Saturday, June 30, 2007

Argentina v US fallout

Argentinean post-match comments:
  • Basile: "We stayed calm," he said. "My players worked and were rewarded."
  • Riquelme: “We knew USA would be a difficult opponent because they stay back and don’t let you play your game. But we were able to find a way to break through and were able to record a valuable victory”, said Riquelme.
Analysis of the game:
I wanted to pick up a couple of points that I've seen discussed in the above reports:
  • Aimar for Cambiasso was the key to the game, and Alfio Basile deserves a lot of credit for being brave enough to field four playmakers (Aimar-Messi-Riquelme-Veron) at the same time and doing it in a way that doesn't unbalance the team.
  • As the report from That's On Point pointed out, the substitution was the antithesis of Pekerman taking off Roman for Cambiasso in the World Cup quarterfinal last year. I like Pekerman. I've written tributes to the man. But that decision still smarts today.
  • I would very much like to see the 4-2-3-1 (with Veron or Cambiasso and Mascherano as defensive midfielders, and Messi and Aimar supporting Riquelme) we were fielding in the second half again.
  • Oh yeah, and Tevez probably deserves to be in there somewhere too. But where?
  • I don't think Paraguay are going to be as difficult for the US as they're anticipating. Having said that, they really need to look into their strike partnership.
  • Yes, Gaby Milito is probably one of the slowest world class defenders ever. But his positioning sense is excellent.
Lastly, congratulations to Hernan Crespo for equalling one Diego Armando Maradona's record as Argentina's second highest scorer in international competition (34 goals, and it only took him 63 games), behind the great Gabriel Batistuta (56 goals in 78 games). Crespo is criminally underrrated as a striker and he fully deserves his great achievement.

La Liga news round-up

I feel like I have to apologize for how big two (plus occasional Sevilla, Valencia, Villarreal and Atletico) centric my Primera news round-ups are, but it is pretty damn difficult to find reliable news in English about the more modest clubs in La Liga. As usual, no baseless transfer speculation.

Barca news

We've finally signed Eric Abidal from Lyon for about 15 million euros. He's certainly a highly-rated defender and pretty much what we needed, especially after Gio's departure. The manner in which Abidal departed Lyon doesn't do him credit, but the consistency with which he insisted on coming to Barca does. Welcome, Eric. Suddenly we've got a large French-speaking contingent - maybe that will actually help Samuel Eto'o feel less isolated in the dressing room, since at least Henry and Toure are pals of his.

In further good news, fresh off his excellent performance against Brazil, Rafa Marquez has committed himself to staying at Barca next season and denied reports that he's held talks with other clubs. We're going to need him both in central defence and defensive midfield, and we're going to need him on at least semi-decent form (unlike this season), so I'm pleased he's 1) playing well and 2) staying.

Along the same vein, I was very pleased to hear Barca management confirm that Deco is not for sale. He's expected to stay on for next season. Yeah, he's not had a brilliant season, but he's still the driving force of Barca's midfield, who adds attacking flair, much needed bite and a winning mentality to the team.

Other teams

There's been some new developments in the Real Madrid coach saga, with Getafe relaxing their stance and inviting Real to initiate talks to finally end all the rampant speculation and resulting instability. It's probably in the best interests of all parties to conclude this as soon as possible, so that both clubs can get on to their squad building and transfer business. But that course of action is probably too sensible for any self-respecting Spanish club president to follow.

Staying in the capital, the Torres to Liverpool saga rages on. Atletico continue to claim that there have been no negotiations just yet, while Benitez has admitted his interest in the player but nothing more. This is a weird one. The English press are claiming that it's a done deal, and for once I'm inclined to believe it. Maybe Atletico are just trying to stem off a revolt from the fans once they hear that Torres is gone?

The post-Carboni revolution at Valencia continues apace, with captain David Albelda finally signing his four year contract extension. From what I can gather, disagreements with Carboni over the contract was the main issue in Albelda's conflicts with club management last season, so it makes sense that things have now been sorted out. Definitely good news for Valencia.

Barcelona youth product Gerard Pique has performed very well on loan at Real Zaragoza last season and the club are keen to keep him, but the young central defender has stated that he wants to go back to Manchester United - the club who own him - and fight for a starting place there. Personally I can't see him starting at Man Utd, given their settled defensive arrangements, so he'd probably be better off staying in Spain and playing with Zaragoza in the UEFA Cup. It's certainly understandable that he wants to play for United, though.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Argentina vs US: full-time

[The US team] aren't underdogs, they're under-puppies. - Ray Hudson in the pre-game analysis
The under-puppies did pretty well. But even the most adamant US supporter would have to admit that there was a gulf of class on display here, and that eventually told against them.

Argentina 4 - 1 USA

Goals: Eddie Johnson (8, pen), Hernan Crespo (12, 64), Pablo Aimar (78), Carlos Tevez (85)

I was reading some US-centric blogs, and just being astounded by the pounding some of their players were getting. This is not meant to be patronising in any way, but I thought they were impressive in the first half. They were disciplined and sticking to what was fairly obviously a packed defence and counter attacking game plan well. In other words, tactically they played a perfect game, at least in the first half. Then they got tired.

The US team's low fitness level did surprise me. I actually thought at the end of the first half, 'maybe they'll tire', and followed by 'nah, it's the US, fitness is one of their great assets'. Well. Sure, they played hard in the first half and that tires one out, but that was a young US squad out there. The Argentinean team is much older, and managed to grow in strength as the game went on. What's going on there?

That question will be for the US-supporting bloggers to dissect, so I'll just end my brief analysis of their performance by repeating that they did about as well as they could be expected to in the circumstances. The solidity of the team is unquestionable, but they really need to look into where the goals are going to come from. Although, having said that, they won't have to worry against Columbia if the game against Paraguay was any indication.

Argentina: as a whole

"We knew it was going to be hard and that they would defend all the time," said Riquelme.

"But we played with patience. We knew we had 90 minutes and we were always sure we would win the game."

To be honest, I was quite worried before the game that the team wouldn't have the right mentality going into this match. Given all the hype, I was afraid that they would be caught up in it and underestimate their opponent. I was pleased to be proved wrong on this point, as Argentina clearly went into the game with confidence and patience, which proved to be crucial as the goal that gave us the advantage took a while to arrive.

(A quick note on formations: I thought it was going to be more of a 4-3-1-2, but it looked more like a 4-2-3-1, with Mascherano and Cambiasso on defensive duties and Veron and Messi on either side of midfield supporting Crespo.)

It was clear in the first half that this was a starting line-up who had never played a match together before. The defence took a while to gel together, as did the attack. Once they did, though, this began to look like a proper team who could play their way through the most determinedly massed defence through a patient passing game. On the whole, I was pleased with this performance. They got the job done, and they did it in some style.

Argentina: player by player


There were far too many hairy moments in the first half for my liking, despite the number of actual shots by the US (2 shots on goal for the whole game). At times Ayala and Milito looked flustered by the opponents' pace, especially when Zanetti and Heinze were caught up field on breaks. A lot of that seemed to be communication issues, though, and once they got those sorted out, the whole defence looked much better in the second half. Benefitted hugely from Mascherano's help.

Keeper Abbondanzieri was hardly tested, so it's difficult to say what kind of form he's in. Did well catching that volley at the end of the first half and looked alright on the few crosses the USA managed to put into the box. Good decision-making overall.

Javier Zanetti's legs are clearly not as fast as they used to be, and he had trouble linking with Messi in attack. However, his defensive performance was very impressive, letting little past him. A reassuring presence to have guarding the right flank.

