Liga Preview: FC Barcelona – Real Zaragoza, Saturday 2pm ET, GolTV(HD)
I have a confession to make. It’s something I’m alternately proud of and ashamed by. It’s something that no one from los Estados Unidos Mexicanos will ever respect, but it’s something the people from the horrifically named Uncle Sam’s Army can get behind. At least I think so. My confession is this: I love Javier Aguirre.
He is the single greatest thing the Mexican Football Federation ever did for me. His appointment to the el Tri’s bench made my life so much better. I got to watch Jonathan dos Santos relegated to watching the tournament from home and Bofo Bautista taking his place, but failing to score a goal. I watched Guille Franco—Guille Franco!—play for his national team despite not having a contract with a club while Chicharito, hot off his phenomenal start with Manchester United—not some Podunk team, I don’t think—was put on the bench until the 4th game.
Sure, he eliminated South Africa, which was terrible, but we can all hate on Luis Suarez for that if we choose. He absolutely ensured that a solid Mexican team was tactically moronic throughout the cup and was brutally eliminated by an Argentine team that was then shellacked by Germany 4-0 thanks to similar tactical insanity. Further, he was sent off in the 1986 quarterfinal between Mexico and West Germany and, according to my Mexican sources, was the cause of their loss in penalties. That’s debatable given that he was sent off in the 100th minute of a 0-0 game, but I accept it anyway and love him all the more for it.
At South Africa 2010, Aguirre was probably partly the victim of the Mexican footballing setup (the overwhelming power of club owners and television companies that double as owners, for example), but you need look no further than his Round of 16 lineup to understand what was wrong with his approach. His tactics have served him similarly (or perhaps even more) poorly at the Camp Nou. On October 4, 2008, in Guardiola’s 6th league game in charge of the team, Atlético Madrid rolled into town and were smashed 6-1, with Barça going up 3-0 inside 9 minutes and 5-1 after just 28 minutes. Even Gudjohnsen got on the scoresheet.
By the time Atleti hosted FCB in the spring, Aguirre was gone and Abel Resino got a 4-3 victory from Kun Aguero at the Vicente Calderon. But Aguirre returned in 2011 and lost 1-0 in a match with Keita as the only goalscorer. That seems a much tighter game, but Barça had 12 shots on goal to Zaragoza’s 1. And now Zaragoza sit in 16th, just 1 point above relegation and 2 points above last placed Real Sociedad. That doesn’t bode well for him, nor does the team’s lack of defense. They’ve allowed more goals (22) than all but Osasuna, who has been on the receiving end of 8-0 and 7-1 losses. They’re slightly better away, coming in just 12 goals allowed on the road, making them 5th from the bottom behind even Atleti.
They’ve got no wins on the road, having drawn at Villarreal and Rayo and lost to Atleti, Osasuna, and Betis. They lost to Real Madrid 0-6 on opening day in a match I didn’t watch and just 0-1 to Valencia in late October in what I remember as being a fairly crappy game. Reviewing the stats, it was certainly chippy (36 fouls and 7 yellow cards). And that’s somewhat out of character for Zaragoza, given that they’re T-10th in the Fair Play league; Valencia, on the other hand, is T-17th with 35 yellow cards and 3 reds in 11 matches. Espanyol and their 40 and 4 laugh at that while sitting 7th. Barça remains 2nd in that table too, this time behind Málaga, who have just 13 yellows. One of the reasons Barça has so few disciplinary points (demerits, I suppose) is that it’s one of just 2 teams with no reds. The other is, and you’d probably never guess this without having first checked, Atleti. Whoa.
I’ve always thought of Aguirre as one of the managers who instills a butcher’s attitude in his squads: if they get by you, hack them to pieces and sell their carcasses to the highest bidder. But I don’t suppose that’s really true, at least not this year. It’s just that he’s got a serious fight on his hands to keep his team out of the relegation quagmire and he’ll probably attempt to play as much like Sevilla did as possible.
Zaragoza is coming off a 2-2 come-from-behind draw against Sporting Gijon in which Helder Postiga saved their blushes with a 90th minute goal. Postiga is having a good couple of weeks, having bagged 2 against Bosnia for Portugal this past Tuesday, so he’s got to be considered Zaragoza’s danger man. He’s only got 4 goals this league season, but that does make him the team’s top scorer.
Given that I basically crapped on Aguirre’s time with Mexico at the beginning of this post, it might be strange for me to point out that he’s got both Pablo Barrera and Efrain Juarez on his squad. Has he learned how to use Barrera? He’s scored 1 goal, but I don’t really count him as a goal scorer so much as a quick and decisive winger. Then again, most of what I know about Barrera is that he played for UNAM and would sometimes score against me in FIFA when I played as Puebla because 1) Puebla is pretty awful despite their sweet ass franja (artfully pictured here with, uh, right, what?) and 2) I am pretty awful at FIFA. My Mexican friend loves him to death because of the UNAM thing and always starts him even if he’s not as good as the other players available.
But he is fast and his speed on the wing, coming off an international break, might a bit of a problem if there are any fatigue issues in the back line. Postiga’s time with Portugal could help Barça of course for the same reasons, but Messi and Mascherano’s travels to Argentina and Colombia must certainly have worn them down more. Factor in Sánchez’s trip to Uruguay and Chile and the various U-21 kids, Spain’s England and Costa Rica friendlies, and the shorter trips for the other internationals and we have ourselves quite the tired squad.
Guardiola asked the reporters in a press conference this morning if they’d rather not see Messi play. That tells you basically all you need to know about whether the little Argentine will play. Yeah, he can rest when there are no games. Which is approximately never. But he’s got 14 goals in 11 matches, so it’s hard to say he’s not playing well and it’s also hard to argue, given Spain’s false 9 problems, that he isn’t integral to FCB’s system, as you’d suspect from someone a lot of people have referred to as the best player on earth.
I like watching Messi play, of course, but I do understand the question of when he’ll be rested. He plays 90 minutes no matter what and he does it at max exertion. My conclusion about this is logical and completely true: he is not human. Lionel Messi is an alien being brought to us by the Tralfamadorians to see if they could mess with our most prized possession. Their “experiment” went off the rails a little while ago when we fell for the little tyke and made him our king. But I suppose the Tralfamadorians are dutifully recording what’s going on and logging it in their scientific notebooks.
Everyone is back for Barça, though I don’t expect Pedro to get many minutes so fresh off an injury. We’ve got enough attacking firepower on the bench that we shouldn’t need him. But it will extremely tough given the aforementioned travel and also the upcoming midweek Champions League mega fixture in Milan. Fortunately it’s on a Wednesday, so the team should have time to readjust to the whole “we better run or Guardiola is going to [censored for small children in the audience]” thing.
Lineup prediction: Valdes, Alves, Pique, Mascherano, Abidal, Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta, Cesc, Villa, Messi.
I think this one is going to tougher than one might expect from 2 vs 16 or Guardiola vs Aguirre o Barça vs Zaragoza. Official prediction: 2-1, goals by Messi and Villa. Whatever keeps me in love with Aguirre…
And yeah, before someone mentions it in the comments, I realize that both Piqué and Villa played for Zaragoza back in the day. And that Villa won a Copa del Rey with them. Yippee.