Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Argentina round-up


Young striker Fernando Cavenaghi has finally gotten himself out of Russia with a move to Bordeaux of France. Hopefully he'll rediscover his scoring boots there and work himself into national team contention.

As for Mascherano to Liverpool, the latest is that the loan deal with an option to buy will go through, and poor Masche will finally end his West Ham nightmare. Good luck to him.

Injuries ahead of France friendly (February 7)

Aimar's reoccuring knee injury is acting up again and he's doubtful for the game, which would be a major blow since there's no ready-made replacement for him in the squad.

Gago also seems to have picked up a minor injury, although he should be fit in time. I guess we'll see, depending on his appearance this weekend for Real.

U20s and Olympics

I'll be honest, the main reason I made this post is to congratulate the U20 squad that travelled to Paraguay on their second place finish at the South American U20 Championship. Sure, they missed out on the trophy itself, but the placing ensures that they qualify for the U20 World Cup in Canada later this year, as well as more importantly - the Beijing Olympics, meaning that they can defend the title won in Athens in 2004.

So well done to the mini-Albicelestes for a massive effort, especially their last gasp win in the last game against Uruguay.

Recent Barca news and comment

Victory vs Celta

I'm much happier about the state of affairs than I was even a week ago, both on and off the pitch. Looks like all the tactical training sessions are paying off. More of the same, please.


For God's sake, at least make him a decent-sized offer to renew. He deserves it.


A belated happy 27th birthday to our midfield machine. A wonderful player, and a role-model: Manchester United reported approached his agent recently. He told them to go talk to Barca instead, since he was contracted to the club.

Long may he prosper.

Sammy Eto'o

The latest report seems to be that he will be back on the 11th of February in the home tie against Racing. That will be a lovely occasion for those of us who have missed him, and for him as well to enjoy the reception of the fans. He's earned it.

(Seeing him being slagged off by Barca supporters makes me twitch. Is that just me?)

Referee's Day

Let's not do that again. It seems to encourage incompetence amongst the men in black everytime.

Penalties and conspiracy theories

It's like that special breed of Barca fan who attribute all decisions in Real's favour to a conspiracy. AS, Marca, you've turned into what you loathe. Well done. You know what, though, I've decided that I don't mind all the whining, the lazy slanderous journalism.

Why? Because it's a sign that we're winning.

(I'm writing a rather lengthy series of half-season status reports. Hopefully they'll be posted this week.)

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Argentina squad for friendly against France

An interesting list yet again from Basile. (He watches a lot of La Liga, doesn't he?) 'Coco' is limited by the injuries to players like Lionel Messi, Carlos Tevez, and Pablo Zabaleta, and I was very keen to see how he'd respond to the losses of players who were present in his last 2 games.

Goalkeepers: Roberto 'Pato' Abbondanzieri (Getafe, Spain), Leo Franco (Atletico Madrid, Spain)

Pretty straight-forward. Both have been in excellent form, although Pato as always would get my nod for the way he transmits calm to his defenders.

Defenders: Roberto Ayala (Valencia, Spain), Gabriel Milito (Zaragoza, Spain), Nicolas Burdisso (Inter, Italy), Javier Zanetti (Inter, Italy), Gabriel Heinze (Manchester United, England), Fabricio Fuentes (Villarreal, Spain), Rodolfo Arruabarrena (Villareal, Spain)

Interesting choices. Ayala, Milito, Burdisso and Fuentes are primarily centerbacks, which gives him a lot of choice in defence. Burdisso played right-back at the World Cup, but I can't see how Basile can call up a right-back like Javier Zanetti (finally!) and not play him. Besides, Burdisso is much better operating in the center. Heinze has played centerback a lot for Argentina, but I would prefer to see him on the left, since Arruabarrena can be unconvincing and isn't getting any younger.

Midfielders: Fernando Gago (Real Madrid, Spain), Aldo Duscher (Deportivo La Coruna, Spain), Esteban Cambiasso (Inter, Italy), Luis 'Lucho' Gonzalez (Porto, Portugal), Leandro Somoza (Villarreal, Spain), Pablo Aimar (Zaragoza, Spain), Jonas Gutierrez (Mallorca, Spain)

Gago is rewarded for his solid showings for Real Madrid. This is his first call-up, and about time too, since there's a Mascherano-shaped hole in the defensive midfield that needs filling. Not sure what Duscher is doing there - bit of a blast from the past there, but I guess experience is always good to have. Cambiasso is a logical call-up: he's been a regular for a long time, and after missing the first 2 games of Basile's time in charge through injury, it would be nice to have him back. Not sure about Somoza - Villarreal have been so erratic it's a bit worrying to see so many of their players in the list. Still, a solid player who doesn't make too many mistakes is handy.

Lucho Gonzalez has had some pretty good games this season, so he should have been called up even if he wasn't already a regular. Aimar's call-up is a given - he's been playing so well for Zaragoza it would have been a travesty otherwise. He should start. I have to admit, I don't know much about Jonas Gutierrez, but apparently he's been Mallorca's most effective player for quite a few games this season, so I guess we'll see.

Forwards: Javier Saviola (Barcelona, Spain), Sergio Aguero (Atletico Madrid, Spain), Diego Milito (Zaragoza, Spain), Hernan Crespo (Inter, Italy), Lisandro Lopez (Porto, Portugal).

Saviola fully deserves to get his starting spot back. He's on fire right now. Trouble is, so is Sergio Aguero, and Aguero offers more creative options up front. Then there's Lisandro Lopez, who's having a pretty good season with Porto. Choices, choices. Crespo should probably get his first start under Basile, having missed out previously due to various fitness related reasons. It's good to see Diego Milito get a call-up, though, and I hope he get some minutes in. To me, he's Crespo's direct successor in the short term.

Of Basile's 3 squads so far, this is the one I'm most pleased with. It's sad that players like Messi and Zabaleta have to miss out, but if you look around Europe, I think this is a pretty good selection of Argentinean talent. Whether they'll make a good team is a different question altogether, considering some of them have never even met.

So what do you guys think? How about line-ups (given that Basile uses 4-4-2)? This is what I'd want as the starting defense:


But from there it gets difficult. For me, Aimar needs to start, and the play needs to build around him. Maybe Saviola and Crespo should resume their World Cup partnership up front, since those two wouldn't need to get used to each other - time the team won't have. But which other midfielders would best compliment Aimar? Or would you prefer it if the team was built around Aguero instead? Exciting times.

Higuain newsflash

The kid has good timing. According to respected French daily L'Equipe, Real Madrid forward Gonzalo Higuain will choose Argentina over France. Welcome to the family, lad. I assume he's now allowed to go to all those Argentinean player get-togethers in Spain that I've heard so much about.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Barca issues and Copa del Rey round-up

Barca 3-2 Alaves

What would we do without Saviola? Funny thing to say, isn't it, after all the shenanigans during the summer, but seriously, what would this currently lost side do without the player who has scored all of Barca's goals in the last 3 games? Without whom we could have endured an embarrassment in our own stadium against fricking Alaves? Good for him, and a hat-trick is always nice. That's 6 goals in the span of a week, and I'll be very, very surprised if he doesn't play a big part in the next league game.

Even his old enemy, technical director Txiki Begiristain has indicated that the club has to think about possibly renewing his contract now, although he indicated that financial factors (like El Conejo's massive salary, perhaps?) may still be a stumbling block. The initial signs are if he is willing to bring his salary into the same range as the rest of the non-regulars (around 3 million euros, plus various performance and trophy related bonuses) that would be more acceptable for the club.