Captain Roberto Ayala continues to amaze me. He's not particularly tall or big, but somehow manages to dominate in the air and boss forwards around all the time. Led by example and gave everything for the team, as usual. His partnership with Milito has yet to convince me, as they don't always seem to be on the same page.

Gabriel Milito has been named as the worst of the defenders in several discussions I've seen. In my opinion, this is probably fair, but not as bad as it sounds. He did have several slip-ups, including the one which led to the US penalty, which really shouldn't have happened, but it wasn't a horror show by any means. (Then again, my club is Barcelona. I don't even wince at terrible defending anymore.)

Gabriel Heinze was also partially responsible for the US penalty. Compared to Zanetti, his forays forward were more successful - most notably the lovely cross that provided the assist for Aimar's diving header - but he didn't reassure me as much in defence. Still, his absolute commitment as ever cannot be faulted. Not to mention that he also had a hand in Argentina's first goal, challenging for the ball in characteristic fashion to flick it on to Crespo who scored.


Took a while to gel, but looked better as the game went on. Initially smothered by the US's tight marking and lacked ideas until Aimar came on.

Javier Mascherano was immense. I've seen him named as Man of the Match by some commentators, and it's a fair pick. Bailed the defence out of trouble countless times, made many brilliant clean tackles and was generally everywhere at once, winning the ball off an opponent and then passing it with unerring accuracy to one of the attacking players. How any team couldn't find a place for him in their starting line-up I cannot understand. I'd have him start over almost any other defensive midfielder in the world, and he's just 23 years old. Great stuff.

Juan Sebastian Veron returned to the national team after a 4 year absence and played...well, I'm not sure, really. He seemed to have trouble combining effectively with the other attacking players and most of his passes forward did not result in threatening moves. On the other hand, he was industrious, especially in defence, and one of Argentina's best chances in the first half came from his well-struck shot from outside the box. I'm still not convinced that him and Riquelme work well together.

Fernando Gago didn't play long enough for me to make an informed comment. Having said that, I will note that he will have a very hard time winning a starting place, given Mascherano's form so far.

Esteban Cambiasso worked quite hard in defence but didn't link up well with the other midfielders in attack. He should probably be given another chance, though, given his previously consistent performances for the NT. As Seba over at Mundo Albiceleste pointed out, the way the US played may have simply not suited his style. The problem is, his replacement Aimar was simply brilliant and that substitution was the catalyst for a huge improvement by the team. Leaving aside Aimar, there's still Lucho Gonzalez waiting in the wings for his position.

Speaking of which, Albiceleste supporters, doesn't the sight of Pablo Aimar playing beautifully again warm your heart? He's had a hard time with frequent injuries and being overshadowed by other players but when he's playing well it's a real joy to watch. And he certainly was playing well from the moment he came on, connecting well with both Messi and Riquelme and scoring a great header. The thing about Aimar is that he brings a certain dynamism to the attack that - with the exception of Messi, and Tevez when he came on - Argentina lack. That energy and those combinations were great to see. If he doesn't start the next game, he should certainly get more minutes. Having said that, Aimar does have a tendency to blow hot and cold at times, dependent on his fitness. So fingers crossed that won't be an issue.

As for the big one, the guy everyone has an opinion on, one Juan Roman Riquelme, well, opinion will probably be divided on his performance as usual. He was involved in setting up 3 of the 4 goals Argentina scored, and for me that is enough. The pass for Tevez's goal was especially brilliant. Like I said above, I don't think Roman and Veron have gelled, although to my pleasant surprise he did combine well with Messi. Not the best performance I've seen from him, but he was given very little space in which to operate and did his best. Dangerous as ever from freekicks and corners. (For my money, still one of the best freekick takers in the world.)


(Messi and Tevez could also be classified as midfielders, but I thought it looked silly having Crespo in this section on his own.)

Frequently isolated in the first half, and benefitted in the second half from better service.

Lionel Messi only showed flashes of his best form but still produced some of Argentina's better chances. I'll be honest, I've seen Messi play so many times now, and this wasn't one of his best performances. Being double marked by the US in the first half stifled most of his forays forward. When Aimar came on it sparked him to life. Two factors were involved in this: 1) the switch to the left and 2) Messi's natural understanding with Aimar. Messi also showed a good understanding with Riquelme as in the great move that led up to Crespo's goal. Additionally, he also tried to help the defence out by tracking back, although his tackling leaves something to be desired. Decent display from the 20 year old, who also showed signs of an increased understanding with Crespo.

Carlos Tevez only played for 10 minutes, so I won't assess his performance in detail. He looked very lively and I suspect would have done very well against the USA's physical, tight-marking style if he'd had more time on the pitch. Great finish from Roman's pass for the goal.

Last but certainly not least, our number one striker Hernan Crespo. Who is only 31, article writers, so please stop writing about him like he's about to retire. Crespo's not really my type of striker - I prefer the type that participates more in build-up play - but that's by no means a criticism. Jeez, how do you criticize a guy who puts away 2 of the 4 chances he's given? That's not bad, is it. Besides, he also tracked back and helped out in defence. A great performance from one of the deadliest strikers in the world. Much as I like Diego Milito, Crespo deserves to be first choice.

other comments
  • the spectators really love Messi and Tevez.
  • GolTV shouldn't turn down the crowd noise so much.
  • From looking around the US-supporting blogs, I really feel sorry for some of their players. These guys are young and inexperienced, people. The youngest guy amongst their opponent's starting line-up, the one with the least caps has 14 of them and has won the Champions League. There's no need to be so criticial given that difference.
  • Our bench is awesome. And by that I don't mean the seats.
  • I cannot understand why Riquelme and Aimar didn't get more playing time together in the past.
  • The US have a decent shot at qualifying for the next round.

Argentina vs US half-time

1 - 1 (US goal by Eddie Johnson, Argentine goal by Hernan Crespo)

Can't say I'm surprised, really. The US played the defensive-counter attacking, very tight marking game that Argentina find uncomfortable and did it well, drawing a penalty on one of their few forays forward. It was a fair enough penalty, and Eddie Johnson's pace continued to give the Milito-Ayala pairing trouble. In fact, the Argentinean defence is really lacking in pace as a whole. Very worrying.

Roman has been very well marked, but still managed to supply plenty of good balls forward, and it was his usual skill at freekicks which created the equaliser for Argentina. Crespo finished well there, but otherwise he was very frustrated. Messi also seemed isolated on his wing and quickly closed down when he got the ball. To me, Veron's passing has been a bit off, but he did have a great shot at the end of the half. Mascherano's having a great game. I'd say we need to do something about getting overrun in midfield, our lack of width, and our strikers lacking support.

Come on, boys. Second half starting soon.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Argentina v US preview

Well well well, the Copa America has definitely provided some excitement so far. Mexico have to be congratulated on their performance against Brazil, especially coming right off the back of another tournament where they suffered a loss in the final. Even if the two line-ups are substantially different, that's gotta hurt morale. By the way, it's good to see Rafael Marquez back in form. Hopefully he'll hold on to that when the next season comes around.

Argentina are due to take on the team who beat Mexico in the aftementioned final. Well, not quite, given the differences between the US squad for the Gold Cup and the Copa, but I'm sure it was a welcome boost at the time. That's On Point has great coverage of the US squad and the group in general. (As opposed to, who somehow managed to call Real Zaragoza 'relegation-bound' while trying to shed some light on Gaby Milito. They've corrected their mistake now, but geez. It only takes a couple of seconds to check a league table.)

Anyway, I've already posted about the Argentinean starting line-up, which was announced well in advance by coach Alfio Basile as a player-management tactic. And here's my earlier post on the squad in general.

