Saturday, August 30, 2008

my two cents on the CL group stages

Group A: Chelsea, Roma, Bordeaux, CFR Cluj

I lol at everybody writing off Bordeaux. Fear Laurent Blanc, people. Fear him. This isn't as straight-forward as it looks.

Group B: Inter, Werder, Panathinaikos, Anorthosis

This I think is as straight-forward as it looks. Watch out for the Ten Cate v Mourinho verbal showdown, though - does anybody remember the former Barca assistant coach [er, the one who was assistant to Rijkaard, as opposed to Sir Bobby and Van Gaal] 'allegedly' applying his boot to the backside of either Mourinho or a member of Chelsea's backroom staff [depending on who you listen to] at the end of Chelsea v Barca in 2005?

Group C: Barca, Sporting, Basel, Shakhtar

Again, not as easy as it looks. Shakhtar have been improving steadily and are perhaps second-favourites to go through, and Sporting have a very good, very young squad. It is the height of arrogance to assume that Barca are going to walk it, as most of the Spanish press have done.

Group D: Liverpool, PSV, Marseille, Atletico

Alright, what's with everybody writing off the French teams? And what's all this talk about Atletico being a different team without Torres? Marseille are good. Atletico are a different team without Torres - a better one. I don't mean to suggest that he's not a fine player, just that his departure meant Atletico could stop being a one-man team and now they have a fine attack filled with good players. This group isn't going to be easy for Liverpool, or anybody else.

Group E: Manchester United, Villarreal, Celtic, Aalborg

The last time ManU ended up in a group with Villarreal, the Yellow Submarine ended up top and United bottom. [Of course, that group also included Lille and Benfica.] That's not going to happen again, and I would assume both will qualify, but Celtic may have something to say about that too.

Group F: Lyon, Bayern, Steaua, Fiorentina

This is the group of death for me. Lyon may have slipped back in the CL in recent years, but they've signed well and should be a force again, and I can't see Klinsi's Bayern not finally getting it together sometime. Steaua got some decent results in the last couple of seasons and should not be written off, but the real threat here is the Viola, who are capable of beating anybody in this group on their day.

Group G: Arsenal, Porto, Fenerbahce, Dynamo Kyiv

Another tough one to call. Arsenal should come through in the end, but Porto are always a threat, and Fenerbahce are very difficult to beat. Don't write off Dynamo either: they beat Spartak 8-2 on aggregate to qualify. Nobody's here to make up the numbers.

Group H: Real, Juventus, Zenit, BATE

Forget their league form, Zenit are for real [no pun intended], and they will give the bigger names a fright or two. The Real-Juve clashs are hard to call, with a lot depending on whether Real sign someone/keep Robinho/have their Dutch players fit, because their squad is actually pretty small right now, and I don't buy the talk of Juve being a diminished force for a second.

[Still busy as hell, but felt like getting my viewpoint across. If I don't die in the next two weeks (not literally, I hasten to add), look for a season preview.]

Monday, May 26, 2008

Barca news round-up: transfers and all that

Negotiations with Manchester United over (Barca youth academy grad) Gerard Pique are said to be almost complete. The player has passed a medical in Barcelona and if all goes well the signing should be announced soon. [I am very pleased by this signing. Decent price, good player coming home, everybody's happy. Think of it this way: we're paying ManU for the experience he's gotten during these years away; experience he probably wouldn't have had if he had stayed.]

Seydou Keita of Sevilla has also passed his medical and completed personal negotiations with the club. Because Barca are going to pay his 14 million euro buy-out clause, Sevilla should not be a problem, since they gave him permission to go and have the medical. [Sevilla drive a hard bargain, as always. Great player, pleased to have him, especially given our needs in midfield.]

Thierry Henry reveals that he has spoken to Pep Guardiola and been told that he is wanted for next season. [Needless to say, I am very pleased by this.]

There are murmurs in the press that the board are unhappy with Messi's decision to go to the Olympics, which has been considered a 'lack of commitment'. [I'm sorry, but the board can go screw themselves. To accuse Messi of a lack of commitment to the cause would be laughable at best. Besides, he's under 23 years old, so they have no legal leg to stand on. So what are they going to do, sell him?

There's a good editorial in El Mundo Deportivo (and I don't use those words too often) on the subject.

Additionally, I would argue that showing a lack of commitment to one's national team would actually be a bad sign, of a player lacking in motivation and desire for glory - see Ronaldinho and Copa America.