The media and the fans are certainly on his side. The latest poll by El Mundo Deportivo indicated that a whopping 94% of fans reckon that he should start the league game against 'Nastic, and 95% think the club should renew his contract. That's not even going into the banners in the Camp Nou urging the club to renew him. Poor Gudjohnsen must be feeling a little unpopular, although rumour has it that Giuly will be the one relegated to second-half substitute instead on account of both the rest he surely needs and his poor recent form.

From Saviola's point of view, no matter how much he likes living in Barcelona, surely if his stated ambition of starting for Argentina in the next World Cup is to be fulfilled, he needs to start for a club. That's not going to happen at Barca when Eto'o gets fit again. Maybe Espanyol is a good place for him. Maybe. I'm not convinced. In any case, he's keeping his options open for now.

On an amusing note, for those of you who don't know, the current president of Spain, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, is a Barcelona fan. Apparently when asked about Saviola's recent performances, Zapatero was of the opinion that the club should not let Saviola leave. So there you are, club suits.

As for the game itself, alright, we had to play Gio in midfield because both Deco and Iniesta are injured, but what the hell? It's funny, I wasn't nearly as annoyed about losing to Espanyol as I am about winning against Alaves (and going through 5-2 on aggregate).

Our defence is frighteningly bad right now. To leak two goals against a team who are fighting relegation from the second division is unacceptable. (Want to know who the only other team to score 2 at Camp Nou this season are? I'll give you one guess: they're owned by a really, really rich Russian guy.) Yeah, I know the tie was wrapped up in the first half, but it's still damn embarrassing.

Marquez has blundered far too much lately. Maybe give Oleguer a chance at center-back? We certainly don't lack right-backs, and he's been wobbly there this season, but Ole's not a bad center-back. Motta seems to be having one of those spells again. Thankfully Edmilson is back to full fitness.

40000 spectators, incidentally, which is interesting. It's an impressive number on its own, but given the capacity of the stadium and the fact that the club offered a 4 for the price of 1 deal from their ticketing office, turnout really should be higher. But at least they were nice, chanting Saviola's name and 'applauding everything', according to El Mundo Deportivo (and my trusty Google Translate), and were fairly forgiving of the team's blunders, although Ronaldinho didn't have the greatest time of it with some scattered noises of disapproval aimed in his general direction. I suspect that generosity towards the team's mistakes by the fans might not last for too long, given past record.

(Hilariously, the audience included on-loan striker Maxi Lopez and...wait for it...Peter Crouch!)

current situation

Interestingly, both fans (through polls) and club management (through Johan Cruyff) have conveyed that they think the players, not the manager, are to blame for the current slump. Incidentally, I feel the same way.

They also factor in injuries, which is fair enough - poor Rijkaard hasn't been able to field the same side, especially defensively, for a while because of various injuries. When the Zambrotta-Marquez-Puyol-Gio defensive line played together for a run of matches, they looked very good, but they all took turns to get injured, and a lack of consistency is a killer to defensive organization.

And then there's that energy-draining trip to Japan. Interestingly, Rijkaard seems to be implying that the team's recent performances are down to a lack of fitness. If so, they should probably get on to fixing that. Still, we should be doing better than we are.

However, I don't agree with people who are saying that Rijkaard needs to be harder on the players. Yeah, being hard on someone like Ronaldinho is really going to make him go for it. That really worked at PSG. Not. 'Frankie' has his own way of working, let's just leave him to it for now and see what happens.

By the way, I'm getting a bit worried (and annoyed - he has a contract, people) about those rumours of him leaving in the summer. For those of you going 'but we'll get Koeman in, and he's a Barca hero and everything', the man has a club job. Which means he's signed a contract. I don't think PSV would be impressed if we tapped up their coach. Also, if you've seen them play this season, it's really not a style the Camp Nou faithful would be impressed by.

On a positive note, we are getting players back from injury everyday, and evidence of the benefits were clear when Edmilson and Zambrotta came on in the Copa game. Our injury list has now shrunk from as many as 7 or 8 players to just 1 who isn't able to train - Messi, who's doing recovery work in Argentina. That means we'll finally fill the bench again, Rijkaard can play his first choice midfield and defence, and make some attacking substitutions.

The recovery of Samuel Eto'o is, of course, the big one. Even though he's already working with a ball, the doctors are being very, very careful about his comeback, since this is his first serious injury. (Surprising, isn't it? Sammy's 25 years old, this is his 8th season in La Liga, and he's never been injured this long before.)

The latest is that he may not play a full game until the 11th of February, which is slightly worrying. I would imagine that's the most conservative estimate, though. 4th of February looks more likely. Other than Saviola, he's the other player getting massive amounts of good press, with his hard working attitude and commitment a marked contrast to some other squad members I could name.

There's no need to panic yet, of course, but we can't afford to drop any more points in the league, so this current run of bad form has to stop soon. If it doesn't, then we can start worrying properly.

Copa del Rey round-up

The biggest shock of the round came from Villarreal, who put out their first team and were beaten at home (0-1) by second division team Valladolid, who now progress to the next round as the only non-first division team with a 3-1 aggregate scoreline. Good work from the minnows, terrible from Villarreal. Nothing's going right for them. From their present form, I would have said winning the Copa was their most realistic chance of a return to Europe, but now even that's out of reach.

I can never tell what Depor's first team consists of these days since they have so many young players, but congratulations to Barca cantera graduates Verdu and Rodri, amongst others, who as predicted secured entry into the next round with a 1-1 draw at home against battling (and improving) Mallorca. They go through 3-2 after winning away in the first leg.

The most impressive performance of the round probably has to be the one Getafe produced away at the Mestalla, beating a full-strength Valencia 2-4 to go through after a 1-1 draw in the first leg. In fact, the performance prompted Valencia coach Quique Sanchez Flores to compare Getafe to Barcelona (although persumably he did not mean Barca on current form).

A half-strength Sevilla side avoided what would have been another shock set-back, 2 late goals securing passage to the next round with a 3-1 victory over second division Madrid side Rayo Vallecano, having managed only a goalless draw in the first leg.

Zaragoza also rested half the squad and lost 0-1 to second division Malaga at home, not that it mattered as their 0-3 away victory in the first leg takes them through.

Osasuna, who are showing definite signs of improvement (although I shouldn't say that since the last time I said Betis were improving, they went and got thumped 5-1), also got a great result, dumping an almost full-strength Atletico side who are flying in the league out with a 2-0 home victory after a 1-1 draw in the first leg. Aguirre sent Antonio Lopez and Sergio Aguero on in the second half to try and salvage things, but by then they were 2 down and it was too late.

Real Madrid's newly youthful side drew 1-1 at the Bernabeu with Real Betis to go out of the Copa after a goalless draw away in the first leg. Quite a turnaround for Betis - but after all, they are cup specialists. If I recall correctly they are currently the club with the most Copa del Rey titles, jointly with Barca on 24. From what I've heard, Real were unlucky not to win the game. However, it may actually end up looking like a stoke of good fortune for them and Valencia if the title race continues to be so close - less fixture congestion is always handy.

quarter-final draws

Zaragoza - Barcelona: aww, crap, not Zaragoza again. For those who don't remember, Zaragoza were the losing finalists last year, but this came after a great run which included a quarter-final thrashing of Barca 4-2 (which ended Barca's 18-match winning streak) and then losing the return leg at Camp Nou 2-1 amidst Ronaldinho being given a dodgy red card to go through; and the unbelievable spanking of Real Madrid 6-1, losing the return leg at the Bernabeu 4-0 to go through. This year, they're even better, although their away form is still a bit dodgy. This fixture (again) is really not what Barca need right now.

Osasuna - Getafe: could go either way, really. Both have got some form going, and winning the Copa represents a really good chance to get into European competition for both teams that they shouldn't pass up by fielding weakened teams.