As commenter Rio pointed out, a lot of the reservations I expressed in the post about line-ups were related to one Juan Roman Riquelme. It's not that I don't rate him - see sidebar and numerous posts for evidence to the contrary - but he is rather unique. La Nuestra has two excellent posts exploring the upsides and downsides of Roman. On the eve of Argentina's first match, he says that he's very happy (the original interview has him saying that his family are very happy too), which is definitely a good sign from such a moody player. When he's on, Roman's the best player Argentina have, no question about that.

Basile himself is wary of the tag of 'favourites' before we've even played, and rightly so. Most of the time premature arrogance will only come back to haunt the team, after all. That's why it's good to save the gloating until after one's victory, which is a rule that applies as well to football as it does to supervillains. So let's see what happens first.

Here's hoping for a good game, and as always: Vamos Argentina!

La Liga news round-up

The Spanish teams may have been slow starters in the transfer market because the league finished late, but they've sure moved fast since then. It is the policy of this blog to discourage baseless speculation - by which I mean anything that doesn't have quotes from a club official attached to it - so you won't find any of that in my news round-ups. So let's see what's actually been going on in La Liga.

Atletico Madrid have repeated their line that whether Fernando Torres goes or stays is entirely up to him and said that they are preparing themselves for life without him. Towards that end, they confirmed that they have an interest in Villarreal's Diego Forlan, currently suffering with the rest of the Uruguay NT in the Copa America.

The Madrid club's own fans don't seem too pleased at the prospect of selling their club captain, though. Fair enough.

Staying with Atletico, (very) occasional Argentinean international Luciano Galletti has sealed a move to Greek side Olympiakos, pending agreement from his former club Zaragoza. He's not had a good season, having stepped in for Maxi Rodriguez when he sustained his knee injury, but those are some big shoes to fill.

Over in Real Betis, Argentine Hector Cuper has been named their new coach. Cuper has had extensive experience in La Liga before with Real Mallorca and Valencia. Good luck to him, because that's definitely not an easy job.

Speaking of difficult jobs, there's been nothing official yet, so I won't say anything about the Real Madrid Capello-Schuster dilemma and just direct you to the excellent All In White for the latest on who will be coaching Real next season.

Update: annnnnd there's been an official announcement. He's gone, but Getafe have denied reports that Schuster will succeed him. I have to agree with Gonzalo's take on this. I completely understand that Real Madrid, being Real Madrid, have to strive for more than just winning games. Barca are the same way, after all. But having said that, an institution like Real probably shouldn't be seen to be firing coaches who achieve their targets and so lacking in stability (Beckham's 'I would like to thank my 6 coaches...' comes to mind). Although, if the plan was to bring Capello in, have him trim the team down to size, then dump him for a more exciting coach, well, the board were certainly very smart. They've achieved their aim.

From a Chelsea site of all places there's an interesting post discussing the recent study of the levels of fan support for each team in Spain. It makes some really interesting points by comparing the situation in La Liga to the Premiership. The one I find most fascinating and in need of more analysis is the fact that while fan support is far more spread out in the Premiership, the Champions League entrants from Spain are far more variable than the equivalent 4 teams from England.

I only just discovered the excellent Inside Arsenal through the Henry transfer. This post in particular touches on a topic that I feel is unjustly neglected by comparing the youth systems of different leagues. Earlier in the 06-07 season, the debate which was stirred up by Rafa Benitez and Jose Mourinho's suggestion that youth teams should be allowed to compete in lower leagues was abortive at best, as it was entirely eclipsed by the usual war of words between bigger, richer clubs who are seen as arrogant and smaller clubs who are seen as bitter. I personally feel that youth development is an incredibly important aspect of a club's operation and of the national team's success, so it's good to see intelligent discussion on the topic.

(I've been trying to compile a post about the Barca youth system for ages, but finding information in English is a struggle. Expect to see that post eventually, though.)

Lastly, I've been looking forward to these. Here's Sid Lowe's always entertaining awards of the Liga season, and as usual I broadly agree with his choices (having made quite a few similar ones in my own season review). While we're on the subject, here's ESPN Soccernet's Phil Ball's team of the season, and La Liga Loca's.

Barca news

Barcelona have been authorized by Roma to speak with Christian Chivu and his agent about personal terms, indicating that the two clubs have come close to an agreement regarding the player, where there was a reported difference in the two sides' valuations.

While we're on the subject of Barca, AC Milan seem to have finally gotten the message that neither Ronaldinho nor Eto'o are up for sale after months of our club officials hitting them repeatedly with the clue bat. Good for them.

Less satisfying to hear is Ludovic Giuly's agent 'slamming' Barca for slapping a 5 million euro price tag on his client's head. (Not literally, because then I'd understand his outrage.) It is his opinion that Giuly should be allowed to leave on a free transfer. I really like Giuly, and if he has to leave, I would want the parting to be an amiable one, so this is a real shame. It is understandable that the club would want a few million euros for him, though. Surely he's worth that much? Far lesser players are going for outrageous prices left and right, after all.

On a slightly different note, while the majority of footballers would probably rather be lying on a sunswept beach, the great Lilian Thuram spends his holidays giving talks on violence while touring West Africa as an United Nations goodwill ambassador. This is why he is one of the most awesome people ever.

Lastly, this post echoes my own fears regarding the Thierry Henry transfer perfectly. I would say that it probably isn't necessary to deploy Henry on the wing to accommodate all four players (you could have Henry partnering Eto'o, with Ronaldinho on one wing and Messi on another, for example), but I'm really not sure how Rijkaard is planning to play this, so we'll just have to hope that our worst fears don't come to pass.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Gio van Bronckhorst leaves Barcelona

So we have our second summer departure, and it's a surprising one.

Giovanni van Bronckhorst - known as Gio in his La Liga years - has left Barcelona on a free transfer using the get-out clause on his contract and is headed to his former Dutch club Feyenoord. I don't know about anybody else, but I'm a bit shocked. If one of the left-backs were to leave, I always thought it would be Sylvinho. After all, Gio's the one Rijkaard really wanted to sign, and the one he's always preferred in the big games. I damn well hope this means we are bringing in another left-back, because otherwise that position looks dangerously low on cover. But that's speculation best left to another post.

Update: the Barca official website has a nice look at Gio's career at Barca. And you know, it's nice to see a footballer keep his word: he said he'd only leave Barca for Feyenoord, and that's what he's done. I'm glad the parting seems amiable.

Gio came to Barca from Arsenal in a time when the club was in a state of transition and leaves us now amidst another period of major change. His time at the club has been marked by huge success, and I for one am thankful to him for his part in the glories and triumphs of the last 4 seasons, during which he appeared 141 times for the club, scoring 5 goals. My two most enduring memories of his time here remain his goal against Real Madrid in the Camp Nou in 04-05 and his tearful reaction to winning the Champions League in 05-06.

(three fondly remembered former blaugranas)

So it's a warm farewell from me to our last Dutch squad member. Good luck to him on his next big adventure.

Welcome Toure Yaya and associated news

No, that's not a typo. The younger Toure has announced that he would like to be known as Toure Yaya while at Barca, and that's what's going on his no.17 shirt as well. The 24 year old was presented today after finalizing his 9 million euro move from AS Monaco.

I've only ever watched him play at the World Cup, but have heard very good things about his ability, and it's good to see the management aren't blind to our needs in the defensive midfield position. Hopefully he'll prove to be a success for us.