Having said that, I do hope he gets in some pre-season time with Barca, since he'll have to get used to playing with quite a few newcomers.]

Edmilson gives a farewell press conference, bowing out gracefully in his usual frank style with a few thought-provoking comments and even a few tears. He's off to Villarreal. I wish him luck with his future endeavours. The official site has a look back at Edmilson's four seasons at the club.

Ronaldinho, on the other hand, has gone on vacation. So we might not even get a farewell press conference from him, let alone a farewell game, which would be a massive pity given his place in the history of the club.

[Next up, end of season awards, and a requiem for R-E-M.]

Saturday, May 24, 2008

we'll always have Paris

Frank Rijkaard was the perfect manager for FC Barcelona. Joan Laporta said so. Johan Cruyff said so. His players thought so, all the way to the bitter end.

"Frank speaks so quietly you have to strain to hear him," says Ronaldinho, "and when you do, you realise he's always right."

It's not easy to manage Barca. The presidents are all inevitably egomaniacs, the shadow of former greats hang over every single decision one might make, the players are brilliant but often troubled.

Then there are the demands of the greater environment. Barca is a neurotic institution. We are proud of our history, but also keenly aware that it places demands on our behaviour, not only in the context of the club as an institution, but also from what Johan Cruyff calls the 'entorno' surrounding the club. The public will not accept anything less.

Witness the way Louis van Gaal was all but chased out of town - twice - not all that long ago, even though under him Barca won 2 league titles, a Copa del Rey, had some brilliant European nights, came close to a Champions League final, and some of our most successful canteranos got their start in the first team under his guidance.

But van Gaal was too abrasive; he flooded the team with Dutch players, not all of whom were successful; the football was sometimes brilliant but increasingly frustrating. van Gaal didn't like the press and never bothered to hide it. The press hated him in return.

Frank Rijkaard's last post-match press conference ended with a standing ovation from the journalists present.

It's not easy to manage Barca. Rijkaard did a sublime job at times, and made some dubious decisions when his limitations were exposed. But no one can fault the spirit in which he went about it. He has been honourable, gracious, cool under pressure, a friend to the players, even when they let him down, loyal to the board, even when they don't deserve his protection, and always blaming himself first even when it's not his fault.

At first, everyone doubted him - the inexperienced third choice (Hiddink and Ronald fricking Koeman were the first two). Then, as the team continued to crash, they slated him. He packed the midfield against Real, and they called him a coward.

Then the club finally bought him the holding midfielder he'd asked for, and the team clicked.

A lesser manager, a lesser person would not have gotten through those disastrous four months intact. The pressure was immense, all the more so given the downward spiral of the team and the club in the previous four seasons.

But Rijkaard faced the hostility, the doubts and the instability with astonishing serenity, and good grace, always ready to step up and take responsibility for any problems in order to shield his players and the board.

The second half of that season was brilliant. Yet at the end Rijkaard decided on a vigorous clean-out of some of the most influential figures in the dressing room. The club bought in a raft of ambitious players who were hungry for success.

They combined with the left-over stalwarts as well as young players from the youth system to form an excellent team, who played some of the best football in Europe for two seasons, won back to back league titles and the Champions League. Through all this success Rijkaard preferred to remain out of the limelight, always gracious and understated in victory. He never got carried away when things were good, and he always gave all the credit to his players.

Because this is Barca, even those two glorious seasons included bad patches. Even then, not winning twice in a row led to cries of 'crisis'. In those times Rijkaard always sought to shield his players from criticism. While far too many coaches these days rush to blame anything and everything else - opponents, referees, club officials, the weather, the alignment of the stars - for any problems, he has always faced bad results with a measure of objectivity. The media were constantly ravenous. He simply refused to respond to the barbs and sniping.

Rijkaard had his limitations, and they became painfully obvious as the last two seasons worn on. He was tactically quite inflexible, and his mature approach to his players unfortunately resulted in those who did not deserve to be treated like adults abusing their privileges.

In the beginning, though, that particular weakness was a strength. Barcelona players often say that Rijkaard understands them. That he always knows what to say, and that he's a friend to them. He took on all the pressure and allowed them room to express themselves. The younger players were nurtured and given time to grow.

These past five years, Rijkaard has faced the glory and the pain with the same unwavering composure, and can leave with his head held high. In his own words:

"For me, I don't see the need to defend myself, I'm just doing the things I do and I'm very conscious of the fact that I'm giving everything I've got."