Depor - Valladolid: a bit of a dead rubber, unfortunately. Depor are inconsistent, but I doubt they're bad enough to get beaten by a second division side over 2 legs.

Sevilla - Betis: pick of the bunch, for me. The Seville derby is the craziest La Liga has to offer, and probably the only one in which you'd bet on mayhem both on the pitch and off every single time. Sure, Betis are not in a good place right now, but they'll be fired up to get one over their hated city rivals. Betis pushed Sevilla close when they played this season, despite the now obvious gap between the two clubs, at least in terms of the league table. Can't wait - this should be good.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Real Madrid, Beckham and Mourinho: the Merengue soul

Sid Lowe's article speculating about the Real Madrid elections and the possibility of Jose Mourinho making his way over to Spain got me thinking. The comments on that article are well worth reading, by the way. Lots of good analysis, and some laughs too.

There are quite a few classy, astute comments from Madridistas, pointing out what they see as a loss of the club's 'soul' - the current decline in the dearly held values of not just a club, but an institution; because that's the position Real hold in world football. They have reason to feel unique and to be proud of a tradition of style, dignity and great success.

current situation

I won't go over the problems of the galactico project - absurdly small squad, no proper defensive midfielder, player power gone mad and so on, except to write a bit about a couple of things which happened after Florentino Perez resigned that has, according to my observations of comments made by the fans of clubs in the Italian and English leagues, affected Real's reputation aversely.

The two things I have in mind are of a fairly similar nature. The first was a massive mistake in both PR and practical terms by former president Fernando Martin, who stepped in after Perez resigned and who is thankfully no longer in charge. He famously announced to the press a short-list of seven candidates Real were considering to coach them in the 06-07 season. Leaving aside the effect this has on the stand-in coach and his squad, most of those on the list were already contracted to either a club or country job at the time (e.g. Ancelotti, Lippi, Eriksson, Wenger, Capello etc).

To put it bluntly, this was not smart. This amounted to tapping up coaches of important clubs and of national teams in a World Cup year en masse - and that's only for the audition process, persumably. Some of the clubs in question, especially, were not very happy. Martin's moment of madness was roundly condemned by the Madrid press.

The antics of the presidential candidates during the election were an extension of this. Admittedly, every club that holds elections features canddidates promising the sun and the moon - or at least superstar signings and a famous coach. The now-infamous Becks to Barcelona promise by Barca president Laporta when he was seeking election is one such example. But at least he had papers from Man Utd promising Beckham - it was the player himself, in this case, who didn't want to budge.

On the other hand, Arsenal weren't too happy about current president Calderon promised to sign Cesc Fabregas, while other candidates claimed they had made contact with Wenger. (After the Henry to Barca saga, they must be getting a bit paranoid about Spanish clubs.) Relations between AC Milan and Real were damaged by Calderon's continued insistence that he would sign Kaka, despite Milan's refusal to contemplate selling the player. Now Milan don't even want to deal with Real directly.

It also appears that this policy has not only alienated other clubs, but their fans as well. Ask any Arsenal fan how they feel about the whole saga with Arsene Wenger and Cesc, despite public and repeated denials from both. (I have to mention the Thierry Henry to Barca saga here least I sound like a hypocrite, but it does serve to demonstrate that presidents should just keep their trap shut. Laporta was the one going 'I'd love it if Henry played for us, but...' to anyone who would listen, while the technical director frantically issued denial after denial to anyone who asked. That, combined with the tendency of British tabloids to confuse speculation in the local papers to direct statements from the club itself (which they've also done with Real, although not in the election cases), led to a lot of annoyed Arsenal fans. Fair enough, although I have to say Henry didn't cover himself in glory with his dithering.)

My general point here is that doing your transfers this way just doesn't seem prudent. I much prefer the slightly more discreet approach taken to the South American mid-season signings, drawn out as some of the transfers were. This policy of just announcing who you're going to sign regardless of their avaliability simply - seems to me, anyway - lacks dignity.

Besides that, I wanted to touch on the ill-adviced squad policy sprawned by the galactico era. The first is illustrated by a great article someone once wrote in which they made a pretty respectable team out of players Real had discarded in the last 4 or 5 years. I realize that this exercise can be done with pretty much any other big club, but where else would you get an attack force of Morientes and Michael Owen (okay, Liverpool, but that's a different story), and a defensive midfield of Cambiasso and Makelele? Santiago Solari in midfield, Santi Canizares in goal (not that there's anything wrong with poor Iker Casillas)...I could go on.

Compounding that, loaning out the youth team's best player, Ruben De la Red, who if track record is anything to go by will not be coming back is in my opinion an example of the management's mishandling of the cantera. (More on this in my post about the cantera at Real and Barca in relation to other clubs around Europe. It'll be even longer than this post, I think.) The assertion that the current Real squad is 'brimming with Spanish talent' is a rather amusing one. (Do the likes of Raul Bravo, Pavon and Meija count as 'talent'?) In my opinion, the only team in Spain that description can properly be applied to is Valencia, who regularly field 8 or more Spaniards.

Awesome former coach Vicente Del Bosque - who was infamously sacked right after winning the league title - says that Real's current problem is a lack of leadership on the pitch, which causes a lack of direction and desire from the rest of the players. Now, whether that's an implied dig at the captains (Raul, Guti and Roberto Carlos) - but especialy flagship figure Raul - or not, he's got a point. (Del Bosque was also the guy who rightly pointed out that endless official proclamations of Real as the best team in the world is perhaps not a good idea. Especially when you're not perhaps convincing neutrals of that.)

Calderon's current squabbling with Florentino Perez over what he allegedly said to Berlusconi about Kaka can't be good, either. After all, Calderon was a member of the board during Perez's presidency, despite his denouncement of the galactico policy later. If this verbal war goes on (as it has with Perez both denying the charges and hitting back at Calderon), more dirty linen is going to be aired, and that's never good for image. Now Calderon's had to apologize, especially since his rant also contained a dig at the fans and the players. Just a suggestion, man: you want the fans on your side. (It also featured yet another promise to sign Kaka, but I think we're all used to that by now.)

Reportedly the players aren't happy, especially Guti, who was referred to in the rant as having been a 'promising' player forever (without ever making it into a full blown successs), which while true isn't the sort of thing you want to say in public, and Casillas, whose salary he revealed as an example of the disparity within the squad by comparing it with what the back-up 'keeper earns. I think the latter is slightly unfair. Iker Casillas is worth every cent paid for him, even if some of the other players aren't. How many times has he single-handedly saved Real's ass?

I know Calderon's comments were meant to be off the record, but for God's sake I've been to 'off the record' lectures by politicans (since I am exactly the type of student he might have been lecturing to, were I studying in Madrid, which I am not), and they never say anything they wouldn't normally say on the record. Is it not beyond him to think before he rants?

it's hard being David Beckham (really?)

Speaking of player treatment, I'll go over the current Beckham saga, but only briefly since so many others have covered it already. From the excellent Real blog All In White, Gonzalo's take is well worth reading.

Let's be clear here - the club had pretty much made it clear that Beckham was one of the players they wanted to get rid of before he announced his deal with the LA Galaxy. I don't see how he's wronged them there. So on an club management level Calderon's anger seems irrational and only serves to make himself and Real look, in the words of Owen Hargreaves, 'spiteful'.

What I really don't understand is Capello's stance on not playing him in the first place. Persumably the Italian knows that Becks isn't one of the 'bad influences' in the dressing room and has always worked hard. Also, I find it hard to believe a coach as experienced as he is has never worked with a player who was leaving at the end of the season. I just don't get what the problem is there. If Barca pursued this policy with Larsson (who was actually photographed in his hometown club's kit mid-season, not that anybody minded), we probably wouldn't have won the Champions League. It seems irrational on Capello's part, and again does not cover the club itself in glory.

