The third qualifying round draw for the Champions League has now been made, with the two Spanish clubs involved having had mixed fortunes. Valencia have been handed a relatively good draw against the winners of Debreceni of Hungary and Elfsborg of Sweden. Sevilla on the other hand were lumbered with the unappealing prospect of a tricky trip to Greece (never fun for Spanish teams), having been drawn against AEK Athens, coached - ironically enough - by former Betis manager Lorenzo Serra Ferrer.
I really want both clubs to make it through. As has been pointed out on numerous columns by various La Liga experts, too many people still see La Liga as a duopoly. I've cringed far too many times at the assertions of the ignorant that the likes of Valencia or Sevilla aren't big clubs. At least Valencia, having been regular European contenders for some time, now have a fairly good reputation abroad. Sevilla on the other hand have been hugely underrated. I want them in the Champions League proper so that they can show just how good they are and surprise a few people.
The draw for the second qualifying round of the poor man's Champions League, the UEFA Cup, has also been made. Having made it through their Intertoto adventure, Atletico Madrid have been rewarded with a tie against Vojvodina of Serbia, who beat Hibernians FC - no, not that one - of Malta convincingly in the last round. Here's hoping that Atletico's travelling mishaps do not continue to dog them.
Lastly, this isn't exactly La Liga-related, except for perhaps being of passing interest to Barca supporters, but I couldn't resist mentioning that Helsingborgs of Sweden are also in this round (they're going to play Drogheda United of Ireland), having overcome Trans Narva of Estonia 9-0 on aggregate with a brace in the first game from - rather inevitably - Henrik Larsson.
Yes, my favourite Swede is back in European competition with his hometown club. Helsingborgs qualified for the UEFA Cup by winning the Swedish Cup during Larsson's first season with them. What a career the man's had, and it really makes me glad (and a little sad that he left us so soon) to know that he's still out there, and still occasionally banging them in.
Despite having pretty much finished shopping for the season and laid out a list of the players we're looking to ship out (Maxi, Ezquerro and Motta, if you're wondering), Barca are still plagued with transfer stories, from the ridiculous to the frustrating.
The prime example - and the only one stupid enough that I feel the need to point and laugh at it - is Deco giving an interview to the Sun in which he very politely says that he'd like to work with Mourinho again someday. How this got spun into headlines of Deco's imminent exit, Lord only knows. Anyhow, Deco says he wants to stay, and Laporta says he's definitely not for sale. Besides, does Chelsea even need another midfielder?
On the subject of players leaving the club, it's going to be difficult to find a home for Maxi for obvious reasons (i.e. him not being any good for the past season), and Ezquerro will hopefully have his case resolved before 15 August, with Athletic, Celtic and various Premiership clubs all likely destinations. If he goes to the former, then Barca are likely to let him leave on a free transfer, but otherwise we'll be looking to get a token amount for the player. Considering we signed him for free, it won't be a lot.
The matter of Thiago Motta has only gotten increasingly complicated and contentious. Motta himself is hurt that the club have made it so clear that he's not wanted, weakening his negotiating position with potential suitors. Fair enough, but Thiago, man, everyone with a rudimentary knowledge of Spanish football already knows that you aren't exactly in huge demand at the club. He wants a free transfer, and we want some money (5 million euros is the figure they're hoping for) for him. This could get messy.
Vice-president in charge of finance and transfer talks (that's not his official title, by the way) Soriano is very pleased with himself. To be fair, he has done a good job with all the negotiations.
On to some tour-related news. Barca landed in Beijing (only a two-hour drive from where I was born, incidentally) yesterday, jetlagged and disorientated from the long flight. They'll play Beijing Guo'an - who used to be a decent team but are now rubbish - in a few days time.
There has been much artificial "controversy" over the tour, which stemmed from these very reasonable comments by Lilian Thuram when asked about pre-season tours:
"I do not think it is possibly the best way for the team to prepare," he continued. "But that is how football is and all the big clubs do it nowadays."Sounds about right. But of course his words (and similar remarks from Zambrotta and Oleguer) have been blown out of proportion by a press gleeful for some pre-season drama.
(Incidentally, if you want pre-season drama, I quite liked the story that Ronaldinho, suffering under the new training regime, shouted "life shouldn't be like this!" - jokingly or not, depends on which source you listen to - at Rijkaard when he demanded more intensity from the sweating players, wilting under the sun.)
