CL Preview: Barça – Rubin Kazan, Tuesday 2:45pmEST, Fox Sports en Español
There’s a man standing in the beautiful wilds of an untamed jungle. He is forty feet in the air, balanced easily on a branch, surveying the scene. His blond locks shimmer and dance in the spotted light seeping through the canopy top. Both camouflaged and elegantly obvious, the man is one with his surroundings: poisonous and beautiful, stealthy and skilled. He has been here for a thousand years, you would imagine, motionless and watchful. There’s movement nearby and his eyes swing to the side, his head never moving, his muscles tensing ever so slightly.
There are words to describe the flurry of movement, the screech of pain, and the scene of horror, but those words are lost in the fear that ripples through you as watch a master hunter at work. He has taken another scalp for his bountiful collection. There is murder in his eyes as he turns his gaze upon his next victim. Be wary, traveler, for there is a killer on the loose and he is approaching another milestone in a career of milestones:
Carles Puyol i Saforcada will equal the great Carles Rexach for all-time appearances in blaugrana when he faces Rubin Kazan tomorrow. On Sunday against Zaragoza, he will step into sole ownership of third place in the all time standings with 453. It’s been 10 years since his humble beginnings and hopefully it will be many more decades before his involvement with the club is complete.
Our jungle scene is not fully finished, however: The man stands above his pray and raises his head to the heavens, screaming his triumph and his warning to all the creatures who dwell in his vicinity. Out of the bushes steps a smaller man, eyes darkly glowing. He laughs. I’ve killed two while you were braying, he seems to say. The man turns, sinewy muscles flexing. Damn you, Xavi, and your 486 appearances.
Onward and only upward, I’m sure:
Rubin Kazan are the reigning Russian League champions and with 25 games played (and 5 more to go), they are in first again with a one point lead over Spartak Moscow. Their full name is Футбольный клуб Рубин Казань (Municipal Institution Football Club Rubin Kazan) and they hail from Kazan, a city of 1.1million people and the administrative center of the Republic of Tatarstan. What that tells you, I’m not entirely sure, but their city seems, from a cursory glance around the Internet, both quaint and modern in equal measure. It is the home of Tatar culture and a city that, like many others as old as it is, lies at the confluence of two rivers, the Kazanka and the mighty Volga, of literary fame.
The Volga, that wide and insane bounty of water that has been in novels and histories ever since people learned to write about rivers. Beautiful and mysterious in equal measure to a Westerner like me, it slices through the heart of Russia, running from the Valdai Hills north of Moscow to the Caspian Sea almost 2,300 miles away; it turns south at Kazan and runs towards Volgograd (Stalingrad) then to the sea. It brought prosperity and war with it, leaving Kazan both rich because of its mineral wealth and desired for that very reason.
I’m no Hey Jenny Slater (can be mildly NSFW), but I might as well give a shout out to Tatarstan’s associated hottie: Alsou Abramova (SFW), a stunningly gorgeous singer from the Tatarstan region whose music I’ve never heard but I’m sure it’s just as curly wonderful hair and smoldering eyes as she is. Are those musical descriptors? I think they are. Whatever, I’m sure all Tatar women are just as good looking so I’m merely choosing one out of a random hat of millions.
Rubin appeared roughly from nowhere into the Russian Premier League in 2003, when they made their first leap from the second division up to the lofty heights of 3rd place in the RPL. They eclipsed that mark by winning the trophy last year and remaining on track to retain their title this year, but this is still their maiden voyage in the Champions League. So far they’ve fared rather well, at least relative to my own expectations, which saw them crashing and burning. While they lost to Dynamo Kiev in the Ukraine 3-1, they drew with Inter Milan 1-1 in Russia and could very well have won that match.
I will not take Rubin lightly merely because I have never seen them play. They have 51 goals scored and only 19 goals allowed in 25 matches in the RPL, which suggests a level of organization and quality that isn’t often present in CL debutantes. I won’t, however, make the mistake of categorizing them as “Eastern Juggernauts” capable of pulling off Ivan Drago style brutality or suggesting that they’re somehow the footballing equivalent of Soviet shock troops arriving en masse to repel the Nazi hordes at Stalingrad. I’m not often given to such stereotypical nonsense (I’m given to much zanier nonsense; see the first few paragraphs of this very post for an example), so we’ll forgo it and hope that we’re not overlooking serious quality in an attempt to be culturally fair.
Valery Karpin has been quoted as saying that Rubin employ catenaccio at every moment, meaning they’re going to come at us the same way that any of the minnows do: close up shop and hack. That means vastly increased possession stats for us, but also the fear of counter-attacks. Karpin suggests that we keep an eye on 28-year old Argentine forward Alejandro Domínguez, something I think Inter Milan will nod their collective head at since he was the one who scored against them on match day 2. Their coach is Kurban Berdyev, who appears to be a workaholic, so I’m sure he’s seen every match we’ve ever played and the ones from our last season three times each, meaning he’s seen our weaknesses, but also our strengths. He’ll have to hope that Domínguez is capable of controlling some portion of the midfield and that whoever he puts out to man-mark Xavi (I’m assuming he’ll do this) is capable of shadowing such a movement-oriented player for 90 minutes. If he doesn’t take the bait and man-mark Xavi (which he shouldn’t do) we’ll be facing a Chelsea-esque bus that breaks out.