Jose to the rescue?

If, as Sid asserts, Jose Mourinho is a popular choice with Madridistas because of his Barca-baiting (which he is admittedly very, very good at) then it not only disproves the notion that they don't care about Barca in the capital. It also raises the question of how many Chelsea games these guys have seen recently. If they think Capello's Real doesn't play good football, and I think they're being a bit unfair there, wait until they see the way things go under Mourinho. And that's not even going into the parts of his personality that (allegedly) have some around the club a bit concerned.

I'm also not sure Mourinho wouldn't balk at the restrictions he'd be under at Real where power is concerned, especially in regards to transfers. You sense he wouldn't hesitate to drop even someone like Raul, but I have a feeling that wouldn't go down well in the boardroom or the dressing room. Player power has waned a bit under Capello, but the very fact that he feels the need for a cleansing now, rather than at the beginning of the season, seems to demonstrate that he has come to see the extent of the disease that is the influence certain players (not Beckham) have that supersedes his own.

Oh the other hand, would he tolerate not being alone in the spotlight? At Real, like I've just mentioned, the club, the institution, is supposed to be bigger than any individual, which is why the galactico project was doomed to failure. It's the same at Barca. No coach can come to be seem as the figurehead and symbol of a club like the big two of Spain, like Mourinho was at Porto and then at Chelsea.

what price success?

In my opinion, it is important for a club with its own proclaimed identity and philosophy to hire a coach who fits into that ethos if they're thinking long-term. Del Bosque's political affiliation may have made the Real board uncomfortable, but he was as Madridista as they came, quietly proud of the colours and dignified about it.

This is why Barca got lucky with Rijkaard. Regardless of the current problems, he understands the ethos of Barcelona, that fundamental need for style and a positive reputation. Van Gaal didn't, and so he is remembered less than fondly by fans even though he won back to back titles, including the cup and league double. If you listen to way Rijkaard talks, his lexicon is all about 'leaving a good image', about ensuring the impression left by the team is positive regardless of the result. He's managed to articulate a lot of what Barca is all about, as well as express it on the pitch. Optimally, Real need someone who does the same for them. It's about a lot more than just results.

One of the candidates is talking about bring back Camacho for his third spell as coach, which I find hilarious (sorry) and baffling in equal measure. I know he's a hero at Real and a Madridista to the core, but weren't his first two short spells as coach there disastrous enough? Didn't he fall out with key dressing room figures, most of whom are still around, last time? The whole idea is so ripe for comedy that his other promise to bring in Michael Carrick pales in comparison. Carrick is a fine player who'd do well in Spain, but 1) he looks perfectly happy at Man Utd, who I bet pay better wages than Real, and 2) Carrick to Real Madrid? Seriously?

People were talking about Schuster last season, before the elections. He's just as mouthy as Mourinho (and just as amusing from a distance), but I think far less deceptively so, and he'd suit Real more. Being a former player there (as well as at Barca, funnily enough), he'd understand what the club is about.

starting point

Every single little conflict or problem is magnified into crisis at a club like Real Madrid when things are not going well. Trust me, us Barcelonistas know the feeling. While clubs like Real and Barca are great institutions, they also contain a certain neurosis beneath the pomp and arrogance. As soon as things start going wrong, cracks appear in the facade of eternal greatness and perfection, and it all just goes downhill from there.

The way I see it, there are 2 main ways of ending the internal squabbling at a club, at least to all outward appearances. Here's what won't work - purging the club of all your enemies. Sure, Barca president Laporta's done a bit of that, but it's only worked for him on the back of other factors which cure internal conflict. The only reasons he had such an easy ride in the elections this time around are 1) the support of the players and coaching staff on the football side and 2) success.

The latter is the most obvious way to stop unrest within the club. Even the bitter buggers who still yearn nostalgically for former president Nunez (who resigned, I don't know, 10 years ago) and attack Laporta/Cruyff every chance they get will stand up and get their 'Visca el Barca, Visca Catalunya' in when titles are won. They might even praise Rijkaard - essentially a Cruyff hiring - through gritted teeth. Everyone loves a winner, after all, especially if the victory comes in a manner satisfying to the club and its traditions.

The problem with this is obvious: usually, stability is needed to bring about that kind of success in the first place, and that's why stability is sought. So it becomes a vicious circle that can be difficult to break: disastrous season --> stupid, frantic spending --> financial ruin --> disastrous season and so on.

The other way to end internal conflict is to start with a clean slate. This doesn't always work and can in fact end in disaster, but it's worth a try if you have nothing else. The difference between this and purging is that the top of the power structure goes too, and it's not simply personnel which changes. It signals a new way of thinking, a new style of management, and most likely a change of guard in the squad as well. I'm referring mostly to the example of Laporta's Barca here, but it's very applicable to Real.

Laporta bought in a new, more business-like way of running the club, a new wage structure based on on-field performance as well as renewed emphasis on the club as an image and a symbol. Essentially he changed the entire coaching staff as well, and they in turn carried out spring cleaning on the squad once they had enough time to assess which ones were still useful. All of these policies has contributed to Barca's revival. Many would argue (including me) that Real need a similar rebirth, tailored to the club's own unique history and identity. After all, that's what distinguishes Real Madrid from any other club in the world - what fans call the club's 'soul'.

Note: I am a Barcelonista, but my comments above were made with objectivity in mind, as a general observer of the Spanish league. If I've erred at some point, I apologize and please do point it out.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

well, that sucked

Espanyol 3-1 Barcelona

Congratulations to Espanyol on a famous victory, and Saviola for a cracking goal, despite everything else. A disgraceful result from Barca's point of view. Our lack of cutting edge up front is a big problem, obviously. It's simply not good enough for a team like ours to dominate possession without actual end product, especially when it's allied to bad defending. (Rijkaard wasn't too pleased about that part. I predict a tongue-lashing.)

Can't say much else right now, really.

But hey, Liverpool supporters? You're not the only ones who are wobbling right now. So no worries about that Champions League clash.

Edit: Frank's post-match comments. Measured as always, although you can tell he's none too happy about the performance. I thought Puyol's words were pretty fair too. I guess my one consolation is that even when we don't give a good impression on the pitch and get beaten, our guys are classy in defeat.

La liga and Copa del Rey round-up


On the Barca front, there's further good news about Samuel Eto'o, who has earned great credit during his recovery from injury. On the one hand, his absence has made Barca fans appreciate his importance and character even more, and now people who wanted to replace him with Fernando Torres at one point (in response to which I can only say that person knows nothing about football) think that he's irreplaceable - which is true. It works both ways, of course - I think Eto'o himself has matured during his unfortunate down-time. His behaviour in the past 3 months has been impeccable, earning plaudits from the fans for his determination and work ethic. Anyway, his nightmare is nearly over, and he's set to return to training on Monday. Oh happy day indeed.

To be honest, I was quite worried about the team at the beginning of the year, especially after the whole delayed arrival thing. Which, by the way, Ronaldinho still hasn't really explained, although Deco is now exempt from criticism in my book since he apparently presented medical documentation of his (pregnant) wife's sickness scare in Brazil to the club - which was the cause of his late arrival.

Neither of the Brazilians were in the squad for the Copa del Rey game, because they were doing double sessions of physical training to get fit in time for the big one this week: the Barcelona derby, an always exciting and contentious affair. Both Zambrotta and Oleguer should be fit for the clash, which combined with the recovery of Motta and Gio would abruptly end Barca's short injury crisis. And good thing too, since Espanyol's Olympic stadium is never an easy place to get a result.

...except that would be too easy. The latest is that while Oleguer will be fit, Deco will not be, having injured himself in training on Wednesday. It's a shame since he has such a good scoring record against Espanyol. Zambrotta has been declared fit, but Rijkaard has decided not to risk him.