There's good news and bad news on the injury and personal front. First, the good news. Carles Puyol is moving forward with his recovery and should be back for us at the end of September. By the way, I re-watched the 04-05 Clasico in the Camp Nou a couple of days back, and God, Puyol played almost perfectly in that game. Nothing got past him. Injuries robbed him of that kind of form last season, but hopefully we'll see that Puyol again.
The other piece of good news is that the three players absent from the squad due to their participation in the Copa America are due back early next week. Messi, Marquez and new signing Gabi Milito will fly into Barcelona and begin their pre-season programme. Hopefully we'll see them in the friendlies against Bayern and Inter before the start of the season. Personally, I can't want for Marquez and Milito to get back to full fitness - that centerback pairing of Thuram (class) and Oleguer (occasionally class) really worries me. Plus, I really want to see Messi and Henry playing together.
Now the bad news. The drama related to Bojan Krkic's call-up for the Spanish U17 side has finally been resolved in favour of the Spanish federation, and he'll miss the pre-season (and probably the start of the season). Normally, I'm in full support of players being released by clubs to go play international matches, but in the case of Krkic, I can kind of see the club's point. Krkic has already played quite a bit for the U21s, so I'm not sure what he's doing with the U17s. I think he's proven that he's got skill some way above that age level. Just to be clear, I'm totally in favour of him playing for Spain when he's needed, but surely he's entitled to stay at at least U20 level? Hopefully this won't prevent him playing a part in the first team this season.
Lastly, and apologies for the Spanish link, but I haven't found any English sources reporting this yet. Poor injury-dogged Juliano Belletti is going to be out for 7 to 10 days, having hurt himself in training in China. This means that he'll probably play no part in any of the games on tour. You know, he's probably thinking that he would have done better to get injured back in Barcelona and stayed behind with Gudjohnsen. Now he's done all this travelling for nothing.
Unlike Barca, Real's South Americans who were at international tournaments (that's Marcelo, Gago, Baptista, and Robinho) have already gone back to work with the squad.
In related news, Julio Baptista has stated his desire to stay at Real and fight for a place this season. I do hear rumours that the club might sell him if their price is met, which is a little sad for him, but at least all the clubs he's been linked to are big ones.
Real played their second friendly against Bundesliga side Hannover 96 and lost 3-0, thanks to 1) the German club being further along in their pre-season, 2) missing and/or injured players, 3) terrible finishing from Higuain in particular and 4) chaos in defence, Cannavaro in particular showing that he still hasn't shed the problems of last season.
It was only a pre-season friendly, though. And hey, they won their third one 5-2, beating Lokomotiv Moscow to advance in the Russian Railways Cup (other participants AC Milan and PSV). The game started in a similar fashion to the loss against Hannover, with errors in defence. Real staged a great comeback from 2-0 down at half-time to win with goals from Guti, Saviola (pen.), Higuain and Balboa. They'll play PSV in the final after the Dutch club beat Milan on penalties.
I have to say, I was surprised by Dani Alves' outburst. (Basically, he wants to be allowed to leave for a 'bigger' club. Read: Chelsea.) I felt that it was somewhat disrespectful of Sevilla, who are after all very ambitious, and who have improved every season in the past few years. If the move to Chelsea doesn't come off, I'm not sure what's going to happen to him. I'd be very sorry to see him go, to be honest. Sevilla are the kind of team who don't depend on any one player, and have sold their star players to good effect before (Reyes, Sergio Ramos, Baptista), but they won't be the same without Alves, at least in the short term.
On the other hand, the club have landed the Colombian defender Aquivaldo Mosquera from Pachuca of Mexico. I hear that he's quite an excellent player, so good work by Sevilla.
They've also been participating in a pre-season Trophy, in this case the Chicago Trophy, starring Toluca of Mexcio, Reggina of Italy and Wisla Krakow of Poland. Sevilla beat Toluca 1-0 and needed a draw against Wisla to claim the trophy. Unfortunately they lost, but as Juande Ramos pointed out, having only trained for five days prior to the games, it's not been a bad workout for the team.
(Speaking of Ramos, did you know that he used to coach Barca B? Although, so did Jose Mourinho.)
Valencia started their pre-season tournament brightly, beating an Argentine-less Inter in the Emirates Cup. Unfortunately a re-shuffled Valencia side then lost 3-0 to Paris Saint-Germain. I don't think anything should be read into their defeat, other than maybe that PSG are going to have a better season in France this time around.
In my opinion, Valencia are the Spanish club with the greatest strength in depth. They have some of the best young talent, and commendably regularly field 7 or 8 Spanish players in their starting 11, which is not something the other three top sides from last season can say. They've done some smart business on the transfer market, too, although nothing big and splashy - which is no bad thing. What it does mean is that I've not been able to write as much about them as I have about some of the smaller sides in La Liga.