"Good or bad. Take it or leave it."

Damn right. Thank you, Frankie.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

should they stay or should they go?

All signs point to major changes in the Barcelona squad next season. My (massively long, as it turns out) two cents on who should be staying and who needs to be ushered out the door below.

Keep in mind, though, that I haven't taken any economic considerations (e.g. selling X will get us some cash to spend on Y) into account.


Victor Valdes - had some blunders, but overall a decent season. The problems in defence cannot be entirely attributed to him. Keep.

Albert Jorquera - unfortunate to have missed so much of the season through an ACL injury. To be honest, though, he only ever plays cup matches and has never given Valdes a run for his money. Has signed a recent extension though, so barring any surprises he'll be staying.

Jose Manuel Pinto - Haven't played too many games, but has looked decent when he has been given opportunities, and his impressive record in the Primera before he came to Barca has convinced me that he deserves a chance. But with Jorquera having signed an extension not too long ago, I'm fairly sure he will get sent back to Celta.

Gabi Milito - his ACL injury was a massive blow. Started the season brightly and quickly cemented a leadership role in the team. His form dipped towards the end of the season, but in my opinion he was a solid purchase. Keep. (Get well soon, Gabi!)

Rafael Marquez - Rafa is that endangered species, the cultured centerback who can put in the tackles and pick out a pass. When he's on, he's brilliant. But he's been injured far too much in the last two seasons, and - more importantly - his commitment to the cause has been lacking. (Staying in Madrid to party after the Clasico defeat? Last nail in the coffin.) Sell, much as it pains me, and much as we'll struggle to replace him.

Carles Puyol - Poor old Captain Caveman. As Rijkaard once said, he's often the only man shouting in the desert in this Barca side in recent years. His commitment is unquestionable, and this team cannot do without him. Keep - or there will be rioting in the streets.

Gianluca Zambrotta - has never really hit the heights that he once reached for Juventus and Italy. It's a shame, really, because he is clearly a classy defender who can also go forward intelligently. I would love for him to stay, but all signs point toward him leaving to go back to Italy.

Sylvinho - couldn't get into the team at the start of the season when Abidal was on form, but when he did play he did a decent job. A positive influence on the younger players off the pitch as well, so I'm pleased to hear that he is negotiating a contract extension.

Lilian Thuram - still undeniably classy, but his legs have clearly gone. I would like him to stay if only because of the positive influence he has within the dressing room, much like Henrik Larsson did, but it doesn't seem possible. Will most likely be allowed to walk away.

Eric Abidal - started the season so well and ended it so badly. I'm not quite sure what happened, to be honest. He's clearly a great athlete and a wonderful player when on form, but his head went walkabout during the second half of the season. Keep - let's just hope he can get himself back on track.

Oleguer Presas - has had a horrible season, much of it disrupted by various injuries. Most fans seem to be in favour of booting him out the door, but I think he's a handy guy to have around, even if he gives me hives when he plays at right-back. Remember, he played quite a lot at center-back a couple of seasons back and that worked out okay. No idea what's going to happen to him. It's not like we'd get decent money if we sold him, and I doubt he's on much in terms of wages, so we might as well keep him around. (I confess, part of me is saying this because I want to see the book group him and Guardiola would inevitably end up forming.)


Xavi Hernandez - this season was vice-captain Xavi's tenth at Barca. He is now the player who has appeared the most times for Barca in European competition, and inching up the all-time appearances list as well, having overtaken Pep Guardiola. One more personal record - he has scored 9 goals this season, many of them crucial. Aside from that, his passing was as dependable as ever, although he did not always manage to escape the malaise when the team were slumping. Keep, of course.

Eidur Gudjohnsen - hasn't played as much as he would have liked, and when he has played his performances have been uneven. Has shown his potential as a midfielder in some games, but in others he still looks to be on a different wave length to his team mates. Surely unhappy with being on the bench so often, a good offer would probably persuade him to leave. I'll miss him, but - sell.

Andres Iniesta - one of the most underrated players in all of Europe. I said in my review of last season that he'd come of age then. Well, if last season was his coming of age, then this season has seen him add to his already extensive set of skills and step up as one of the quiet leaders of the team while others floundered. (A minor complaint, but I do wish he'd cut out the blatant diving. It's unbecoming of a player as good as he is.) He's only 24, but has already racked up an astonishing 200 appearances for the club. Keep - he's going to be a club legend.