Espanyol have their own problems, of course, with a rash of injuries ruling out several players including possibly veteran striker Walter Pandiani, which would be a big blow for them. Unfortunately my favourite young Argentine right-back Pablo Zabaleta will also miss the game through suspension.

Another little twist in the saga: Espanyol have all but announced that they intend to bid for Saviola after his contract expires in June of this year. Nice timing. I don't see this happening, but I didn't think Becks was going to MLS so soon either, so we'll see.

My hopes for the game? A win for Barcelona, of course, and no red cards would be nice too. I think last week's sparring match between Diogo and Fabiano in the Zaragoza-Sevilla game has satisfied the universal demand for perverse footballing entertainment for a while.

Alaves 0-2 Barcelona

Forca Saviola! He's now Barca's third highest scorer, after Ronaldinho (whose 14 goals, many of them crucial, have kept Barca alive so far this season and himself second in the pichichi table) and Gudjohnsen, which is incredible given how little playing time he's had. The press, who were rather nasty to him during the pre-season, have been won over and are pretty much firmly on his side - for the moment.

If it weren't for El Conejo, things could have been very embarrassing indeed. Barca had 70% of the possession and 29 fricking shots, only 7 of which were on goal. Poor Ezquerro in particular really needs to find his shooting boots.

Second-choice goalie Jorquera got a run out in place of on-form number one Valdes, which was nice, and Gudjohnsen got a rest, but other than that Barca played pretty much the first team, which is surprising from Rijkaard, since he's shown no sign of caring about the Copa before, until you realize that he doesn't exactly have a lot of choice where players are concerned right now. Mourinho's moan about having 'no players'? Frankie knows how you feel, Mou.

Gio and Motta who have been laid up in dry dock both got a run out as substitutes, and in Gio's case he got to play in midfield, which doesn't happen too often. Also notable: is this the first time Saviola and Gudjohnsen have played together? In any case, Saviola and Giuly seem to have a good understanding. Plaudits also go to Xavi and Marquez, the latter after his howler against Getafe, a match in which his other contributions were actually quite good.

Xavi deserves special mention though. The reason I prefer him ahead of Iniesta, despite the youngster's brilliant form, is because Barca control games better when Xavi is playing. He also made 8 successful interceptions in this game, which is astonishing for a midfielder who was never famed for his defensive efforts. What's Rijkaard going to do when Deco is fit? There's a nice selection dilemma for him.

(Curiously enough, Barca had never won at Alaves' ground before this game in 3 attempts. Not a team we enjoy playing against.)

Valladolid 2-1 Villarreal

Villarreal put out pretty much their strongest squad (without the dropped Riquelme) and got beaten away by second division leaders Valladolid. 'Striker' Guillermo Franco, whose continued inability to actually shoot on target has frustrated me for the longest time, even managed to get sent off. I'm not all that surprised, given his tendency to put in stupid tackles, get booked and then run around looking like a pissed (as in drunk) guy spoiling for a fight for the rest of the game.

Villarreal will probably still go through of course since they play the second leg at home, but they need to do something about their limp form and the general malaise first. As for the Riquelme mess, maybe I'll write an analysis of the problems later on, but for now I just feel too crushed about it all. My initial impression, however, is that the off-field problem is solely between the coach, Riquelme and the president.

There is some good news for them - Bobby Pires and Gonzalo Rodriguez are finally back in training after being sidelined with knee injuries at the beginning of the season. The Submarines can really use both of them right now, especially since Riquelme missed training yet again with a 'muscle injury', according to the club (yeah, right).

Atletico 1-1 Osasuna

10-man Atletico held on for a draw against manager Aguirre's former team Osasuna in the Calderon, increasing their run of bad results at home. A draw with ten men wouldn't be so bad if they didn't give up an away goal. Osasuna are not very good right now, especially away, so I expected Atletico to take this, despite missing Argentine goalie Leo Franco and a couple of other players through injury.

Young Argentine striker Sergio Aguero is having quite a good season so far, and for me he's been far more impressive than strike partner Fernando Torres. Critics have pointed out that Aguero has gone missing in some matches, but I believe that's more down to his playing style being somewhat incompatible with Atletico's. Aguero needs to have the ball at his feet near the penalty area to be effective, but Atletico aren't the type of team who like to keep possession. So it's not easy for him to be doing as well as he is, although of course his pace is helping in that respect.

Rayo Vallecano 0-0 Sevilla

A second-string Sevilla side were held to a 0-0 draw by third division Madrid side Rayo Vallecano, who boast the most awesome (slightly mental) female club president in Spain. Needless to say that Sevilla will be confident of picking the minnows off at home in the second leg.

Malaga 0-3 Zaragoza

Congratulations to Barca cantera (youth program) graduate and Andres Iniesta best pal Sergio Garcia for his brace against Malaga (who were in the first division last season) for Real Zaragoza. They put out a fairly strong squad, which doesn't surprise me. Zaragoza have a great track record in the Cup and I expect them to take it seriously, since after all the winner gets an UEFA Cup spot, which would be nice insurance to have if somehow they manage to botch it in the league. I doubt that will happen, but you never know. It would be an understatement to say that Zaragoza will be confident of going through, even if they play a bunch of reserves in the second leg at home.

By the way, I caught some of Zaragoza v Sevilla, and Aimar is on great form. Just wonderful to watch his passing and dribbling. He's even making successful tackles. In my opinion, he's the next best thing Argentina have to an on-form Riquelme, and if he continues on like this I'll be very annoyed if he doesn't start the friendly against France in early February.

Mallorca 1-2 Deportivo

Reserve Baby Depor (Embryo Depor?) won away at Mallorca, with on-loan Barca striker Maxi Lopez scoring what I suspect could be just a consolation goal for Mallorca at the death. Still, congratulations to him for finally getting another one. I doubt Mallorca have what it takes to get a result in the return leg in such a difficult ground. Looking at Depor's team sheet and counting the number of former Barca cantera players makes me smile and wince at the same time. It's good that the likes of Rodri and Verdu (part of Messi and Cesc's age group, I believe) are part of what could be a great new era for Depor, but what a shame that they had to leave Barca to get regular first team football.

Getafe 1-1 Valencia

Getafe got a good draw at home against Valencia (who also put out their first team, go figure), although they will be distraught at conceding a very, very late equaliser after having taken the lead so early. At least their shiny new striker Paunovic got the goal, which is always nice. I thought given their injury problems Flores might want to be careful in the Copa, which supposedly no one in Spain cares about, but it appears that everyone is going for it this season.

Oh yeah, to the small section of racist idiots who abused Valencia's excellent defender Miguel: the whole club gets a bad reputation because of you. I hope you're pleased with your bigoted selves. It's sad, because Getafe's president Angel Torres (a Real Madrid member) is a pretty cool guy, and coach Schuster's doing a good job with his team. That should be the news coming out of their stadium, not this crap.

Scary and awesome Argentine center-back Roberto Ayala's tranfer saga goes on at Valencia, with the Argentine center-back (reportedly targeted by Liverpool and Chelsea) stating his desire for a new deal - which he is not going to get. While coach Quique Sanchez Flores wants him to stay on, sporting director Carboni doesn't. (Kind of like the Saviola situation at Barca). Also, while Ayala was wonderful at the World Cup and continues to put in some excellent performances, he's had problems this season with form and injuries. And he's 33. So that's that.

Poor Vicente is injured yet again. When will the misery end for him? At least Angulo has been in good form lately.

Real Betis 0-0 Real Madrid

Real Madrid were held to a goalless draw by improving relegation battlers Real Betis. Both teams played half a first team squad, although one can't really be sure who's first team at Real Madrid these days. Higuain and Gago both started and looked promising, which is good news for us Albiceleste supporters. Err...not much else happened, I'm afraid.