The club have apparently told youth academy product Thiago Motta he is surplus to requirements with the capture of Toure. Motta was a very promising young player when he 'graduated' into the first team (he's actually been capped for Brazil a couple of times), but horrible luck with long-term injuries have derailed his development and his inconsistency when not injured has been frustrating the fans for the last few seasons. It's sad to see a youth system product pushed out in favour of a big-money signing, but in this case it was inevitable, despite Motta being a particular favourite of Rijkaard's.

The same announcement would seem to indicate that Rafael Marquez and Edmilson will both be staying at the club, the latter largely because he's going to be out injured for six months following a knee operation. Otherwise he would probably have been offloaded for criticising the board's call for greater discipline within the squad and general loss of form, not to mention frequent injuries. On the subject of Marquez, the club would seem to be holding out hope of his eventual return to form after a horrible season from the Mexican.

Argentina starting line-up against the United States

The Copa America kicked off with an upset today, Peru beating Uruguay 3-0. Peru does have a fairly talented squad, but many people - including yours truly - expected better of Uruguay. In the day's other game hosts Venezuela drew 2-2 with Bolivia. Good to see lots of goals being scored so far. Hopefully that will keep up throughout the tournament. I'll also be keeping an eye on matches such as Brazil v Mexico and Chile v Ecuador, but to be honest, my tournament really starts when Argentina take on the United States in their opening game.

Argentina coach Alfio Basile has revealed his starting 11 far ahead of time, which I thought was quite a strange move on his part. The big news is that Carlos Tevez drops to the bench in favour of Lionel Messi to partner Hernan Crespo in attack. Speaking of the undoubtedly talented Carlitos, Sports Illustrated has a lovely interview with him. In other squad news, captain Roberto Ayala had an injury scare on Saturday but seems to be fine now.

Argentina starting 11 (4-3-1-2):


At first glance it looks broadly similar to the formation used at the World Cup, but in reality given the change of key personnel like (now former) captain Juan Pablo Sorin dropping out and former captain Javier Zanetti coming back in, as well as the presence of Juan Sebastian Veron and swapping Messi for Saviola I suspect it may work very differently in practice. In fact, that's the problem: no one knows how well it's going to work because Argentina haven't used this particular starting 11 before. Basile's results from friendlies have hardly been impressive, but this team is substantially different to the one that lost to Brazil or the one which beat France.

The defence looks very good on paper and should be fine as long as they've learned their lesson from the embarrassment of conceding 3 against Algeria, which, to be fair, wasn't entirely their fault. Hopefully Abbondanzieri, who was at fault for at least 2 of the goals will go back to the form he showed for his club during this season in Spain and during the '06 World Cup.

The questions that remain, at least in my mind, are these:
  1. Can Messi and Crespo form an effective strike partnership? They've played together before, but the jury's still out on their effectiveness as a duo.
  2. Can Riquelme and Veron work together?
  3. Lastly, and broadly speaking, will these players, many of whom have had excellent seasons, translate their club form into good performances for their country?
I guess we'll just have to wait and see. The United States have bought a relatively unexperienced squad who might benefit from the low expectations, and it would be wise to avoid underestimating them. At the same time, I'm always wary of the tag of 'favourites' before a ball has been kicked. Having a star-studded squad (which ours definitely is) doesn't guarantee anything unless they can play well together, and we'll have to prove that on the pitch. Can't wait.

Lastly, and I don't care how sappy this sounds: the evident desire of all the Argentinean players called up to wear the shirt and bring glory to their country makes me so proud to support the Albiceleste.

Vamos Argentina!

the truth about the Eto'o-Ronaldinho relationship

Usually, I don't do short, single-item blog posts, mostly because I'm far too verbose. But having come across the following quotes about Samuel Eto'o and particularly his relationship with Ronaldinho (and having laughed and laughed) I couldn't resist sharing.

Without further comment:
Eto'o...was telling reporters at a junior tournament in Leon that he had a "love-hate" relationship with Ronaldinho.
But wait, it gets better:
"I haven't got any problem with Rijkaard," Eto'o said. "I'm very happy to have him as coach. I think he's the best there is. When there is ambition and I see that the people want us, I don't see why I should leave the Camp Nou." Regarding his relationship with Ronaldinho, the 26-year-old said: "We are like husband and wife, we fight and we always make up."
As Deco would tell you...
Deco says of Eto'o, "we know his character, and he sometimes says things and then thinks, but he doesn't mean any harm".
Oh dear. On a serious note, I pretty much agree with Deco. And Sammy sometimes says things that make me admire him just that much more:
"Ronnie has things off the pitch I am not used to and vice versa, but we go out partying together," he said. "It is just that we don't call journalists (in order that) they see us together. We are two great players, we have nothing to envy of each other. People look for the divisions, the crises. I really hope they mean well, that they want to motivate us.

"But I am afraid that, as a consequence of their words, a tense atmosphere is created. I remember Ronnie missing a penalty against Benfica in the Champions League, he was being criticised at the time, and I told him, 'Wait, you will see.'

"He gave me a wonderful pass a few minutes later, I could have scored and the defender thought so, but I gave it to Ronnie and he scored. That day I was happier than if I had put it in the back of the net. I would do that a thousand times for a friend like him."

"All I want from everybody is commitment," he said, "so we give pleasure to those millions of people that follow us and that pay us, so at the end of the season we have a clear conscience."
Huh, this turned long and serious after all. Damn. Next up, my analysis of the Argentinean starting line-up against the US, and then my Barca 06-07 player-by-player review.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

still blogging about TH14: links round-up

Thierry Henry was unveiled as a Barcelona player today amidst much fanfare. Exactly how much fanfare? Well, the man himself was shocked by the number of journalists there, eager to grill him. (By what I'm going to assume was a highly unfortunate coincidence, the press conference was held in the Paris suite, named after the place of Barca's Champions League victory over Arsenal, not to mention Henry's own infamous rant about the Barca players that evening.)

He was greeted by a very enthusiastic 30,000-strong crowd in the Camp Nou itself, who chanted his name as he went through the usual presentation routine. (Marca says 20,000, but all the other sources I've seen say 30,000, so I'm keeping that.)

So all in all, not too bad. Here's some of what he had to say.

On his aims:
"I want to win the Champions League with the club, and with my new teammates."

""The club have shown a lot of faith in me, and now I want to show them what I can do. That is what I will be trying to do. Hopefully, I will prove to be useful for the club."

"Barça is a club that, at the start of every sesaon, wants to try and win everything. It will be a team effort and I am here to listen and learn. There are people that have been at this club for a long time and I hope that they will show me the way."
On friends within the team and especially Samuel Eto'o:
"Nobody persuaded me to come here. However, I am friendly with quite a few of the players that are here. I know Samuel Eto'o, Ronaldinho, Lilian Thuram and Ludovic Giuly well and talk to them regularly about all kinds of things.

"Eto'o and I are close. When I was injured he came to see me in London and that gave me a lift and when he was out earlier this year I came over to visit him. I have known him since he was at Mallorca. As much as the media would like us not to be friends, I am sorry to say that we are."
Having begun by speaking of Barca as 'more than a club', as the motto goes, he concluded with a sentence in Catalan ("estic molt content de jugar pel Barça") courtesy of Cesc Fabregas. Very cleverly, he managed to speak the language of the club in both a literal and metaphorical sense, which is always something that will endear a player to the fans.

Update: the inimitable Sid Lowe on the presentation.