Jonathan Wilson suggests that we look out for MacBeth Sibaya, Rubin’s South African hardman because he’s a lynchpin in the middle and is capable of releasing both Domínguez and their captain Sergei Semak, who you might remember from Russia’s Euro 2008 campaign. Sebaya, though, hasn’t appeared for Rubin recently and might be injured, which could be a world of hurt for Rubin if they can’t control the midfield. ESPN Soccernet comes at us with a preview of the match, in which they claim that Spanish defender César Navas will a big help in preparing for the match. I find nothing particularly special about Navas, a journeyman defender for blah sides like Malaga and Racing (who he played for last season) before venturing to Russia for what will probably be the last few years of his career, since he’s already 29. The thing that he has going for him is that he’s 6’5″, which means he’s as tall as Ibrahimovic, though no doubt about 8 super powers less heavy than The Yaya.
They approached the Inter match with what appears to be a flat 4-4-2: Ryzhikov (GK), César, Sharonov, Ansaldi, Salukvadze, Semak, Noboa, Ryazantsev, Gökdeniz, Bukharov, Domínguez. Whether they’ll take the risk of trying to overload us with midfielders and pushing two strikers up front is hard for me to say, but it seems like suicide to push two guys up against us and not have at least one central defensive midfielder (a pivote, if you will) to hold our possession game in check.
If they do play with two strikers or with one “in the hole”, we should be wary of Bukharov, a 6’3″ goal scoring machine in Russia (27 in 57 appearances) who is obviously going to command attention from Pique and Puyol, meaning Domínguez will have a freer role to pursue his dribbling attacks. However, they’ll have to be aware that putting Domínguez in the hole will place him squarely against The Yaya for almost the entire match, something that can’t be particularly enticing for either the player or his coach.
So, roughly, I expect them to come in and play defensively (as in a 5-4-1 or a 4-5-1 double pivot) and for the draw. Will they get it?
Barça are not accustomed to losing, having failed to do so since last season, and they won’t want to a reminder of that bitter, bitter taste in the back of your throat just yet. We’re coming off of a 0-0 draw with Valencia that, I think, will readjust our focus and help us concentrate all the more. Messi was off (he got a 2 from Kevin, after all, proving he wasn’t on song), but he won’t be after a couple more days rest and having practiced with the team. He’ll be back in the blaugrana groove, which means he’ll reassert himself in his role, especially when Pedro! is replaced up front by our Ninja Swede, who is expected back in the lineup for the match.
Still, we’re without Henry, which means we have a vital question on our hands: who do we start at LW? So far this season, Iniesta has been fairly inconsistent and not all that great as the LW, but do we sacrifice Keita’s hard work in the midfield for a more fluid version that puts Bojan, Pedro, or Jeffren up front and lets Iniesta do the legwork in the midfield? I would say no, but only because I think Iniesta is due for a breakout game against a team that isn’t going to be able to contain so many dynamic playmakers. Keita is a facilitator rather than a creator, but he has proven himself capable of interchanging on both the offensive and defensive fronts in order to maintain a numerical advantage or to quell the appearance of one for our opponents. That’s why I want him to step in and shut down Semak and further occupy Sebaya’s lunges towards (and if not Sebaya, then someone else in that DM role).
If Ibra is able to occupy Navas and another defender with small runs through the middle of the field, I think that spreads out the game a bit and lets Messi take off down the wings more often, something he’ll do with greater success than he did against Valencia because he’ll be rested and ready. We have until Sunday against Zaragoza (also at home) to recuperate, so I expect our best 11 to be out there from the get-go. The only questions that remain for me are Ibra’s health, who do we start at LB, and whether or not Pep wants to see us play with Iniesta in the middle. Were Henry fit, I would opt for Iniesta in the midfield and Henry up top, but that is not the case, so, again, I want to see Iniesta up front doing his little wriggling runs and causing all sorts of panic in their ranks.
Do we start Maxwell? I don’t know, to be honest. Abidal is a workhorse and I want his speed there, but Maxwell also provides a measure of bus-breaking crosses that Abidal seems fairly unable to provide and certainly unable to provide on such a regular basis. Ibra will want headers and Messi will want to ghost in at the back post, so putting Maxwell on the field is not such a bad idea, but is only a valid option if Keita is on the field to provide defensive cover in case of a counterattack. Putting out those fires is Abidal’s forte (and one he doesn’t get enough credit for), so perhaps opting for him is the best answer to that question, despite the offensive letdown.
Predicted lineup: Valdes, Alves, Puyol, Pique, Abidal, The Yaya, Keita, Xavi, Iniesta, Ibra, Messi. That’s our best available 11, I think, but you really never know what Pep will have seen/scouted/realized that I haven’t. He’s the master after all.
Official Prediction: 2-0, goals by Ibra and Messi (penalty). Our first penalty of the year is drawn by Iniesta as he makes a sick dash to the corner and cuts back and is promptly flattened by Navas…in the 43rd minute. There you go, that’s a specific prediction if I’ve ever heard one. Oh wait that‘s a perfect prediction. This won’t be pretty, though, as I do expect kicking, hacking, and shirt pulling from Rubin to compliment their Helenio Herrera-inherited tactics.
Match time: 8:45pm local time and 2:45pmEST (check your local time by clicking here). This match will be on Fox Soccer en Español, but if you get DirectTV it should be on in English, though I’m not sure what channel since I don’t get DirectTV. Check your local listings.
And because you should always leave them laughing, here’s some Crackovia for you: