Saturday, December 01, 2007

Lyon 2 - 2 Barca ('our forward line is how old?!' edition) and Barcelona derby preview

Against Lyon, a great European side, Barca's 3-man forward line had an average age of 20. Eto'o wasn't quite fit enough yet, Henry's body had finally given out after playing continuously while not 100% fit, and Ronaldinho was on the bench. Andres Iniesta, 23; Lionel Messi, 20; and Bojan Krkic, 17, a forward line crafted in the Barca youth academies, led the line in their stead. And they did a good job, I think it's fair to say, as did the rest of the team. A line-up which consisted of 6 home-grown players managed a good away performance against an impressive Lyon side without the superstar forwards, and without Deco.

In fact, they were excellent in the first 20 minutes, playing rapid, fluid football, and while the rest of the game was not as pleasing on the eye, what made me happy was the mentality on display, a sense of aggression and team work that had been missing from some recent Barca performances. That youthful forward line combined to produce a first goal made in La Masia from a swift counter-attack which took full advantage of their skills and pace.

It's good to see that the midfield doesn't get bossed around as much when Gudjohnsen is there to help Yaya out, but I think there's still a bit of bite missing which should hopefully be remedied when Deco returns from injury.

Both Yaya and Messi are one yellow away from suspension in the Champions League, which means that they'll probably be rested for the last game against Stuttgart, for which Carles Puyol is suspended because of accumulation of yellow cards.

One of the big talking points about the game was the fact that Ronaldinho was a substitute. I've already hinted at what I think is one of the reasons - the team configuration without him allows for more aggressiveness and speed, but I also think that if Rijkaard thinks that he's not ready to play due to either mental or physical fatigue, I trust the coach's judgement.

Rijkaard and the ref

The other big talking point is Frank Rijkaard's sending off. Stefan Farina, the referee, is fast turning into Rijkaard's semi-comedic nemesis. Some of you may recall that he was the referee in the controversial 2-2 draw between Barca and Chelsea at the Camp Nou last season, where he booked a billion players and attracted Rijkaard's ire for 1) deciding on 6 minutes of stoppage time when Barca were leading 2-1, and 2) ending the match on 5 minutes of said stoppage time after Chelsea got their late equaliser. I didn't blame him for the shambles both teams made of the game at the time, but this is the second time he's lost control of the players in a physical game, tried to regain it by booking everyone in sight, and made both teams unhappy as a result.

This time, Rijkaard's ire was attracted by what he saw as Farina's failure to spot fouls on Messi. To be fair to the ref, while there were strong challenges flying in, I didn't see anything especially outrageous. Frankie was probably in the wrong this time, although the fans seem to have appreciated his show of anger on behalf of his players. This is the first time Rijkaard has been sent off since becoming Barca coach.

The players claimed that Rijkaard was only expressing their frustrations, and Xavi has claimed that the players took the words of Rijkaard (in regards to having a 'winning mentality') to heart in their approach to the game, which enabled them to play the way they did.