In related news, Leo Messi, for one, is pleased at the arrival of Henry, despite the increased competition:
'Titi' (Henry) has shown during all these years that he is a great player. Cesc (Fabregas) has always said that 'Titi' is fantastic in training and that he is even better away from the pitch, as a friend and a leader.'
And so are Ronaldinho, Xavi, and anyone else who the media could reach for comment while they're on holiday. (Reason that Messi quotes on the subject are so easy to come by: he's not on holiday.) I did see a very sweet quote from Puyol who lamented the fact that he was recovering from an operation and couldn't be there to welcome Henry himself, but I'll be damned if I could remember where it was from with the amount of Henry coverage I've had to read in the last few days.

While the likes of Ronaldinho, Eto'o and Messi are probably not too worried about their place in the team, one of the players set to be most heavily affected by the transfer is probably Eidur Gudjohnsen. He insists that he's going to stay and fight for his place, and I have no reason to doubt that so far. Good for him if that statement holds, but it's hard to see him getting much playing time.

Barcelona have denied that they're after Arsene Wenger to replace Frank Rijkaard. I have a great deal of respect for Wenger, but surely this is not the time for him to be going anywhere. I'd argue it's also not the time for Barca to be changing coaches either. So that works out fine.

Lastly, contrary to what you've been hearing in the press everywhere, Samuel Eto'o is not available for sale. Really. And until the club and the player change their tune publicly, I'm just going to laugh at all those tabloid reports insisting that 25 million euros will do and Arsenal are competing with Milan or whatever other rubbish they've dreamed up.

Phew. Now that's Barca news dealt with, at least before Yaya Toure is presented tomorrow. Next up: Argentina's starting line-up against the United States.

Monday, June 25, 2007

the Spanish league season wrap-up: awards

I was debating between silly and serious for these, and ended up with a combination of both. So...enjoy?

the Fernando Martin award for most embarrassing club president

So many nominees to choose from. There's Joan '7 trophies! No, 6 is alright too. Umm...5. 3? please?' Laporta of Barcelona, who has had an exceptionally stupid year in terms of decision-making. There's Ramon 'Guti is an eternal promise' Calderon of Real Madrid, whose inability to censor himself either in speech or in action has infuriated and entertained both Madridistas and the league at large. Then there's Sevilla's del Nido, who exceeds the both of them in the capacity for offensive verbal diarrhea and brings along extra hints of sleaziness with his entanglement in corruption allegations.

I think Laporta edges this one for how silly he now looks, the team having won exactly 2 (and pretty much the least important 2) of those 7 trophies.

the Second Choice Steve award for underachievement

Who else but Atletico Madrid. How much money did they spend at the beginning of this season? Like coach Javier Aguirre - who I happen to admire very much - said, they spent 30 weeks in the UEFA Cup places and ended up 7th in the table. (But then, Barca spent how many weeks top of the table? Just goes to show that relative consistency in those terms counts for nothing.) Atletico are a big club with a large, long-suffering fanbase who spend a lot of money on players but seem to get little return. Which really does suck.

the Claudio Ranieri award for most disastrous tactical experiment

Barcelona's brief dalliance with 3-4-3. Great for the Dream Team, not so great when the form of Barca's starting back three made it seem more like 1-4-3. The worst exhibition of its failings was probably El Clasico in the Camp Nou.

the Istabul award for greatest comeback

In terms of individual matches, Getafe's 4-0 destruction of Barcelona in the Copa del Rey semifinal after trailing 5-2 from the first leg is hard to beat. League-wise, Real's last-gasp comeback victories over Recreativo, Espanyol and the draw at Zaragoza, not to mention the last day victory over Mallorca all come to mind.

In terms of the season, I suppose the obvious choice is Real Madrid. Strangely, though, if you look at the results, the second half of their season is no better than the first half. So the term comeback is a bit inappropriate. For me, this award goes to Villarreal, who pulled themselves together in the second half of the season and went on a fantastic winning streak which lifted them back into European competition. Brilliant stuff.

goal of the season

Yeah, I'm going for the obvious, despite its inconsequential nature in the end. Because I never get sick of watching it. Because countless hours have been spent by people all over the world watching it over and over again. And if you're like me, it never fails to put a smile on your face.

Copa del Rey semifinal first leg: Barca v Getafe, 2-0. Lionel Messi, take a bow.

match of the season

Now, I don't get to watch as many matches as I would like, so feel free to disagree completely. For my money, it was definitely the aftementioned El Gran Clasico at the Camp Nou (3-3) - a match which was instrumental in the title heading to Madrid. It had everything - brilliant attacking moves, terrible defending, red cards, six goals, drama from the beginning to the very end and some massive protagonists in Ruud van Nistelrooy, Guti and young Leo Messi. Now that's entertaining football.

player of the season

This is going to a Real player, because somehow it seems appropriate. But it could have gone to one of Sevilla's finest, too, say the brilliant Dani Alves or the resurgent Freddie Kanoute.

For all that's been written about David Beckham, and bless him for his fine work, decisive goals win titles. Step forward, Ruud van Nistelrooy. The best money Real have spent in a long time, and he's far from finished. All hail this season's pichichi.

coach of the season

Difficult one, this. There's Bernard Schuster, who has done a remarkable job at Getafe yet again despite his tiny budget and guided the team into Europe next season. There's Juando Ramos of Sevilla, who I admire very much both for his ability and for the grace he always displays when talking to the press. But having come in under so much pressure, taken so much flak, and still managed to whip the player power mad Galactico machine into some sort of fighting shape (a task many thought to be impossible), this award really has to go to Fabio Capello.

I still fail to be impressed by his brand of football or his slightly scary personal politics, but what he did is some achievement. Points also for refreshing candor.

team of the season

Some part of me feels like this should really go to Real, for their spirit and determination and of course the big trophy they're taking home.

People say that this season, we've had a mediocre league. And maybe they're right. But if there's one team who have stood out amidst the mediocrity, both at home and abroad, it's surely FC Sevilla, winners of the UEFA Cup (2006 and 2007) and the Copa del Rey. They've done a lot to spread the idea that Spanish football is about more than just the Real-Barca duopoly, much like Depor and Valencia have done in the past, and will hopefully continue to do so. On top of all that, they've done it all on a relatively small budget, using quite a few home-grown players, and playing attractive football.

Who wants a decent striker?

It seems like a lot of Europe's big names do this season. Some of them have already done their business: Barca with Henry, Inter with Suazo (if that deal sticks), Bayern with Toni, Chelsea with Pizarro, Juventus with Iaquinta. Then there are the big clubs still looking for someone to lead their frontline.

AC Milan

Yeah, they've got a player who used to be the world's greatest striker in Ronaldo, but Inzaghi isn't getting any younger, Gilardino isn't a sure thing, especially in the Champions League and Oliveira's just been useless since his move from Spain. Hence their stalkerish pursuit of Samuel Eto'o, despite the player repeatedly rebuffing their advances. Might I note once again that this behaviour is still on-going from Milan, despite repeated statements from both the club and the player that he is not for sale.

Update: those pesky Milan suits never give up, do they? Here's an article quoting vice president Galliani, who restates his interest despite Barca and Eto'o's frequent 'back off' signals. Geez, they're really like a persistent suitor who can't take no for an answer. Worth reading for the hilarious quote from Laporta about the possible personal consequences for him if he sells Ronaldinho.

Fortunately, coach Ancelotti is more realistic and further contends that they'll be fine even if they don't sign anyone.

Those Sheva rumours never go away, but since Chelsea are apparently suing people for saying that he's going to go back to Milan now, I'm guessing that's not likely to happen. The latest seems to be a rumoured bid for David Villa, which is highly unlikely to come off given who they're dealing with. Valencia are a big club, and for the most part they are not a selling club. Especially not their best player.


