Liga Preview: Osasuna – Barça, 3pmEST Saturday, GolTV (check local times here)
I stood in a square, the streetlights illuminating the crowd, and looked upwards at the top of the tall fountain. A man had scaled the top and was yelling something to his friends below. My brother nudged me and pointed upwards. “Jerk is going to jump,” he said and I laughed. Not likely. He was 30 feet in the air above a smattering of drunk idiots and a whole mess of cobblestones that, given the opportunity, would split his skull like a pumpkin on Halloween. Or something.
Obviously he jumped.Fortunately he survived fully intact because his friends caught him; a rousing cheer went up. Welcome to Pamplona, Spain during the Festival de San Fermin. Every year from July 7 until July 14 the city of Pamplona celebrates their patron’s saint’s day and it has become an international festival of debauchery and absurdity thanks to the running of the bulls and the traditional spritzing of the wine on all and sundry. The actual festival and its traditional meanings have been lost in modern party-making, but it started sometime during the 13th or 14th centuries in commemoration of the grotesque martyrdom of Saint Fermin, who was supposedly dragged through the streets of Pamplona by bulls. So the logical thing to do is, of course, to release a herd of bulls upon the populace and for that very populace to run in front of them. Of course.
No one was injured by the bulls while I was in Pamplona, fortunately (one unfortunate Irish 23-year old was killed when he drunkenly fell off the city wall to his death some number of dozens are feet below on the aforementioned cobblestones), but it was the most absurdly wonderful and ridiculous party I have ever attended and something I would gladly do again in a heartbeat. It is unfortunate for me that I was somewhat sick during the 24 hours I was there, so my desire to physically endanger my frail human body in front of the pointy tips of bulls’ horns did not come to pass (my lady almost killed me when I told her I almost did it anyway)–but of course I gladly partook in late night drinking (3 euros for a liter of wine, which I bought in a children’s clothing store! Seriously!), which didn’t help that whole not-feeling-well thing I had going on.
The history of Pamplona as a whole is, of course, wildly more complicated than “some dudes wanted to make some bulls run through some streets so they made a party” but I’m not capable of recounting it in such a short space, so this will have to suffice: Pamplona fucking rocks. Beautiful countryside, wonderful food, amazing people (who love to party), and a lot of rain. That’s Basque country to me.
In case you would like to be a puritan with your wording, Pamplona in Basque is Iruñea and Basque country is Euskal Herria. Those of you who know your Spanish geography and politics will claim that Pamplona is actually in Navarra, but come on, it’s so basque it’s crazy to consider it anything else.
The Basques, the Euskaldunak–they of the unpronounceable language and the fiercly independent mindset–are something to behold when they get to chanting, shouting, and generally being rowdy. Osasuna (“Health” in Basque) greets their opponents with mind-blowing sincerity and a dangerous affinity for the use of the middle finger. Welcome to the Reyno de Navarra stadium, to the lion’s den in so many ways. Come one, come all, but be prepared for a war until the final whistle. Last year’s trip to this land of ferocity and hard tackles ended up in what was, to me, the defining moment of the entire season. I’ve recounted it before, so no need to do it again, but I will find it hard to stay away from Nevada Smiths because I will be hoping that I can relive, for a few magical minutes, the elation I felt when Messi thundered in the winner late on in a testy match against los rojillos, who gave their all, or at least their cleats, to stopping our offense.
2-3. Eto’o, Xavi, Messi.
3 points and a bit of a screw you to the whole concept that we are just pretty boys who can pass, but can we take a stomping? The question now is whether you can take what we can give. Osasuna entered last year’s match already aware that they needed the points (though unaware, I think, of how desperately they would end up needing them, finishing just one solitary point above relegation); this year they enter the match in 10th, with 11 points from the first 8 matches.
Osasuna: 3W-2D-3W (10GF, 9GA)
Barça: 7W-1D-0L (23GF, 4GA)
Home vs Away records:
Osasuna: 2W-1D-1L (5GF, 3GA)
Barça: 3W-1D-0L (8GF, 1GA)
Walter Pandiani has scored 6 of their 10 goals this season, so shutting him down will help in large part to shut down their offense, but one of their key danger men is midfielder Javad Nekounam who, in the Osasuna matches I’ve seen this year, was all over the place, constantly harassing and creating chances. Nekounam, an Iranian international player who was a member of the 2006 World Cup squad, has been with Osasuna for a while now, but I feel like he has finally found his feet. Their defense is fairly stingy (T-5th), but their offense is very middle-of-the-road (T-10th) and relies so heavily on Pandiani that it may end up being the thing that sinks them. Still, they’ve always been resourceful since I started watching the league (Osasuna’s official page lists results at the Reyno de Navarro since 1993 and only once was their a 2-goal or greater margin of victory…and that was when they beat us 3-1 in 2000) and we cannot take them lightly.
