Sunday, November 25, 2007

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

(graphic swiped from Sport)

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

other observations

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 23, 2007

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

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

international round-up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

injury update

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

other (mostly cheerful) news

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

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

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

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

less cheerful news aka perpetual state of 'crisis'

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

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

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

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

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

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

More on the away form issue later.