Having lost Henry, the search for a striker would seem to be a priority for Arsenal. The most persistant rumours involve Nicolas Anelka, now of Bolton. Given his past history with Arsenal, opinion seems to be divided on the appropriateness of his return. He's certainly a talented player, but I don't know what Bolton think of selling and therefore won't comment on the likeliness of this transfer. (Tabloids of England, Spain, and Italy need to 1) learn to fact check, and 2) learn to say 'we don't know'.)

While we're on the subject of Arsenal, there's a lot of debate about the club's future going on right now. I wouldn't presume to comment, but I did like this Guardian piece about Cesc Fabregas and his potential leadership role within the team. Fabregas is probably the former Barca youth player I would most like to come back and play for us again someday, but I wish him a long and successful spell at Arsenal before that.

Update: here's another Guardian piece, this time on the possible replacements for Henry.

By the way, AS (otherwise known as Real Madrid's mouthpiece in the same way that Sport is Barca's) is apparently perpetuating the ridiculous rumour that Arsenal were offered Eto'o in a swap deal with Henry and refused in favour of getting the cash. Really? 1) Barca are not keen to offload Eto'o since he's the president's pal, and 2) you're telling me Arsenal wouldn't like getting a younger, and also a proven big name striker if they had to lose Henry? 3) There's no way anybody would be prying Eto'o off Barca's hands with just the 17 million pounds we eventually paid for Henry.

Lastly, here's Henry's last interview given to Arsenal's official website. It's clear he's trying to make the farewell as amiable as possible, and who can blame him for that given his many years of glory at the club? He's probably given his best years to Arsenal, after all.


It has been said many, many times by various commentators, but Liverpool really need a top-class striker. They've got a great, world-class midfield, a solid defence that I envy, but watching the Champions League final their lack of a lethal finisher was painfully apparent. And no, much as I like Peter Crouch, he is not that man. Same applies to the hard-working Dirk Kuyt.

Given Rafa Benitez's Spanish connections, everyone assumes he's going to sign Fernando Torres of Atletico Madrid or David Villa. I already covered the unlikely nature of the Villa deal above.

Like the other clubs covered here, Liverpool has its own draws because of the nature of the club as an institution of European football. They're also apparently very popular in Spain, so that's convenient if you're trying to sign Spanish players. I bring this up because I've see the photo in which Fernando Torres' captain's armband slips and the words 'You'll Never Walk Alone' are revealed to be printed on the reverse side. The Torres to England rumours do seem to run every summer, but this time I think it might be for real. His buy-out clause is not prohibitive and though he loves the club, their failure to clinch an UEFA Cup spot this season has got to be galling. If he wants to go, the club have said they will not stop him. He's not had a great season, though. Maybe Benitez would bring the best out of him.

Update: Atletico claim that they've received no bids for Torres so far.

Liverpool have also been linked to Diego Forlan of Villarreal. The thing about Forlan is that his club have a very clear transfer policy regarding him: meet his buy-out clause. Luckily for any would-be suitors, it's not prohibitive. I'm just not sure Liverpool are actually interested.

Manchester United

They've already done several pieces of big, flashy business in this transfer window, but apparently they're not quite done. Given the injury-prone nature of Louis Saha, the effects of cruel age on Ole Gunnar Solskjær and the possibility of Alan Smith leaving the club, United could do with someone to lead the line.

There have been tons of rumours linking them with many different strikers, but as none of them seem substantial so far I won't mention any. One note on the Fabio Quagliarella saga - Udinese don't seem very keen to sell now that they own the player entirely, so that would seem to be that.

Real Madrid

I thought Real would have been set next season, at least striker-wise, but apparently Ruud van Nistelrooy's injury sustained on the last day of the season has got those in charge of the Bernabeu thinking otherwise. Actually, we're not sure who is going to be managing Real next season just yet, so that could be a barrier towards any significant moves until the Capello-Schuster mess is sorted out. Then again, transfer policy at Real - as it is at other Spanish clubs - isn't entirely dictated by the coach.

Van Nistelrooy's injury isn't very serious, but it is the type of muscle problem which is prone to recur, and while he's still a fine player he isn't getting any younger. The same could be said for Raul, although his value is of course greater than his tangible contributions on the pitch. Higuain and Robinho are talents rather than established names, and Cassano has just fallen apart completely. They won the title with this group, so they may not necessarily need anyone new, but they've got to be planning for possible injury problems next season.

They've been persistently linked to Barca's departing striker Javier Saviola in the Madrid press. If those reports are true I would personally be very unhappy, but then Barca did make the decision to let him go. Where he goes now is his own business.

By the way, I was quite impressed with this Capello interview. Ignore all that talk about Kaka, since everyone knows that already. The way he spoke about why people might not have warmed to his style (which says to me that he 'gets' Spanish football) and his pride in Real's title triumph and the fans' reactions was quite refreshing. You might not agree with him, but at least he says what he thinks and doesn't whine a lot about refereeing.

Argentinean birthdays and net etiquette

Ah, a nice break from the firestorm of news that's been the last few days. Two largely frivolous things to be covered here, one nice and one...not so much.

Firstly, a very happy birthday to Lionel Andres Messi, who turns 20 on June 24. Yes, he's still that young. Scary, isn't it? There's not much that hasn't already been said about him, so I'll skip all that and just say that as someone who supports both Argentina and Barcelona, I hope he goes on to become one of the best players in the world - if he is not in fact there already.

June 24 must have been a good day for Argentinean football, because it was also the day Juan Roman Riquelme was born, 9 years before Messi. My best wishes to him also, and if you want to read one of my posts waxing lyrical about him, you've got several to choose from.

Right, so that's the warm and fuzzy part over. Since I started this blog in September of last year, I've been very pleased by all the comments I've received and enjoyed all the discussion, which has enriched my own knowledge. So thank you to everybody for that. Today, I received my first personal attack.

To be honest, I kind of expected it long before this, but it's rather ironic that I've managed to discuss the future of Real Madrid with very nice and eloquent Madridistas (thank you, Gonzalo) without a problem on this blog while it's my post on Thierry Henry joining the club that got me attacked.

No, I'm not letting the comment past moderation. There's no need for that kind of language around here, and by that I mean the abuse of netspeak and the English language in general, not this poster's apparent desire to fornicate with my mother and young Leo Messi. No idea why he's even relevant in the discussion, but hey. Well done, wanker. You look really classy. Feel free to join the conversation any time in the future when you've learned to be civilized.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Welcome to Barca, TH14 (and other player-related news)

Looks like it's official.

Details later when he's presented - surely the signing who's going to take Cruyff's no.14 shirt? Henry has confirmed the transfer himself in a new L'Equipe interview. Hat tip to Gunnerblog for the translation:
I still have to pass a medical on Monday. But yes, I have chosen Barcelona. I am going to sign there for the next four seasons...for the football they play, their history, their stadium. For Frank Rijkaard, who I grew up watching.
Oh, Thierry. Sweet talk us some more.

There's a fairly nice - to me, but then I'm not an Arsenal fan - 'open letter' from him explaining his exit which is available on the Sun's website. (Not linking to that scumbag 'newspaper' but the BBC article I link to does summarize it.) For an Arsenal fan's perspective - which quotes from the above mentioned letter - East Lower has an interesting and very eloquent - far more eloquent than I would be if my club's talisman left - take on the matter.

By the way, Barca vice-president Ferran Soriano - who seems to conduct all our transfer business - wants you to know that there was no tapping up involved:
He...insisted that Barcelona waited for the green light from Arsenal before making a move for the France international..."We don't want to point a gun at anybody," said Soriano. "We have good relationships with the European clubs."
Henry himself is actually still recovering from a groin injury, but he is apparently conscious of getting fit and prepared in time for the start of Barca's pre-season. Which is nice.