Because we were able to rest most of our midfield and all of our offense during midweek at Leonesa, we’re in a prime position to run them into the ground, but they won’t take it lying down. They’ll kick and they’ll bite and they’ll do whatever they can to keep us from getting points.
Guardiola has correctly stated that this is the beginning of our “Tourmalet”* and I don’t think we will take a trip to Pamplona lightly under his tutelage. Henry is back in the lineup after receiving medical clearance, meaning only Alves is currently missing through injury. The rested players from the midweek match (Messi, Ibra, Xavi, Iniesta, Puyol) are all back in the squad and I expect all five of them to start, along with Henry. The return of those players obviously makes the goal of winning a lot easier, but it is never easy and tomorrow’s match will be no different.
The reason, by the way, that it’s being called our Tourmalet is because Barça have games @Osasuna, @Rubin Kazan, vs Mallorca, vs Cultural Leonesa, @Athletic Bilbao, vs Inter, and vs Real Madrid over the coming month (followed by @Xerez, @Depor, and @Dynamo all in a row in the first 9 days of December). That’s a hefty schedule, but certainly not as hard as last year’s November-December gauntlet where we effectively won the league by trashing our main title opponents four jornadas in a row. The question is, of course, whether the midweek games will take enough out of us to let smaller teams grab some points from our clutches. That, of course, remains to seen.
The full squad list is: Valdés, Pinto, Puyol, Piqué, Chygrynskiy, Márquez, Abidal, Maxwell, Keita, The Yaya, Busi, Iniesta, Jeffren, Xavi, Messi, Ibrahimovic, Pedro!, Henry, Messi.
That means we should be able to go guns blazing into this one in an attempt to get our team truly cohesive before the trip to Russia’s blizzardy-sleety-vileness (weather-wise) and the crucial match we have with Rubin Kazan, but be aware that any fatigue will come out in the long trip to Russia, so our good man Pep might do some strange rotational stuff or give Henry only 30 minutes. Pedro! could see the start, though I kind of doubt it, after scoring twice against Leonesa and giving us a much more comfortable match in the return leg at the Camp Nou.
So, I’ll go with a strong lineup on this one: Valdés, Puyol, Chygrynskiy, Piqué, Abidal, The Yaya, Xavi, Iniesta, Henry, Ibra, Messi.
There are, of course, reasons behind my picks (Don’t laugh at that “of course”! There are always reasons, I just choose not to discuss them sometimes…or have them make sense…): Márquez has currently been on the receiving end of a lot of criticism, some of which I think is fair/warranted and some of which I think is unfair/unwarranted. I’m not his biggest fan, but I do see him as a necessary cog in the wheel for several reasons. It’s just that right now, he is filling a vital role that Chygrynskiy cannot: a CL roster spot on defense. That is why I say Chygrynskiy should get the start against Osasuna, so that Márquez can get 90 against Rubin without any problems. The re-addition of Puyol to the lineup will, I think, give Márquez the stability he needs to pull out a solid performance (Puyol adds that to everyone’s game, before you ask, especially at the back where both Piqué and Chygrynskiy appear much more calm when The Caveman has their backs) and thus it make sense to keep him fully fit and ready for such an important match. Were Chygrynskiy not cup-tied (damn you, Shakhtar), we might be having a different discussion, but since he is, we’ll go with what we have and what we have is Rafa Márquez, a man who is fully capable of stoning an attacker and making him weep.
Official Prediction: 1-1. Yup, we drop some points and I’m being a bit pessimistic, but they’re not screwing around, people. They’re seriously in the top 10 and they’re seriously at home and they’re seriously always good against us. Why would this be any different? It’s once again supposed to quite foggy and a bit chilly there (50F/10C), so no doubt Phil and RayRay will mistake Yaya for Keita, Ibra for Puyol, and Messi for a Mack truck. Sigh.
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Now that Puyol has renewed until 2013 (woohoo! Check out the gallery EMD posted, it’s sweet!) we know we can rely on his presence until he becomes a coach in our system. Obviously he would be terrifying to meet on that first day at La Masia, but imagine what kind of things he can whittle for the children while he tells them to stop screwing around and get on with kicking a ball/chopping wood/raising sheep. Oh what a wonderful world we live in.
*Tourmalet is the term being used by the Spanish press to mean “the toughest segment of the season”–it is named after the Tourmalet stage of the Tour de France from last year, which was apparently the toughest stage. Check it out.