Edmilson - Poor old Edmilson. I can clearly remember him being a decent holding midfielder who specialised in man-marking creative players out of the game, not too long ago. A series of injuries have meant that he only played a few games this season, and that when he has played he has generally been awful. That combined with a certain ill-timed outburst this season means that he is sure to be off-loaded. Sell.

Deco - ah, Deco. He has always inspired adoration and frustration from me in equal measure. Injury problems have dogged him this season, but when he has been fully fit he has generally played well, and Barca have no other players who can do what he can. But at the same time his off-field problems have been well-documented. The booking that he picked up in the game against Valencia (most likely deliberate), forcing him to miss the Clasico was probably the last nail in his coffin. I would like for him to stay, if only because I can't see how we're going to replace him, but he's clearly going to leave. It's a shame that it has to be on such a bad note, after all he's done for Barca during the good times.

Toure Yaya - a brilliant first season where he won over the fans with his tremendous power, skill, work rate, and above all his commitment to the cause. Not going anywhere unless the Powers That Be have a sudden attack of insanity.


Santiago Ezquerro - also known as '...who?' Poor Santi. His move to Barca pretty much halted his career in its tracks, although he did get some nice silverware, a decent salary and a lot of free time in return. It's probably best for all parties involved that Santi finds a club where he's not stuck behind a 17-year-old in the pecking order. Sell.

Giovani Dos Santos
- a tricky one, this. He's clearly extremely talented, and capable of being a team player. On the other hand, he's a habitual diver (and terrible at it, too, which makes it even more embarrassing), can be frustratingly individualistic, and is reportedly well on the way to diva-dom even before he's gotten good enough or famous enough to earn the attitude. His flirtations with other clubs is also unbecoming for a young player, especially one who comes from the cantera. I'd like to give him another season to impress, but if he's set on the cash being offered elsewhere, then that's just too bad.

Bojan Krkic - phenomenal. Least we all forget, he's just 17 years old. Ten goals and countless fearless performances have made him an idol of the fans, and rightly so. I am wary of too much pressure being put on his shoulders too soon, though. It is entirely unreasonable to expect someone so young and inexperienced to carry the front-line, and we all need to remember that before we criticize him. The only problem I can see is that he's a bit too lightweight right now so defenders can just bully him off the ball. Hopefully there's still a growth spurt in him somewhere - the bulking up can be done easily enough. Do I even need to say it? - Keep.

Leo Messi - worryingly, another injury-ravaged season for poor Leo. He was absolutely amazing from about September to December, when he got injured. We only got to see his brilliance in patches after that. Looked increasingly depressed as the end of the season approached even as he battled on determinedly while many around him faltered or simply gave up - and who can blame him, especially since he's so close to Ronaldinho, Deco and Frank Rijkaard, all of whom are leaving? Keep - unless the board likes the idea of being chased out of the city by an angry mob.

Samuel Eto'o - yet another unfortunately injury-ravaged season for Sammy. That, added to the after-effects of the African Cup of Nations, meant that he really lost form towards the end of the season, but even so his strike rate - 16 goals in 16 league games - is pretty amazing. The way he missed the Clasico, though, really made me angry (even though he's one of my favourite players) and lowered his standing amongst the fans considerably. On the other hand, he's still only 27, and I have faith that he can recover his form. Remember, he scored 71 goals in 100 appearances with us. While his sale would raise some money, how much would it take to buy a striker who could boast the same efficiency? Keep - at least for one more season.

Thierry Henry - while Henry has gotten a lot of abuse for his perceived inadequacies this season, I have actually grown from a sort of half-mocking fondness to quite liking him. His professionalism and refusal to get involved in dressing room infighting in particular has been commendable. (Also, this is not often said, but he sure works far harder in defence than Ronaldinho did.) Sure, some of his comments have been perceived as whining, but think about it - he's new to the league, he's unexpectedly (due to the injury to Eto'o) had to play far more games than his dodgy back is supposed to be able to handle, and he's had to adapt to Barca's way of playing. 19 goals in 39 appearances isn't actually that bad a return, in the end, and he showed some signs of finally starting to adapt towards the end of the season. I think he deserves another chance.

