitter memory, but I can't complain about the spirit in which the team conducted themselves on the pitch.

The football journalist James Lawton, recalling Barca's game against Benfica in the European Cup final of 1961, wrote this:
They were betrayed by some catastrophic goalkeeping and trailed 2-1 at half-time. In the second half Barça, inspired by Suarez, played astonishing football, hitting the bar and the post five times. But only one goal went in, and Barça, perversely, lost 3-2. However, one consolation was huge: it was the knowledge that beaten teams and football men can define themselves in defeat as well as victory...
That last line has resonated with me ever since I first read it. A club like Barca, which prides itself on a tradition of attacking football come hell or high water, should always keep that in mind. We all like to idealize our club's image, it's true, (and some would claim that we preach image because we're not as successful) but that's a clear statement of the ideal as any I've ever read.

I just want the boys to do their best. As long as I can see that they put everything into it, that's enough.

Visca el Barca!

(On a less serious note, this game will see the return of the much loved - well, by me anyway - fluorescent yellow away shirts used last season, which serve as the third kits this season. Contrary to reports, they're not being used because they're 'lucky'. Both Barca's home and away kits have been deemed to clash with Liverpool's famous red home jersey.)

Olympique Lyonnais - As Roma (0-0 agg)

According to all reports the first leg was dreadfully dull. Hopefully this time at least one of the teams will come out and play like they actually want to win it. Both teams are hungry for Champions League success, Lyon because their domination of Ligue 1 is getting a bit boring, Roma because they have no chance of winning Serie A despite their best efforts.

Prediction: Lyon have more in the tank and Roma can be rather neurotic away from home in Europe. Lyon to go through.

Arsenal FC - PSV Eindhoven (0-1 agg)

Arsenal did not do themselves justice in front of goal in the first leg. On paper, this was a plum draw for them. But that's Arsenal for you this season. They're more than capable of pulling out a result at Ashburton Grove, of course, and PSV haven't exactly been having the greatest of times themselves.

Prediction: Hard to call, since PSV are difficult to break down and the Gunners have had trouble in the past with teams like them. I'll go for Arsenal, but it'll be close.

Manchester United FC - Lille OSC (1-1 agg)

This tie has come to have a surprising amount of bad blood associated with it over the last few seasons. Not quite on the level of Chelsea-Barca or Real-Bayern, but close enough, especially with the mayhem in the first leg. This was the best possible draw for Man Utd, so they really should go through easily. Anything else, and they'll know they've screwed up royally. Personally, I don't care either way, but a Larsson goal would be nice. Farewell present and all, even though Ferguson is busy insisting to anyone who will listen that they won't miss him once he's gone. Of course you will, Sir Alex. We all end up wishing he'd stay longer. (Besides, isn't poor Ole injured again?)

Prediction: Manchester United can walk it at Old Trafford, if they remember to stick to 4-4-2.

FC Bayern Munich - Real Madrid CF (2-3 agg)

Until Mark van Bommel scored that cracking goal, it was all looking so good for Real. Now they have to go to Germany, where they've traditionally not enjoyed themselves and suffer for 90 minutes. Make no mistake, Bayern may not be very good this season, but they're still good enough to give Real trouble. Especially since poor David Beckham's injured. (I kind of feel terrible for him - what a time to get injured! Just when things are going so well...and now he's going to miss his last Clasico as well.) Beckham's potential replacement Reyes also got injured in the same game, which means that several more Capello exiles might have to be dusted off for a run out. On the Bayern side, they're missing Bastian Schweinsteiger through suspension, which is a big loss for them.

Prediction: difficult one to call, given that both sides are weakened and showing wobbly form. I think Real will really miss Beckham, though. I'd like to see Real scrape through (the more Spanish teams, the merrier), but my gut feeling is that's not too likely. Bayern it is.

AC Milan - Celtic FC (0-0 agg)

Celtic have done very well to come this far and still be in with a shot at progressing, but I felt that their big chance to grab an advantage was at home in the first tie. Milan are very, very good at scoring late goals when they need to at home in European competition, and they're not nearly as crap as they were at the beginning of the season. Besides, Celtic are generally crap away from home in Europe.

Prediction: Milan's experience will come through in the end. Hopefully Celtic will at least fight the good fight (not literally) though.