At least there was an improvement from the last couple of games, with signs of a return to Capello's early season style of uninspiring forward play but great solidarity at the back. Roberto Carlos had to come off injured, further compounding Capello's injury problems (since his back-up Marcelo got injured in training right after his first game in Spain), but at least new boy right-back Torres (not the Atletico Madrid forward) did alright. Interestingly, Capello said that Torres (who seems like a keeper - nice kid) could start again in the league game against Zaragoza, which means that either Helguera or Cannavaro will be dropped, in Cannavaro's case for the second game running - unless of course Capello is stupid enough to play Sergio Ramos at left-back again, and I don't think he is. Although it is understandable that anyone facing the prospect of having to start Raul Bravo tries everything else before resorting to that.

The next big piece of transfer news after Becks to MLS is that Ronaldo is officially being shoved out the door by Capello. I'm surprised teams aren't rushing in for his signature - fat or not, he can still score goals with great technique and instinct alone, as he showed in the World Cup. That said, I have a lot of respect for the player he was, but slightly less for the player he is now. The way his career has gone is incredibly sad. So ends the galactico era, I guess.

By the way, Luis Fernandez seems to be doing very well with Betis so far. I've always maintained that they have too much talent to go down, and it seems like some defensive solidarity was exactly what they needed to pick things up. As long as they don't leak too many, players like Dani and Sobis should ensure that they win enough games to survive. All of this makes Barca's rescheduled trip to Betis' stadium on the 24th even more interesting.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Premiership: a defence of Benitez and Mourinho (!)

It's a bit odd watching the fireworks in the Premiership from the point of view of a neutral, but perhaps that gives me the benefit of some unbiased insight - which makes the whole thing seem at times utterly ridiculous.


Oh, man, Liverpool. I feel terrible for Luis Garcia - his season is pretty much over, which sucks on its own, but now a triumphant return to Barcelona in February isn't going to happen. It's easy to say that an enormous goal threat in European competition has been removed from the tie, but Luis was a part of the Barcelona youth program. When he was playing for Barca B, that team also contained current club captain Carles Puyol, current third captain Xavi, and Gabri Garcia (now of Ajax) amongst others. They won promotion to the Spanish second division in 1998, relying amongst other things on goals scored by Luis, made by Xavi. So there's an emotional connection there, and I'm sad he's going to miss the match.

For those criticising Benitez, remember he's not in an easy position. I have a lot of sympathy for him, despite the fact that you have to place some of the blame for a defeat like the latest on the coach. After all, Arsenal had 6 shots on goal and scored 6 goals. That's not acceptable from the defence. That said, and I know this is not a popular opinion right now, those who say that he should have concentrated on the Carling Cup as their last realistic chance of silverware are mistaken. Remember how everyone said that Manchester United had merely won a consolation for other failures in the League and the Champions League when they won it last season?

Benitez has to worry about a good finish in the Premiership, preferably automatic qualification to the Champions League for next season (which is not going to be easy, obviously) and start thinking about the tie against Barca. Being out of cup competition might actually help in that respect, since their fixture list is now a lot lighter than say, Chelsea, Arsenal, Man Utd or Barca's.

(Speaking as a Barcelonista, I can't help but worry that these two defeats against Arsenal only makes Liverpool more dangerous in the Champions League: after all, if it's their last shot at silverware this season and they've got their backs against the wall, we all know how Benitez's team can rise to such occasions.)

He's spent a lot of money, some of it on players who haven't worked out, but doesn't that happen to everybody? The problem he has had with the Liverpool board seems to be that while he gets a reasonable sum to splash around, having a 40 million dollar transfer kitty can feel very different when you need 3 world-class players to complete your team or 8. Obviously the quality of players who do end up coming are going to suffer for that. Think about it - other than Xabi Alonso, how many other proper bidding wars have Liverpool won for a truly world-class player in the last 3 seasons when up against the other great clubs of Europe?

When not everybody in your squad is ready to give performances that don't shame the shirt they're wearing, (and taking injuries into account) some important players are going to end up playing too many games. It surprised me to read that some of the Liverpool team had played every game this season, given his famous preference for rotations, but it was inevitable. It's simply not physically possible, especially given the English season, for anyone to do that through the whole season. So Benitez is within his rights to rest key players.

Comparative statistic: no Barcelona player has played every game this season, nor in the previous one. Mind you, we did lose a cup game 4-2 (away to Zaragoza) when Rijkaard rested Puyol last season, which demonstrates the perils of rotating key players, but it's simply something that has to be done for practical and physical reasons.

It's hilarious to read about people criticising Benitez's attitude and aptitude towards the domestic cups. Have people already forgotten that he won the FA Cup last season? And then there are those who say that he had nothing to do with the miracle in Istanbul. Ever heard of the phrase 'game-changing substitutions'?


Regular readers (if there is any such thing) will know that I don't like Jose Mourinho very much. But I have to say, I feel bad for him right now. He's in a very difficult situation in regards to suspensions and injuries, and for me he's handled it as well as he possibly can. Every game he seems to have key players suspended (Makelele and Ashley Cole for the next game, for example) not to mention the impact losing John Terry has had.

At Barca, we know how you feel, Mou. People say that it's his fault the squad isn't deep enough, but a 20 man squad is hardly small. Barca have a 22 man squad, which I think is plenty - that's not a big difference. Mourinho's being hammered about the lack of quality back-up, but how many top class players are willing to sit on the bench waiting for a starter to get injured, regardless of the money? Is the irony not lost on those who persist on this point while going on about how criminal it is that the likes of Wright-Phillips are rotting on the Chelsea bench? So if he does dare to get some high quality substitutes, he's wasting talent?

Mourinho's aura as the perfect manager is shattered, there's no doubt about that. The number of duds in the current squad leads one to conclude that he's not the most astute shopper in the transfer market - either that, or he has no control over transfers, like a Spanish club coach. Neither are empowering images. But nevertheless, I don't think he's down and out just yet. Besides, he can hardly be blamed for the uselessness of the Chelsea youth system in producing players who are good enough to cover for the first team.

This is probably the only time you will ever see me defending Mourinho. If he ever turned up in La Liga I'd probably contemplate suicide. But really, people. Be reasonable. Piling on is unseemingly.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Argentine watch: transfers round-up

It's been a while since I posted about the Albicelestes (mostly because there hasn't been too much to write about). But with the opening of the January transfer window, Argentineans seem to have become hot property all over Europe. Below is my round-up of transfer activity involving Argentinean players, both rumoured and confirmed, organised by league of origin.


Espanyol's excellent young right-back/left-back/attacking midfielder Pablo Zabaleta, who captained the U20 World Championship winning Argentina side of 2005, has been linked to...wait for it...AC Milan! Of course, the Italian giants have been linked with every single able defender in the world under the age of 35 recently, so this is probably just a wild rumour, but contrary to my usual stance on young Argentineans moving to big clubs in Europe, I think this wouldn't be too bad if it were true. Zabaleta's always been a mature lad - he has handled his own contract negotiations since he was a teenager - and he's been playing in Europe for a while, so there's less of an adaption issue.

The owner of Milan's other team has long had his beady eyes on the young Argentinean plying his trade for Barcelona's other team. Moratti's monthly ponderings about how much he wants Lionel Messi to move to Inter have gotten just a bit creepy lately, as his declarations begin sounding ever more desperate - which is funny, since Inter aren't exactly a side in need of a saviour (or Messi-ah, even, ha ha) at the moment. Barca, for their part, haven't even bothered denying the rumours of an 100 million euro bid, or 40 million plus Adriano, or whatever it is this week. Bottom line: if the current management are stupid enough to even think about selling Messi, there will be probably be a riot. So there's that one dealt with.