However, there is some news. The most surprising is that Asier del Horno has been allowed to train with the rest of the squad again, with a view to perhaps keeping the defender at the club.
Valencia have also sent Fabian Estoyanoff, who was on loan at Depor last season, back out on loan, this time to newly promoted Real Valladolid.
Firstly, two pieces of news, both well-covered by our friendly neighbourhood Atletico blogger, so I'll just link to his comments: Costinha gets into a training ground dust-up, and Atletico are set to leave the Vicente Calderon for the Olympic stadium, when it's actually built.
I thought Atletico were done with their summer shopping - except maybe a couple of defenders, which they seem to need - but then they went out and bought Jose Antonio Reyes. Go figure. They've certainly got enough quality wingers (Simao, Maxi Rodriguez, Reyes, Luis Garcia) to be going on with now.
Atletico minus Aguero and Forlan (both on vacation due to their international exertions) went down 2-0 to the hosts Ajax at the Amsterdam Tournament, with goals by former Barca player Gabri and Wesley Sneijder. Simao apparently played quite well, though. And Ajax manager Henk ten Cate (also known as the much-missed former Barca assistant coach, the bad cop to Rijkaard's good cop) certainly thinks Atletico will have a good season.
The club have conducted their business in the usual efficient manner, snapping up Giuseppe Rossi from Manchester United, thus fulfilling their need for a striker to go with the likes of Nihat, Guillermo Franco, Jose Mari and Jon Dahl Tomasson. Now that I look at that list, actually, that's a lot of strikers. Yeah, Franco couldn't hit a cow's arse with a banjo, but the others are all useful in their own way.
I really hope they're still in the market for some defenders, because they've let Jose Enrique go to Newcastle, making him the 347th defender to leave the club in the close season. Okay, I'm exaggerating a bit, but they really need some reinforcements.
Lastly, some news on the Juan Roman Riquelme front. Yeah, he still belongs to Villarreal, much as the club and the player might wish otherwise. The latest (very sad) news is that Boca have all but given up hope of landing him on another loan spell, because of Villarreal's asking price. I'm a neutral when it comes to Argentinian domestic football, but I've become convinced that Roman belongs at Boca, and it would be great to see them go to the World Club Cup with him. It's now looking like that scenario will remain a pipe dream, and the flogging of Roman to various clubs around Europe will commence.
The club have put a deadline on any suitors for Argentinian defender Fabricio Coloccini coming forward.
Coach Miguel Angel Lotina has told Iago, Momo, Jairo and Antonio Tomas that they can go, with loan deals looking likely.
The club have lost their first two pre-season friendlies, both against lower league opposition, to leave coach Hector Cuper frustrated and demanding more from his players.
Aside from demanding more, he's also identified the ones he wants out of the squad, including Assuncao, who had insisted that he wanted to say with the club. The others are Lembo, Maldonado, Xisco, Alberto Rivera and Fernando Fernandez.
A badly-timed injury to Racing Santander striker Nikola Zigic may delay plans to cash in on the player. I don't think selling him is necessarily a wise move, given their dependence on him in the previous season, but I can completely understand the need for the funds generated to strengthen in other positions.
Zaragoza won a friendly against SD Huesca with on loan striker Ricardo Oliveira scoring a brace and Barca product Sergio Garcia chipping in with two of his own. I really hope Zaragoza do well in the UEFA Cup - they've certainly got the squad for it.
Espanyol lost 3-0 in their game at the Reebok to Bolton. I'd write more, but the reports aren't very detailed. In general, Espanyol have done pretty good business in the transfer window, and their manager is a good guy who knows what he's doing, so they should be set for the season ahead.
Newly promoted Murcia have broken their transfer record to sign Fernando Baiano from relegated Celta Vigo for 5 million euros, which tells you something about the state of things at the bottom of the Spanish league as opposed to the amount of money even the bottom Premiership sides have. I've always thought that Baiano was a decent player despite his lack of consistency, and the club did need a goalscorer. Hopefully he'll repay their faith in him. Murcia have also got Curro Torres on loan from Valencia.
Getafe have let grumpy striker Daniel Guiza go to Mallorca. Guiza isn't too happy about the move, but has no one to blame given his own unwise statements to the press regarding the relative status of Getafe and Mallorca. Once again, Angel Torres comes out on top. He really is one of the more sane and canny chairmen in the Spanish league.