Part One of Six: In a multi-part saga, Barcelona Football Blog offers a retrospective blow-by-blow account of events around Barça’s First Football Team over the past season. Join us as we look back on the high and lows of the 11 months that were Pep’s last, as Manager.
After Guardiola’s successful first 3 years, odds were severely weighted against the team to do it all again, because of the oft-spoken 4th year slump.
It takes an extraordinary set of circumstances for a successful team to remain focused enough, when continuous success may bring feelings of complacency which subdue the drive to maintain the required high standards to win and win and win.
The motivation slips, as does the concentration, no matter what anyone says to state otherwise. The psychological tolls, (of being on top and being the team to beat), stack on top of physical limitations as bodies, given little rest, begin to fail.
The following quotes are part of an unattributed AP article, (published on 15th August 2011), which was perhaps the bad news harbinger of what was to come, without pointing to specifics:
“The fourth season is different from the first, the motivations are different. It’s a little calmer, but I still have the same enthusiasm and desire to play football well.” ~ Pep Guardiola.
“I have told (Guardiola) if you have a good team you have to squeeze everything out of it. (Then) he has to look to make a change before the team dies out. Each season it gets harder. First, Barça is the team to beat, and second, everyone is increasingly analyzing ways to do so. Staying at the top is harder than getting there.” ~ Charlie Rexach, while explaining that often it is easier for a new coach to make those tough choices.
This past season was interesting, to place a positive spin on it.
Players left and arrived; playing formations were tinkered with, as were starting line-ups; results fluctuated on a weekly basis as home wins were mostly multi-goal affairs while away games were eked out to draws or scrappy wins, as well as a couple of losses.
The year was filled with so many obstacles that most coaches would not face over their entire careers. Abidal’s liver replacement; Tito’s salivary gland tumour; Villa’s broken leg; Afellay and Fontàs with ACL injuries and a dire spate of hamstrings and calf muscles twanging more often than Eric Clapton replaces his guitar strings.
There was hardly a week where Pep had more than 17 players fit to play. He also had to be mindful that to field injury-prone (and aging) lynchpins Xavi and capità Puyol, (in less meaningful games if, in fact, there are any of those for the club nowadays), meant risking their presence in more important matches when their leadership was mandatory. Calling up Barça B Team players is a great fall-back option, but playing B-teamers who were already struggling with play in the Liga Adelante was a stop-gap measure, at most.
Let’s review the past season with all its glory and gore, and there’s no better place to start than at the very beginning.
After an off-season period of about 6 weeks, activity started to ramp up again at the club. The pre-season was affected by the South American Copa América in which several key club players were involved. July is also typically a month in which there is player movement. New players were signed while others moved on. Existing players’ contracts were also renewed.
Starting the Season, Injured: Puyol who had a knee operation on 2nd June, Xavi with a calf muscle twinge, Pedro and Maxwell with general fitness problems.
1st July: Thiago Alcantara’s contract was extended until 2015, and he’s confirmed as a First Team player.
4th July: Andreu Fontàs was officially promoted to the first team and received a contract promotion to 2013.
5th July: Pedro’s contract was extended until 2016.
18th July: First training for the season was attended by only 15 players because of injuries and the absence of the South Americans playing in the Copa América.
19th July: It’s confirmed that Piqué injured his calf during the first training and will be training separately as he recovers.
22nd July: Bojan Krkic moved to Roma in a complicated loan/sell/buy-back situation which is still not fully understood by many.
23rd July: The team travelled to Croatia to play Hadjuk Split. Puyol, Xavi, Pedro and Piqué remained in Barcelona to work on their injuries. Pep fielded a team which included a lot of youth players and was fairly happy with the quality of play, even though the game finished in a 0-0 draw.
25th July: Acquired from Udinese, Alexis Sanchez was presented to the press after signing his contract. He immediately left Barcelona to join Chile for the Copa América.
25th July: The team left Barcelona for their pre-season tour, stopping in Munich (Audi Cup) and then travelling onwards to the USA (Turkish Airlines US Tour 2011).
Missing were most of the South American players involved with their national teams for the Copa América, taking out key members Messi, Alves, Adriano and Mascherano, as well as newbie Alexis.
First Team members: Valdés, Pinto, Puyol, Piqué, Maxwell, Fontàs, Abidal, Busquets, Keita, Thiago, Iniesta, Xavi, Afellay, Jeffren, Pedro and Villa.
Pep also included 9 Barça B players to travel to the USA: Masip, Muniesa, Balliu, Rosell, Riverola, Carmona, Dos Santos, Cuenca and Soriano.
3 further B Team players travelled to Munich, but returned to Barcelona after the Audi Cup: Ledes, Lozano and Espinosa.
The pre-season tour’s first stop in Munich was to play in the Audi Cup. Audi is the car supplier to FC Barcelona and, as part of that agreement, the club was required to play in the tournament which was of no importance, except to satisfy a sponsor’s marketing and branding requirements.
Those cars don’t come cheaply, and the team lost its first member with a major injury to B-teamer capità (and last season’s Liga Adelante Pichichi winner) Jonathan Soriano, who returned to Barcelona to begin his recovery and lost his opportunity to prove his worth to Pep for Barça First Team inclusion. (After he regained his fitness, Soriano would soon leave the club for Red Bull Salzburg.)
Barça won the Audi Cup (2-0) in a final played against Bayern Munich. Time was so tight to catch the plane to the USA that most of the fans (travelling with the team in the same plane) and some of the team members had to leave the stadium at half-time. At the end of the game, the next wave of players and fans departed for the airport. Those players and staff, who remained behind to receive the trophy, were rushed to the airport under police escort, in a scramble to arrive in time. Luckily, they made the flight.
The USA tour was a dog-and-pony show.
The team was called upon to front up to so many photo and press events that it started to impact on what little training time Pep already had. The called-off training run on the Mall close to the White House (because of “security issues” and poor planning) in Washington DC was the last straw, as far as Pep was concerned.
The team played friendlies in hot and humid conditions against Manchester United, Chivas Guadalajara and Club América, losing the first two and winning the last. The first signs of Villa struggling with his form (and with a cracked tibia as was later revealed) were visible, as was a downturn in Pedro’s performance, and everyone was wondering, “Who the hell is this beanpole right-wing guy, Cuenca?”
Pep simply wanted to get the team home and away from the media circus.
31st July: During the Man U game, Afellay picked up a hamstring injury which would see him miss the start of the Liga season, and remain out for 4-5 weeks.
JULY INJURY REPORT
All month: Puyol.
Wrapped in Cotton Wool: Xavi with calf muscle niggles, Pedro and Maxwell with general fitness issues.
19th – 31st: Piqué injured his calf during the first training and trained separately for the remainder of the month.
31st: Afellay injured a hamstring during the Man U game.
The month began with the team still in the USA, on their pre-season tour, before returning to Barcelona on 8th August. More players left the club in the first week. The B Team was seconded to play in the Copa Catalunya, while the First Team prepared for a busy month in which 3 trophies would be contested: the Spanish Supacopa, the Joan Gamper Memorial Trophy and the UEFA Super Cup. The first game for the new La Liga season would be played; precious training time would be reduced by 2 International breaks and further diluted by more player injuries.
1st August: Jeffren Suárez was given permission to leave the pre-season tour early, to fly to Portugal and sign for Sporting Lisbon.
2nd August: 2 additional B Team players joined the tour after their Spain U-19 duties in Romania were completed: Deulofeu and Gómez.
4th August: Gabi Milito was given permission to leave the club and returned to his old home club in Argentina – Atlético Independiente.
7th August: The team arrived back from the USA.
8th August: The Copa Catalunya Competition kicked off. It simply wasn’t physically possible for the first team to play, so the Barça B team was used for these games. This caused much annoyance to the other teams who thought that they deserved to play against the First Team members, as that was what had been long-arranged. Barça B played against Girona in the semi-final (winning 2-1) and Espanyol in the final (losing 0-3).
9th August: International Duty again, already! 10 players were called for their National Teams: Spain, France, Chile and Brazil.
10th August: Before their game, Xavi left the Spanish camp with a recurring injury to his right calf soleus muscle.
10th August: Training saw Puyol, Xavi, Maxwell and Afellay working separately because of injury.
11th August: NT reps returned, including the South American players who had a brief break after the completion of their Copa América duties. 2 players returned injured: Busquets with bruising to his ribcage, and Piqué suffered a thigh strain.
Before the official 2011-12 La Liga season kicked off, the first 2 games of 6 Clásicos (or Clàssics in Català) over the 2011/12 season were played for the Spanish Supacopa. The matches are played between the past season’s Liga winners (Barça), and the Copa del Rey winners, (Real Madrid).
14th August: Away vs. Real Madrid. Spanish Supacopa. 2-2.
Real Madrid was held to a draw by an under-prepared Barça team which included new-comer Alexis Sanchez thrown into the deep end, as well as Thiago.
The result was a pleasant surprise to many fans because, in comparison to Barça’s horrible pre-season, Real Madrid’s tour had been very successful and the team looked to be much fitter and sharper than Barça. During the game, Madrid had many more shots on goal and were denied by some fine backline defence and stopping by Valdés. First half goals included the opener to Özil (12’), followed by a beauty from Villa (35’) and another from Messi (45’). After half-time Alonso scored (53’) and the teams hung on to end the match with a draw.
15th August: After 8 years of roaming in the cup-less wilderness that is Arsenal, local boy Cesc Fàbregas was presented to the press and 30,000 fans at Camp Nou.