On to the more troublesome of Barca's two Argentines, Javier Saviola, who seems to have a knack for picking the most horrible agents in the world - I was barely done being thankful that he fired the greedy bastard who screwed up his relationship with Barca and profited enormously from his transfer when his new one started talking like an asshole. Along with Mascherano, Tevez, and Fernando Cavenaghi, he's the finest example of what mismanagement can do to the promise of young talent. Of course, he's still a fine player, and his career could still pick up if he goes to a club that works for him.

To me, that club seems to be Villarreal. I might be a bit biased because the Yellow Submarines are my second team, but it seems like the perfect solution. Saviola himself has stated that he wants to stay in Spain, so that rules out the outlandish talk about Juventus, as well as Spartak Moscow's interest. The Russian club, who have seemingly not learnt from the Cavenaghi fiasco, are reportedly willing to pay 10 million euros for his services. Undoubtedly Barca would be pleased with such a sum, but I really don't see Saviola being attracted to the Russian league despite the good wages Spartak can pay. Besides, they want him in January, which I don't think is going to happen, given Saviola's own insistence on staying til the end of his contract and Barca's need for striking cover.

So that leaves the Spanish clubs. Espanyol seems a distant possibility to me - Barca will probably do all they can to stop it, for one, and I doubt they'd be able to pay a level of wages that would be satisfying to Saviola. Sevilla has been bought up time and time again, but they've already got quite a few strikers sitting on the bench and just bought a couple more. I don't think the demand is there.

Villarreal on the other hand apparently want Saviola on loan in January, which neither Barca nor Saviola will like, but they would seem to be a sensible destination for El Conejo in the summer. Of Villarreal's strikers, Jose Mari is inconsistent, Franco can't hit a cow's arse with a banjo, and in my opinion Nihat and Forlan don't seem compatible. They've got money in the shape of their club owner, and plenty of ambition too. Besides, it's a South American haven, has a good record for rehabilitating the careers of former Barca players, and they have a cordial relationship with Barca management.

Roberto Ayala has fallen out of favour yet again at Valencia, despite the coach Flores asking the board to renew his contract. Sporting director Carboni - who I have a healthy lack of respect for - hasn't made a habit of actually listening to the needs of his coach, though, and want to ship him out the door. Kind of the opposite of how he signed Tavano over Flores' head, when the coach hadn't asked for yet another striker, but even more annoying. Carboni makes Barca's sometimes-frustrating technical director seem like a model professional. But anyway, back to El Raton. Likely destinations are either Liverpool or Chelsea, although I'm hoping the Villarreal move mooted earlier this year is still on. They need a good center-back since young Argie Gonzalo Rodriguez is still injured, and their offence is less threatening than a kitten banishing a wilted daisy at the moment.

The Yellow Submarines are a club in a bit of trouble at the moment, though, with reports of unrest between the players, the coach and the club president. Occasional captain and Argentinean left-back Arruabarrena is going to be out of contract in the summer and he hasn't been offered a renewal, prompting the usual speculation. Espanyol have been mentioned, but I have no idea how reliable that is.

There's also been a lot of speculation about Argentines moving back to the Argentinean league, which makes me wonder where they're getting all that money from, since even clubs like Boca and River are supposed to have financial problem - hence the quick cashing-in on talented young players. Deportivo defender Aldo Duscher (infamous for breaking Beckham's metatarsal) and Zaragoza defender Leandro Ponzio have both been linked with moves to River Plate, while part-time comedy defender and occasional competent midfielder Lionel Scaloni, currently plying his trade at Racing Santander, has been linked with a move to Boca.


AC Milan have already signed one young Argentinean this season, although I'm guessing most people won't have heard of him. Full-back Leandro Grimi, 21, turned up in Milan and promptly announced that he had the potential to become the new Maldini. Which...okay. Right.

24-year-old Rodrigo Palacio of Boca Juniors, who has just become the highest paid player in Argentina has been persistently linked with Barcelona. He's something of an anomaly, Palacio. Normally the best young players in the Argentinean league can't wait to move to Europe (and make no mistake, Palacio was/is the best striker in the Argentinean league, his team's general malaise in the Opening season notwithstanding) but he seems pretty patient. Maybe that's for the best. Personally, I can't see where he's going to fit in at Barca, if we do sign him, unless he can play as a wing-forward. Even then, he'd be holding up the progress of promising youth team players like Gio Dos Santos and Bojan Krkic. For all intents and purposes, though, the deal appears to be off for now.

Another transfer that the Barca press are very keen on is that of young Argentinean international (okay, third choice, but still) 'keeper Oscar Ustari. This is actually one I'm quite excited about. Ustari is very, very good, not to mention incredibly composed and mature for his age. Barca number one Valdes' current backup Jorquera is solid enough, but he's older than Valdes, not as quick and I wouldn't be very comfortable having him for more than the occasional match. If this transfer does eventually come off, which looks likely (maybe in the summer) Valdes could have some actual competition on his hands, which would be no bad thing.

(If Ustari does come to Barca, all of Argentina's international 'keepers would ply their trade in La Liga. There's El Pato, who's doing so well at Getafe; Leo Franco, great as ever at Atletico, and German Lux was said to be moving to Mallorca, although I'm not sure what has happened to that transfer.)

Real Madrid's new management has continued the club's time-honoured tradition of drawn-out transfers, but at least this time Calderon actually delivered the three South American youngsters he promised. The two Argentineans, 19 year old striker Gonzalo Higuain of River Plate and 21 year old defensive midfielder Fernando Gago of Boca, took a bit more wrangling than the Brazilian defender Marcelo.

I regarded these two moves with varying levels of disapproval, it must be said, and not just because they were going to Real. At first glance, Gago seems to be better placed for playing time since Capello's formation demands two defensive midfielders - and the current squad only has two, Diarra who is out of favour and Emerson, who the fans don't like. Poor Gago did indeed get a start against Deportivo alongside Emerson, but it all went horribly wrong for him. It's rather strange that he was given a start - Real haven't won in the Riazor for 14 years, and it's not the ideal type of match to throw a young man who has never played in La Liga into. Left to his own devices - meaning without Calderon's declaration during the transfer saga that Gago would be playing against Depor - I'm not sure Capello would have made the same decision.

But at least it looks like Gago will be getting plenty of games, if he can manage to improve on this performance, which is surely not beyond a player with his natural talent, and fight off the pressure of ridiculous expectations which comes with both the 'new Redondo' hype and his price tag.

On the other hand, I'm not sure what's going to happen to Higuain. He's undoubtedly very talented, but I can't help feeling that he's moved too soon. There was still room for him to grow in Argentina. But what can you do when Real Madrid come knocking? The problem now is that even with Cassano out of favour, and Ronaldo lacking match sharpness (although he can still score goals with superb positioning and touch alone) I can't see him starting. Van Nistelrooy is far too important to Capello's Madrid, and if Ronaldo and Van Nistelrooy aren't compatible, Higuain and Van Nistelrooy would be even worse. Maybe he'll play some Copa del Rey matches, but what a waste that would be. On the other hand, Van Nistelrooy isn't getting any younger...

Real's city rivals Atletico were cruelly described by one paper as having had the door slammed repeatedly in their faces during attempts at strengthening the injury-hit squad. The latest target seems to be Estudiantes midfielder Jose Sosa, who has built up a bit of a reputation for himself in Argentina this season. So that seems like a pretty smart move, Atletico offering 5 million euros for his services. The only problem is that Estudiantes (no doubt learning from the way in which Boca and River did their business with Real) want double that. So we'll see how deep Atletico's pockets are, having (somehow) managed to shell out year after year for a host of expensive signings. They're kind of like the Newcastle of La Liga, in a way, although to be fair to Atletico they're actually doing quite well at the moment.