Ahh, the intrigue of the Champions League. For me, the World Cup is only thing that surpasses it for pathos and excitement.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Zaragoza v Barca and other Copa matters

Zaragoza 1-2 Barca (agg. score 2-2, Barca go through on away goals)

Barca starting line-up (3-4-3!):



Well, that sure threw everyone for a loop. Rijkaard sometimes resorts to what all Barca fans think of as the Dream Team formation if a match is going really badly, but this is the first time he's started with it. If you told me beforehand this was going to happen, I would have had a fit - no strikers, where are the goals going to come from?

Wonder of wonders, it worked. And it's interesting that Rijkaard can still pull off clever tactical changes at a time when everyone is questioning his tactical competence. (Personally, I think it's rubbish - everyone thinks Mourinho's a tactical genius, but look at his tactics in the Barca leg of the Champions League game last season. Robert Huth as makeshift center forward, anyone?)

I think Rijkaard formulated the 3-4-3 almost out of necessity, rather than simply a bold tactical stroke (which it also was, and which doesn't always work). This way, he could rest certain players (Eto'o, Zambrotta, Gio, Saviola) in preparation for the hard week ahead.

It's also psychologically very clever. I'll let Rijkaard explain it himself:
He explained that "this system requires individual effort. If anybody doesn't do their job, a team-mate will notice it".
And of course the demands of the 3-4-3 means that it only works if everyone is giving everything to it, and concentrating 100%. It's almost forcing all the players to buck up their performances (or be noticed as the weakest link in the chain) where some of them have perhaps been phoning it in lately.

Barca's performance flagged in the second half, which I'm not too pleased about - do that against a team like Liverpool and you'll lose your lead before you know it. But I suppose we do need to conserve energy and all that. Just as long as it's not a fitness issue.

individual players

Aside from the rather unnecessary antics I wrote about at length below, Messi was excellent, especially in the first half. In a game when Ronaldinho was more subdued, he took over the reins and yet again proved himself capable of being a focal point of Barca's attack. Diogo is an excellent defender, but he was completely beaten. To be fair, not many defenders can cope with Messi when he's on form. (Much as it pains me to say it, out of the matches I've seen Ashley Cole has probably been the best at it.)

Xavi's return to blistering form is just as important as Ronnie's. He was almost unplayable. Thuram has been pure class since returning from injury. And we can't forget Iniesta, whose 7 goals this season is more than his total in the last 4 seasons. I still say that if he had his shooting boots on more he'd be on double figures, given the amount of opportunities in front of goal he has created for himself this season, but one can't complain about the kind of form he's on. Long may he wear the blaugrana shirt.

Deco needs to stop partying and start worrying about being dropped for Anfield. Marquez, on the other hand, has partially redeemed himself with this performance, although it was his lapse of concentration that led once again to the goal we gave up. It's a pity such a fine player seems to be turning into the Rio Ferdinard of La Liga - he needs to sort his head out, pronto.

summing up

This result was a pleasant surprise, I have to say. We haven't won away in far too long. I mentioned before the game to Isaiah at the Barca Offside blog that if we won this game, I'd start mustering up some hope again about Liverpool. Well, I guess I'm going to have to allow a tiny glimmer of it to rear its head.

That's the thing about hope, though - when it's followed by crushing pain and disappointment, it sort of discourages you from feeling the same way again. And us Barca supporters certainly know about that as much as the next fan, especially if we were around before the Rijkaard years.

the state of Spanish football and the Seville derby

On a last, sombre note, I'd like to express full agreement with Sid Lowe's insistence that the bottle-throwing at the Seville derby which rendered Sevilla coach Juanmo Ramos unconscious was not an isolated incident. In fact, as Sid details in his article, it wasn't even the only incident in that match alone. Ramos is always a good sport, never whines about other teams or referees (so if he does go to the Premiership, he's going to stick out like a sore thumb) and has my admiration for the great work he has done. His own response to the events after regaining consciousness was typically sensible. There's no need to stir things up anymore within the city, after all.

(The presidents of both clubs should, in my opinion, take some of the responsibility for the way they've stirred things up. If not for their childish bickering things might not have descended to this level. Tim of La Liga Loca has a slightly different view, and it's well worth reading.)

But maybe it's about time the authorities did something about all this. If Samuel Eto'o had played against Zaragoza I'm sure we'd be hearing about monkey chants directed at him right now. Instead, Barca 'keeper Albert Jorquera was hit by a bottle thrown from the stands. Thankfully it hit him in the back and he wasn't injured, but that's 2 of the 4 quarterfinals blighted by such incidents. Oh yeah, and the Barca team bus was attacked as it left the stadium. And what about the chaos and violence of last week's Madrid derby? The Camp Nou usually behaves itself these days (except when booing their own players) but I'm getting a bit worried about El Clasico.