You have to admit, Henry and Barca are a good match, if only because he's got 1) that die-hard romanticism about playing football with a certain style and swagger that we have (which makes others label us pretentious bastards), and 2) an appropriately large chip on his shoulder to match the club's collective identity.

I mean that both ironically and sincerely. Some of the qualities that makes Barca sometimes seem smug and annoying to others are the same ones that endeared me to the club in the first place, and I'm not going to apologize for that. But I can poke fun.

With Henry, I suspect it will be the same. He's got a way to go to erase the 'only women dive' remark - not to mention the rest of his post-Paris CL final rant - from my mind, but he's made a good start. (Until then, I reserve the right to laugh at that French NT story about his 'melon énorme'.)

All joking aside, I'm not really sure how to feel about this. The impact of this transfer on the makeup of the squad, not to mention the way we play is going to be huge. Firstly, Gudjohnsen and Ezquerro are almost definitely following Saviola out the door. Most likely Giuly would be too, although his exit would only be tangentially related to Henry.

Second, how are Barca going to play next season? I can't see a way of playing Henry, Eto'o, Ronaldinho and Messi at the same time without sacrificing our midfield advantage and completely destablising the team in a way that will make the already leaky defence even worse.

Apparently the way club management have worked out is that Barca have about 55 games a season and things will be okay if each of the four end up playing about 35 of those. I don't really see how that would work. Who is Rijkaard going to leave out in a big Champions League game? Or I suppose Messi loses out because he's the most junior star amongst the four, but that would be incredibly stupid from any point of view if Barca want to hold on to him at all.

The third option is to offload one of Ronaldinho and Eto'o. (We all agree that Messi is going nowhere, right?) I've said from the beginning that if we gain Henry and lose Eto'o, I think we'd come out worse off, but this is a real possibility now. Sure, Eto'o's relationship with Laporta can pretty much ensure his continuity at the club, but as he himself acknowledges, he has enemies both within and outside the club, and they could make his lift difficult to a point where he is forced out.

Personally, I wouldn't want this to happen, as I believe Sammy to be a crucial player for Barca's successes in the last few seasons who is still very young and has loads more to offer the club. Plus, unlike the whiners (Edmilson - who's just had a knee operation, ruling him out for six months and won't be playing for Barca again - and Deco), he's ready to accept the newly imposed squad rules:
In any place where there is a group there are rules to respect. We have been fortunate that Frank and Jan have given us some freedom or, in other words, responsibility. If they believe that the rules have to be tightened, then it's probably right.
Ronaldinho himself has remained neutral on the subject of Laporta's statements, merely stating that he's not been 100% this season because he's exhausted. Which is fair enough, really, and I'd argue that he's done a lot for the team during the season despite being obviously unfit and a somewhat destabilising influence. Have a nice holiday, Ronnie, and we'll hope to see the old you back next season.

While we're on the subject of resting, and players who need it, how about our beloved Captain Caveman? In a clear demonstration of the absurdity of flying all over the world playing far too many meaningless friendlies, Carles Puyol suffered ligament damage in Barca's friendly match in South Africa and will be out for 3 months, missing the entire pre-season and about a month of league action, not to mention a couple of Champions League clashes. He was operated on as soon as possible, and here's what the doctor had to say:
...he has already said that the recovery time must be shorter, because he does not want to spend as much time without playing.
Vintage Puyol. Not the first time he's been desperate to rush back from injury to help the team, and probably not the last. What a guy. I hope his recovery goes well and that he's back with us soon.

Argentina squad for Copa America

As has been widely reported, Juan Roman Riquelme makes his return to the national team. Coach Alfio Basile has opted to bring along a formidable squad, mostly made up of Europe-based players. At this stage, questions have to be asked about how a seeming overabundance of creative players will be used. For example, there's absolutely no point in calling up Roman if he doesn't start. So does that mean that Aimar will be relegated to the bench? What about Veron? Can Messi and Tevez be played together? Which striking partnership will Basile choose? I suppose we'll have to wait for the first match against the United States for these questions to be answered. For now, it's certainly a very impressive squad on paper.


Roberto Abbondanzieri (Getafe, Spain)
Juan Pablo Carrizo (River Plate, Argentina)
Agustin Orion (San Lorenzo, Argentina)

Abbondanzieri should be the undisputed number one, despite his alarmingly poor performance against Algeria. He's had a great club season in Spain and his expertise with penalties should serve the team well. I have to confess I don't know as much about Carrizo and Orion as I should, beyond the fact that Carrizo has impressed observers at River and is rated by some above Independiente (and next season Villarreal)'s Oscar Ustari, who I'm very fond of. (He would have been in the squad but for a last minute injury.)


Roberto Ayala (Valencia, Spain)
Javier Zanetti (Internazionale, Italy)
Hugo Ibarra (Boca Juniors, Argentina)
Gabriel Milito (Real Zaragoza, Spain)
Gabriel Heinze (Manchester United, England)
Daniel Diaz (Boca Juniors, Argentina)
Nicolas Burdisso (Internazionale, Italy)

An impressive roster of defenders, really. If they can play like they did against France rather than the shambles that was the Algeria game, we'd be set. Ayala and Milito are a solid defensive partnership, which Burdisso is a nice backup to. I get nervous everytime he's played as right-back, but he really is a fine centre-back who gets used out of position too often. Otherwise Heinze can also double as a centre-back, although I prefer him on the left. Zanetti can play right-back or midfield, but with the options we have in midfield, I'd much rather have him in the back. Ibarra's experience will be nice to have in the squad, especially since we have all these young players. Unfortunately, I don't know much about Diaz, but he's just won the Copa Libertadores with Boca, so hopefully he's coming in with some good form should he be needed.

By the way, Ayala is a fine captain of the team, and I really hope his last international tournament brings him some well-deserved glory.

Defensive Midfielders

Javier Mascherano (Liverpool, England)
Esteban Cambiasso (Internazionale, Italy)
Fernando Gago (Real Madrid, Spain)

Very pleased by the options we have here. Neither Gago nor Cambiasso are pure holding players, but I can see Cambiasso starting with one of Gago or Mascherano since the Inter player is more of a central midfielder, and he's been a consistent member of the starting line-up for Argentina. If it came down to a choice between Gago and Mascherano, my personal preference would be for Mascherano. Yes, he's not much older, but he has tons more international experience and a better understanding with many of the other players who are likely to start. Plus, his form coming into the tournament looks very impressive. Gago has had a decent season at Real and Basile rates him very highly, but his performances haven't impressed me as much as Masche's have.

Creative Midfielders

Luis 'Lucho' Gonzalez (Porto, Portugal)
Pablo Aimar (Real Zaragoza, Spain)
Juan Sebastian Veron (Estudiantes, Argentina)
Juan Roman Riquelme (Boca Juniors, Argentina)

Oh boy. An embarrassment of riches, anyone? Especially since Basile seems to count Messi as somewhat amongst this category instead of a wing-forward. The problem with this group of players is that barring Lucho - who I think has a high probability of starting - arguably all three of the others need the team to be built around them, which means that only one of them can start at any one time. Arguably both Veron and Aimar could be deployed on, say, the left side of midfield instead of in the playmaker role, but there's no point in playing Roman if he's not in the no.10 role. So we'll have to wait for Basile to make a decision, and hope that the reported antipathy between Roman and Veron doesn't rear its ugly head.