17th August: In the warm-up before the return Supacopa game, Alexis pulled a leg muscle and was ruled out of the match.
17th August: Home vs. Real Madrid. Spanish Supacopa. 3-2.
The return Supacopa leg was a tense win at Camp Nou. Iniesta opened the scoring (14’), and Cristiano countered (20’) before Messi scored (45’) just before the break. After half-time, Benzema scored (81’) and the game looked as if it was headed for excruciating extra time.
However, Cesc was subbed on for his first club game and had an immediate impact as he was involved in the build-up to Messi’s winning (87’) goal. Not long after this, Cesc was chopped down by a Marcelo tackle (for which the Brazilian was red-carded), and the game erupted into a sideline brawl in which Villa was also red-carded and sent from the bench.
Unfortunately, the whole evening is better remembered for Mourinho’s poke-Tito-in-the-eye incident, than for any of the on-pitch play or subsequent trophy-lifting by the Barça team. The Blaugrana team has won 10 Supacopa trophies to Madrid’s 8, and this win made it 3 Supacopa victories in 3 consecutive years.
Two more trophies quickly followed.
22nd August: Home vs. Napoli. Joan Gamper Trophy. 5-0.
The (ceremonial and memorial) Joan Gamper Trophy (vs. an invited Napoli) was played at the end of a fun-filled gala day at Camp Nou as part of a “thank you” event to the fans.
The team featured more B-team members than First Team players, and Kiko Femenia received his maiden start. Cesc scored his first goal (25’) for the club. Keita scored the 2nd (31’) for the evening, Pedro the 3rd (61’), and Messi (subbed on in the 55th minute) added a brace (66’ and 77’) to complete the first manita of the season. Keita won Man of the Match. It was really relaxing to attend a match at Camp Nou where the result really didn’t matter.
23rd August: During training, Piqué tore fibres in his left calf muscle and was out for 3 weeks.
25th August: In Monaco, Messi received the 2011 UEFA European Player of the Season Award.
26th August: Away vs. FC Porto. UEFA Super Cup. 2-0.
The UEFA Super Cup is a match played between the past season’s winners of the Champions League (Barça) vs. the winners of the Europa League (FC Porto). The game was played on a cow paddock somewhere in Monaco.
The first goal came when Messi latched onto an errant Porto back-pass, jinked past the Porto GK and slotted home in the 39th minute. Porto was reduced to 10 men in the 86th minute when Rolando earned his second Yellow of the night, and Cesc scored the 2nd for the Blaugrana. Porto finished the match with 9 men on the pitch after Guarin was dismissed for a slide tackle on Mascherano in the last minute of the game.
Barça had won their second official cup for the season.
27th August: Adriano pulled a leg muscle during the Super Cup match and would be out for a few weeks.
27th August: A players’ strike (in support for some of the league’s players who had not been paid), delayed the official start to La Liga. As a result, Game 1 – the away to Málaga – was postponed until January 2012. The first game for the 2011/12 La Liga season would be played at Camp Nou.
29th August: Home vs. Villarreal. La Liga. 5-0.
Already we could see that there were tactical changes afoot, especially down the back. Exciting stuff when it went to plan – simply awful when it didn’t work, and Pep was often too stubborn to change tactics during games which ultimately cost points over the season.
Guardiola put out a 3-man backline. This was, in part, because 5 defenders were unavailable: Maxwell, Adriano, Puyol, Piqué and (suspended) Alves. The Yellow Submariners were expected to put up a spirited fight, but the intensity and pressure initiated by Barça from the kick-off whistle left them chasing shadows for most of the game.
Newly-promoted Thiago scored the first (25’), followed by Cesc scoring his first-ever (44’) La Liga goal. Into the second half, and the third goal came quickly, courtesy of Alexis Sanchez also scoring his first (47’) for the club. A brace (51’ and 74’) from Messi opened his Liga account for the season, and Villarreal returned home comprehensively beaten and bewildered. A manita for the first Liga game – not too shabby.
30th August: Incredibly, the next International break arrived and the players dispersed to their various national teams to perform services for their countries: Spain, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, France and Mali.
31st August: Hleb was loaned out to Wolfsburg in Germany. Negotiations opened for the renewal of Abidal.
AUGUST INJURY REPORT
All month: Puyol (knee) and Afellay (hamstring).
1st – 13th: Piqué with calf injury.
1st – 23rd: Maxwell with calf injury.
10th – 16th: Xavi with calf injury injury and rested as much as possible.
11th – 18th: Busquets with bruised ribcage sustained in Spanish NT game.
17th – 23rd: Alexis with pulled leg muscle.
23rd – 31st: Piqué with left calf muscle.
27th – 31st: Adriano with hamstring injury.
In the next instalment: More injuries; worrying away form and results; Champions League starts and Pep receives a medal.