individual players

  • Valdes really should have done better on Juninho's freekick. I know that the defenders bears some responsibility for not getting to the ball, but some of the blame has to fall on Victor. Made a couple of fine saves from the good chances Lyon did get.
  • Zambrotta looked a bit better, but still seemed to lack an understanding with the rest of the team, and has somehow become a defensive liability through his lapses in concentration, which is worrying. Did alright against his fellow Italian defender Grosso.
  • Milito was reliable as usual, and I've really begun to appreciate his ability to hit passes out of defence. It's something I really missed while Marquez was out of form.
  • Like I wrote above, Puyol is somewhat responsible for the first goal, but the rest of his performance was quite great, and as usual, he led the team by example.
  • Abidal did quite well on his return to his old stomping ground, and I don't really blame him for the penalty - he was in an awkward position, there was a chance that he might commit the foul, but it was a fair chance to take.
  • I'll probably end up saying this most games, but it bears repeating - Yaya Toure really is a fantastic addition to the squad. He disrupts the opposition's attempts to build play through midfield, plugs the gaps in defence and his work rate is excellent. And I haven't even mention his underrated skill on the ball - after all, he started out as a central midfielder, not a destroyer. All that and a powerful shot as well.
  • Again, something else I seem to repeat every game: Andres Iniesta. Fantastic. Passing, dribbling, tackling and tracking back, Iniesta does it all, and does it well, too. Even his shooting has improved.
  • Barca fans give Gudjohnsen a hard time because he's not the most technical player, and can miss some frustratingly easy chances in front of goal (e.g. that terrible miss from Messi's cross in this game), but give him credit for hard work. Without his work ethic, Barca's midfield would have been completely dominated by Lyon's, and the spirit of him and Yaya seemed to inspire the rest of the team.
  • Xavi's passing was as good as ever, although it's clear that he needs either Iniesta or Deco to partner him in order to be fully effective. By the way, congratulations to him for surpassing the man he models himself on - Pep Guardiola, for those who don't know - to become 9th on Barca's all-time appearances list, with Tuesday's game being his 385th for the club.
  • Is it just me or has Messi looked increasingly frustrated in the last couple of games? Don't get me wrong, he's still one of our most threatening players, and it's because the opposition devote 2 or 3 players to keep track of him that the other guys get any space to run into, but being ganged up on by so many opposition defenders all the time has to take a toll mentally. He does seem to be trying to connect with the other forwards, but an understanding takes time to form, and he's been the only constant of a forward line that has had to change all the time because of injuries and form concerns. Utterly cold-blooded penalty, as always.
  • As Sid Lowe said in the Guardian Football Weekly podcast, Bojan is still obviously a boy, and he looks frail out there being pushed around and physically overwhelmed by big defenders. Given the boy credit for trying, though, and for still managing to make an impact on the game with his penetrating runs and two great assists.
  • Ronaldinho only played 20 minutes or so and looked...alright, I suppose. It was hard to tell given the state of the game at the time. Made a couple of great passes and tried to go past people, which is what we all want to see.

"Now, he should not believe everything that is said in the press because it is great when they praise you, but the day that they criticise you they will not worry about how old you are." - Samuel Eto'o on his chosen successor, one Bojan Krkic.

Too true, Sammy. This and other sensible insights from Eto'o in an interview with the official website, where he also states how pleased he is about the way the team played against Lyon.

Aren't the Catalan papers supposed to be on Barca's side? The way I see it, Marca have been friendlier and less hysterical in their reporting lately than they have.

Usually, Sport are the ones in my bad books, but I see El Mundo Deportivo has now taken up the 'heroic' task of attacking Frank Rijkaard despite all evidence to the contrary. If that game was boring then I don't know what they were watching.

And the rising tide of opinion against Messi really proves that us fans are the most fickle creatures known to man. Like Eto'o said, criticism is a ruthless and blind thing when it turns against you. Football players aren't seen as human beings once they reach a certain level of stardom.

On a more positive note, Ronaldinho has been praised for taking to being a substitute without complaint. It's nice to see some of the papers ease up on him a bit (I wish Sport would follow suit), but the very fact that him not being disgruntled is news seems strange to me - for any other player, save perhaps Eto'o and Henry, it wouldn't be, and surely it's part of the professional conduct of any player to accept the coach's decision, if not with grace, then at least quietly?

player news ahead of the Barcelona derby

Edmilson has returned to training but is some ways from being fit, not that he's likely to play for us again, and Deco and Eto'o are both on track to appear against Deportivo if all goes well. (What I really want is to see both of them fit and firing in time for El Clasico.)

Our injury problems have hit a low point: Oleguer, Sylvinho, Thuram, Henry and Giovani are also unavailable, leading to poor Frank Rijkaard resorting to two youth team players in the form of Alberto Botia and Victor Sanchez to fill up the bench. Interestingly, this means that 10 out of the list of 18 are products of the Barca academy.

On the Espanyol side, our old friend De la Pena will not be fit enough to play, but the excellent Albert Riera has been included. Young Argentine (and personal favourite of mine) Pablo Zabaleta is once again fit enough to be named in the squad.

It's not just a derby - it's a match between two of the best teams in the league, third versus fourth. May the best team win.

Visca el Barca!

1 comment:

timoteo said...

I agree with all your excellent assessments with the exception of Gudhonsen. Maybe, with all the injuries, he's the best option now, but in general, he just does not fit, in anyway, with Barca's style of play and his finishing and touch are abysmal. Yaya Toure is pure gold! Deco's absence is probably felt the most of all the injuries. He is the axle on the wheel. I can't believe people are criticizing Messi. He's getting double-triple teamed and hacked, and he still is making a difference. What do they want??? He's 20 years old and still learning!!! Frank is a great coach. He has done well dealing with personalities and he has crafted a team that plays beautifully (on the whole). I also agree about Melito. His passes from the back line have been exquisite and he has been solid on defense.