Form-wise, Lucho has had a great season at Porto, where he is now frequently dubbed the best player in the league, or at least close enough to it. Aimar has been plagued by injury problems as always, but when not laid up in dry dock he's done very well for Zaragoza, playing on the left side of midfield. Veron had a great first half of the season, but I haven't heard enough to judge how he did in the second half. Roman of course had a great second half of the season with Boca, playing some of his best football.


Lionel Messi (Barcelona, Spain)
Hernan Crespo (Internazionale, Italy)
Diego Milito (Real Zaragoza, Spain)
Carlos Tevez (West Ham United, England)
Rodrigo Palacio (Boca Juniors, Argentina)

Continuing the 'embarrassment of riches' theme, Basile has taken along 5 strikers who barring one - Palacio, who's had a decent but not brilliant season - have all done very well for themselves in 06-07. Crespo is arguably still Argentina's best centre striker and this is probably his last international tournament, so he'll want to go out on a high. 14 goals in his 22 Serie A appearances this season is a pretty good return. Milito has had a brilliant season, scoring 23 goals and just being pipped to La Liga's golden boot by Ruud van Nistelrooy.

Leo Messi was out for 3 months with a serious injury but bounced back and played brilliantly for Barcelona during the latter half of the season. Last but not least, Carlos Tevez is widely credited with the survival of West Ham in the Premiership, carrying the team on his shoulders through his passion, hard work and sublime skill. Carlitos will also be keen to win the cup to erase the memory of the 2004 competition, in which he missed a penalty in the final shootout which Brazil ultimately won.

The mix is broadly similar to the '06 World Cup squad, actually, since Diego Milito is similar to Julio Cruz, except for the fact that Pekerman took 6 strikers. The one who has been left out this time around is Javier Saviola, whose lack of playing time this season probably counted against him in such a crowded field.

I would expect Basile to play one of the 'target men' - Crespo or Milito - and pair him with either Tevez or Messi. Palacio will probably only have an outside chance of starting, unfortunately.

So a good mix overall, but I'm still concerned about tactical arrangements. If supporting Barca for all these years has taught me anything, it's that just having a bunch of brilliant players won't help if there's no coherent tactical plan for how they're going to play together.

no place like home: the past, present and future of Juan Roman Riquelme

(Picture swiped from
The Argentine press had repeatedly asked him whether the final victory would put an end to his spell at Boca, but the midfielder didn’t want to talk about the subject.

“I’m very happy, I’m very happy”, he responded when asked about his plans.
Punditry and fan opinion is sharply divided on Juan Roman Riquelme, especially amongst Argentina supporters. I think it's probably fair to say that the non-Argentina supporting press are far more admiring about him than the actual supporters. I'm one of his many strong admirers, but that doesn't mean I'm blind to his faults. It does mean that I'm willing to give him the credit he is due, and at least try to explain his issues as well.

the story so far

Even when at his peak in Europe, there were those who insisted that Roman's best days were back at Boca Juniors, under Carlos Bianchi, right after the turn of the millennium. The many honours he won during that time, both personal and as part of a great Boca team would seem to back that up. Before a combination of reasons led to Roman leaving for Europe, La Bombonera was his home in every sense, and many would say that he's never found anywhere to equal it since. Having seen him play amazingly for Boca this season, I'm starting to believe that.

However, there seems to be a tendency for current evaluations of his talent to dismiss his European adventures, which is an astounding bit of revisionist history. Leaving aside the Barcelona years, in which he was brought by a crazy president for a coach who didn't want him and didn't play him, I think it's hard to argue that his first 3 seasons at Villarreal were anything but a great success.

In the 02-03 season, Villarreal finished 15th. In 03-04, Roman's first season, they finished 8th in La Liga and went out in the semi-finals of the UEFA Cup, losing to regional rivals Valencia, who eventually won the trophy. The next season they finished an amazing 3rd in La Liga and again reached the quarterfinals of the UEFA Cup. (Villarreal qualified for the competition by winning the Intertoto Cup both times.) In the 05-06 season, they gained international recognition by making it into the semi-finals of the Champions League in their first ever season in the competition, eventually going out to Arsenal by a single goal. Their Liga campaign suffered from the priority placed on the European stage, and they finished a reputable 7th.

Least anyone forget, Villarreal were only promoted to the first division in 2000. Prior to that, the club spent all of its time - bar one season - in the lower divisions. The town in which the club is based has a population of less than 50,000. The club's upturn in fortunes came when Fernando Roig decided to invest in the club, bringing in a succession of South American players who proved successful. While Roman was not the only player responsible for Villarreal's rise, he was certainly widely acknowledged as the most important.

Why did I bore you with the above two paragraphs, you ask. Because it's a self-contained argument against the statement that Roman came running back to Argentina because he couldn't cut it in Europe. Wrong. The European press spent the 05-06 season practically salivating over him and expressing surprise that he wasn't more highly rated. I'll come back this point later. For now, we continue with the story.

Various injury-related and other, less tangible problems plagued Roman as the 06-07 season opened, and led to both a loss of form on the pitch and a falling out with the coach off it. Eventually, they came to the decision to off-load him, and Boca came in eagerly for their prodigal son in the January transfer market with a loan deal. There were some initial struggles, but it seems that La Bombonera does indeed suit him in every way, and eventually Roman began to show some of the form they still remembered from his last stay. The rest, as they say, is history.

MVP of the final series and second highest scorer of the Copa Libertadores, I don't think anyone would protest the statement that he was the player of the tournament. Roman showed all his usual talent in controlling the tempo of a game, finding a killer pass and scored some fantastic goals. His deadballs were as deadly as ever. For those of us who were saddened by his downward spiral in the 06-07 season and heartbroken by his departure from Villarreal, the sight of him playing so well again is a great comfort.

However, there are fresh questions over Roman's future. I'll discuss his recall to the national team in another post, but on the club front this is a time of instability for him. Villarreal have made it clear that they don't want him back, while being open to amiable negotiations of some kind from interested clubs. Boca have consistently said that they can't afford him for more than the six months he's already been there, but now that the reunion has been so successful, there are rumours that he wants to stay and will try to swing negotiations in that direction. Otherwise, there will no doubt be European clubs interested in trying to convert Roman's particular brand of magic to their own use.

understanding Riquelme

In the previous section, I've recapped Roman's club career so far using facts and statistics. This section is based on my own conjecture, which while based on fact is still only speculation, and definitely not meant in anything other than the most admiring manner.

Many of the positive profiles of Roman that I've read in the press go into his rather unique personality. He possesses a type of reticence that is fairly rare amongst footballers, especially attacking, showman-type players who have teams built around them. The only two other flair players I can think of who have similar personalities which causes difficulties for them professionally are Sevilla's Jesus Navas and Barcelona's Leo Messi. The former has anxiety attacks and chronic homesickness to the extent that he has walked out on training camps within Spain because they were too far away from Seville. (So take any transfer speculation surrounding him with a pinch of salt.) The latter would seem to have no problems in his club career, but his extremely reserved nature complicated his integration into the Argentinean national team, especially while at the 2006 World Cup.

Roman suffers from what might be termed a sensitive and depressive personality where traumatic events - like missing the penalty that would have sent Villarreal into the Champions League final and Argentina's exit from Germany 2006, along with the associated criticism of him within the press whenever he plays for the national team - affect his mood and by extension, his form. (If you read the Argentinean press, this is nothing new.) He can only play well when he feels comfortable and happy. When Villarreal were accomodating of him and built their team around him, he was fine there. But the aftementioned penalty incident soured that.

Something about being at Boca seems to curb the depressiveness, at least at the moment. Therefore, I can only hope that he stays there. It's so good to see him smiling and playing his best football again. Long may it continue.