Spanish football is known for many things, not all of them positive, but there's no need to add 'missile throwing hooligans' to the list, which already includes 'racist chanting'. It's time the clubs and league authorities got tough on both.

Argentine Watch

Starting off with a topic near and dear to me, Juan Roman Riquelme set up 2 of Boca's 3 goals in their eventual 1-3 victory over Independiente. Same as always, then. He was of course over-shadowed by Martin Palermo's incredible goal from the half-way line in the 94th minute.

What a goal, although I do feel terrible for poor Oscar Ustari, Argentine international and Independiente's young 'keeper, who was understandably crushed after conceding the goal. Ustari is a really good goalkeeper, and he saved his team's ass so many times last season, so this really does suck for him. But he's also a very mature lad, so I'm sure he'll pick himself up quickly and move on.

But Roman...I saw highlights of the game, and I haven't seen him smile like that in a long time. Maybe the move really is doing him a world of good.

Long-suffering Javier Mascherano finally made his debut for Liverpool against Sheffield United and put in a good performance. Frankly, I can't wait for him to start proving his doubters wrong. He is after all an excellent player, and you know what they say: form is temporary, but class is permanent. Liverpool is probably the ideal club for him, too, since about half the squad and the coach speak Spanish.

On the other hand, what's happened to Carlos Tevez? I dread to think...unfortunately West Ham seem doomed, especially given their injury woes. Asking fans to feel some empathy for another club's injury problems seems like an alien concept in the Premiership, but you've got to admit they have had terrible luck.

Congratulations are also due to young Real Madrid striker Gonzalo Higuain for opening his account with the Spanish giants, and in his first Madrid derby, no less. (On a related note, congratulations are also due to Fernando Torres for finally scoring against Real on what I believe may be his 9th attempt. The curse is broken!)

Argentinean National Team coach Basile has announced that Juan Sebastian Veron will be getting a recall to the NT for a pre-Copa America training camp. I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, he probably deserves the call-up after such a storming season. On the other, I'm not convinced by his ability to deliver at international level. The latest is that he's injured, and I'm not sure for how long. Despite my doubts, I have to say if injury makes him miss a long-awaited international recall, one has to feel sympathy for the man.

In better injury news Villarreal centerback Gonzalo Rodriguez is finally ready to play again after recovering from a major knee injury suffered in the beginning of the season. Villarreal have missed him and will be glad to have the talented and reliable youngster back. Argentina have a good, solid defence right now, but having him as an option on the bench would be a great confidence booster.

(Imagine Villarreal with a central defence of Ayala and Gonzalo next season. None shall pass, indeed. Now they just need more decent right-backs and left-backs, since all of them seem to be leaving.)

If you've read Phil Ball's book on David Beckham (which is really a great look at the Spanish league through the Beckham transfer) there's a bit where he explains how the Argentineans in La Liga like to meet up and drink mate tea together in groups. I've always gotten the general impression that there's a certain solidarity and mutual admiration society dynamic, especially with the Argentinean internationals. Certainly a lot of the younger segment are friends. Riquelme and Aimar are still close, D'Alessandro and Saviola are childhood friends who still speak a lot, Aimar is Messi's idol, Zabaleta visited Messi almost everyday when he was on crutches and Aguero and Messi are email pen pals.

So it's rather sad when two of them come into open conflict on the field, as D'Alessandro and Messi did in the second leg of the Copa del Rey quarterfinal, Zaragoza v Barcelona. Seemingly, Messi incurred D'Alessandro's displeasure when they were fighting for the ball (not literally), after which words were exchanged and D'Alessandro headbutted Messi. Not very hard, mind, so Messi really didn't need to go down clutching his face. D'Alessandro fully deserved hs red card, but Messi also fully deserved his yellow, for exaggerating the contact. There's no need for a fine player like him to do that. I didn't like it when Thierry Henry did it in the World Cup, and I don't like it when one of my favourite young players - who contrary to popular opinion in England is not actually a habitual diver - descends to that level.

It's an unfortunate incident, which I hope won't affect the atmosphere next time both are called up for the national team, although given poor D'Alessandro's luck that seems unlikely. His last call-up, if memory serves, was well before the World Cup.