Ronaldinho - I've changed my mind about Ronnie so many times this season. Every time I think 'that's it, that's enough' he comes back and produces something on the pitch to make me think otherwise. I'm sure a lot of Barca fans feel the same way, if the home crowd at the Camp Nou are any indication. But finally, I think that really is enough. No one can deny what he's done for the club, and no one can deny that he's still potentially one of the greatest players ever, but I think the time for an intervention at Barca has passed. If he is to rescue his career, it will have to be somewhere else. It's sad that yet another Brazilian superstar has to exit by the back door (Romario, Ronaldo, Rivaldo...), but I simply can't see any other way. I'll write a longer tribute to his time at the club when the transfer goes through, but it certainly feels like I've already been saying goodbye to Ronnie for months, if not years.

By the way, most of the spine of the 04-06 side are up for contract renewals next season. Just something to think about.

And it might be a good idea to upgrade Messi's contract, too. He's not going around asking for a contract that matches his present status because he is Cule through and through and because he's not a jerk, but given that his present contract was signed before he became a regular starter, it probably needs an update.

Speaking of which, the board better have a professional contract drafted and ready to be signed by Bojan as soon as he turns 18. No one is snatching him away.

Even by the most conservative estimates (and taking into account possible new promotions from the B team) we are going to need at least 6 or 7 new players. This is going to be an interesting transfer window, that's for sure.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

the future is bright

As things have gone from bad to worse recently, Barcelona fans have increasingly focused our hopes on young players coming out of the club's much praised youth system. In fact, most of the best and most consistent performers in the past two seasons have been new cantera graduates - Messi, Iniesta and Bojan in addition to those who have been stalwarts for a while like Xavi and Puyol.

Unfortunately, Barcelona's reserve side, Barca B (who will be changing their name back to Barca Athletic as of next season) were relegated from the Third Division (or Second B, as they call it in Spain) at the end of last season. They were directionless, unmotivated, and relying on a few star names (mainly Giovani Dos Santos and Bojan Krkic) to carry them through - is this starting to sound familiar to anyone?

Fortunately, the board bought back playing legend Pep Guardiola to coach the B team in June of last year. Since then, he's done a great job restoring discipline, morale and a sense of identity to a squad with no ideas, no direction who had been stripped of their brightest stars.

They've now won their group of the league and go into the promotion play-offs in a very favourable position for the semis as they'll be facing a team who finished fourth in their group and they'll have the second leg at home.

Congratulations to them.

And well done to Pep for this achievement (make no mistake, getting Barca B back in shape was a mission, no matter which division they were playing in). El Pais has a brilliant article on his coaching methods, hinting at what his approach to the first team will be like next season. It's well worth reading even through the muddle of Google Translate.

the kids are alright (and scarily talented)

There were 7 Barca players in the Spain squad that just won the European U17 title, beating France 4-0 in the final. (It would have been 8 or 9, but a couple of them got injured before the tournament - it seems the injury curse even affects the youth teams.)

They were: Alejandro 'Alex' Sánchez (GK), Carles Planas, Martín Montoya (DF), Oriol Romeu, Adriá Carmona, Thiago Alcántara (MF), Rubén Rochina (FW)

is a very promising fullback, which is nice as we haven't produced one in a while. Ruben the striker's not bad either - although he is, in the way that young players tend to be, a bit of a lone ranger. The big star amongst that group though is Thiago, who is the son of former Brazilian international Mazinho. He's a creative midfielder who has been compared in style to Deco.

(Ruben also deserves a special mention for scoring a brace for the Juvenil A team to win their Clasico against Real right after coming back from the tournament.)

And I haven't even mentioned Gai Assulin, the Israeli who has already made his debut with the national team at the age of 16, and who has made quite a splash in the B side this past season already.

At a time when the first team's reliance on the youth system is greater than ever, despite the increasing spending on big names, it's reassuring that we've got so much to look forward to.

(I am slowly and painfully writing my tribute to Frank Rijkaard, as well as an ode to the tridente (R-E-M) which was the most feared forward line in Europe for approximately one glorious year.)

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Rijkaard and Guardiola: links round-up

I was going to write a long post about recent events at Barca, but then I read Phil Ball's latest column and agreed with pretty much everything he said, so I'm just going to link to it. I will be writing a tribute to 'Frankie' later - how could I not? - but for now, here's a collection of some of the interesting fall-out and commentary surrounding the change of staff.

[I have been incredibly busy with uni this year, hence the lack of updates. My apologies. But I just couldn't ignore this.]