Relegation battlers Real Sociedad need all the help they can get right now, especially on the cheap. They've signed central defender Victor Lopez from Argentinian club Arsenal (who incidentally have a co-operation agreement with Barca) and are reportedly looking to sign striker Federico Higuain (Gonzalo's older brother) from River Plate. The potential stumbling block for the latter being that Federico is currently on loan at Argentinean club Nueva Chicago, who will be less than pleased to see him go.


I had high hopes for young Argentinean defender Gabriel Paletta when he joined Liverpool. His take-no-prisoners style and physical presence seemed ideally suited to the Premiership, and while I harboured the same misgivings I always have when young Argentineans join big clubs - will they end up not acclimatizing quickly enough, rotting on the bench or in the reserves - I thought maybe he could follow in the footsteps of Heinze, who had such a promising debut season at Manchester United and earned the affection of the fans with his wholehearted approach to the game (as opposed to, say, Rio Ferdinard).

Anyway, Paletta fell victim to the fate I feared for him. But it's not all bad news - the team rooted to the bottom of the league table in La Liga want him on loan.

No, really. It's not as bad as it sounds. The new 'Nastic coach is apparently a pal of Rafa Benitez and wants a couple of players on loan to boost the Catalan minnows in their relegation battle. It would be good for Paletta to actually get some experience under his belt instead of tolling away in Liverpool's reserves, even if turns out to be experience fighting relegation. The biggest problem I can see with this is that Paletta's tough-tackling style might get him sent off quite a lot in La Liga.

Speaking of Gabriel Heinze, he's not been having the best time at Manchester United this season, what with being kept on the bench by Patrice Evra and all. He has taken it pretty well, which I assume will last right up until he drops out of contention for Argentina. The one thing I admire the most about Heinze has always been his commitment to the Albicelestes. He won't sit around and wait to be dropped by Argentinean coach Basile for not playing regularly enough.

Luckily, a host of clubs have been watching Heinze's situation, ready to spirit him away to fill holes in their own defences. These reportedly include his former club PSG, Valencia and the obligatory Juve and Milan links (Juve being the more concrete, since the coach has expressed interest). There are also reports that Bayern could be his destination in a part-swap deal that will finally end the Owen Hargreaves saga, which would probably happen in the summer. Can't see where he'd play at Bayern, personally, but certainly some of the other names mentioned look very possible.

And then there's the turkey of the season so far, poor Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano. Tevez actually looks like he will be staying with the Hammers til the end of the season, and has looked good when he's been let out to play. Masche though has been rotting in West Ham reserves and has had enough. Curiously enough, I've seen Hammers fans complaining about how bad he has been, but I've also seen Hammers fans complain about how little playing time he's had to demonstrate his actual ability. Anyway, he's desperate to move, and everyone involved in his dodgy ownership deal will be glad to get some money out of this whole disaster.

As has been widely reported, Juvenus were apparently interested, but the suits there were put off by the complexity of his ownership. (Juve suits daunted by dodgy dealings? Imagine!) But good old Rafa Benitez is ready to come to the rescue with a loan deal and an option to buy attached, if only FIFA are willing to bend their own rules a bit.


Leandro Romagnoli - anybody remember him? Promising attacking midfielder, part of the 2001 World Youth Championship-winning U-20s along with Saviola and D'Alessandro? Anyway, he's owned by Mexican club Veracruz but has been on loan with Sporting Lisbon for a while. There's talk of him joining Getafe on loan now. Apparently some other clubs were keen on him, but he wanted to play in La Liga. Smart lad.

Fernando Cavenaghi looked to be joining Romagnoli as another entry in the formerly promising, now forgotten book. Fortunately, as I've mentioned before, he's now heading out of Spartak Moscow. In La Liga, Racing Santander are apparently interested, presumably as striking cover for their comical but successful strike pairing of Zigic and Munitis. With clubs in Italy, France and Portugal also reportedly interested, the Russian club have made it clear that how much a club can offer Spartak will be the key to this transfer.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Barcelona post-break status report

The first two full training sessions after the Christmas break have now taken place, although due to various reasons both were attended by only 13 players.

injury update

Last I heard, Samuel Eto'o is still on course to begin training with the team mid-January. He's currently going around training hard, doing good deeds and being missed by everyone associated with the club. Considering that increasingly desperate lamentations about the damage his absence has done to the team are now a staple part of interviews with Barca players, he must be feeling pretty good about himself.

Lionel Messi is presumably enjoying his extended holiday in Argentina, while giving interviews to concerned Argentinean sports dailies (many thanks to Soccer Mad In America for translating) and cursing his hated crutches. He'll be back in Barca on the 1st of February, and hopefully ready to return to training by then.

Zambrotta still needs at least a week to recover from his muscle problem, while Thuram will be out for at least another two weeks with his own muscle tear. Oleguer, who played the Atletico game while injured, is also still recovering from a knee problem but apparently he might be fit for the Getafe game, which would be good news for the injury-hit defence. Barca have great strength in depth in defence, but this many injuries really isn't helping.

Gio and Motta have returned from holiday with flu, and have not yet trained.

the two amigos

Ronaldinho and Deco did not endear themselves to me when they got yellow cards for dissent in the last game before the break (some say deliberately) so that they would both reach the five-yellows threshold and be suspended for the first game back. If they were going to get suspended, they could have at least waited until the Getafe game and missed the Copa del Rey clash with Alaves - which they would have never been playing in anyway - instead. Now they've seriously jeopardized Barca's chances of catching Sevilla when we play our game in hand against Betis.

The reason that some suspect Ronnie and Deco of deliberately drawing bookings is to extend their holidays in Brazil - so that when they reported back a day late to training, people could shrug and say 'they can't play anyway, who cares?' Which was admittedly my response when I read that both of them, along with Marquez and Saviola had returned to training a day late.

Saviola had a death in the family, and he might as well not turn up anyway considering his chances of playing, so no one's too bothered about that. Deco's reason/excuse was family issues, while Marquez and Ronaldinho both cited flight problems.

In any case, whether you believe that or not, Marquez and Saviola were back in full training the next day, while Deco and Ronaldinho worked by themselves in the Camp Nou. I'm not going to speculate on what that might indicate, but it certainly has piqued the interest of the Spanish press. Frankly, this is really not a good time for drama within the squad - not that there's ever a good time for that stuff.

Oh, and by the way, if the Italian press are so keen to see Ronaldinho, Messi and Eto'o play, they can move to Barcelona, because Barca's first choice frontline certainly aren't moving the other way anytime soon.

Getafe v Barca preview

Predicted Barca line-up:

----------- Valdes

Depending on fitness, Oleguer might start ahead of Belletti or Marquez. The rest of the line-up seems fairly straight-forward, which is my way of saying that we haven't got many options. Saviola may make an appearance as a substitute - well, I'm hoping he will. If he doesn't play now, he's never going to play. It's not such a weak line-up, but this will be the first time Barca have been missing Messi, Eto'o, Ronaldinho and Deco at the same time since all four started playing for the team. That's quite a loss of fire-power, leadership and skill.

Getafe, on the other hand, have had some problems scoring goals, but they're very, very tight at the back and dangerous on the counter, not to mention set-pieces. The stadium is a difficult one to play in. It doesn't look very good, does it? Barca could drop points, as is their usual habit in the game that comes straight after the winter break. Problem is, we can't afford to. Real Madrid aren't that far behind, and Sevilla will take any chance to pull ahead.

This marks the start of a very difficult month for Barca, full of tricky games that will test the squad's resolve and fitness, not to mention its strength in depth. Come on, boys.