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Barcelona 2 – Getafe 2: Game, set and ma…

Tito

Before kick-off the Camp Nou paid a final homage to a man who, in all honesty, has simply been more culer than thou during his forty-five years on earth, Tito Vilanova. First we were shown a remembrance video in which several players bade him farewell, which was in my very personal opinion both moving and awkward. Then both teams observed a minute of silence, one that unfortunately was not respected by all attendees. Still, I think it’s safe to say that cancer has taken its (un)fair share of victims around the world, regardless of sex, skin color or supported football club, and no family has been completely spared. I can’t speak for all who were at the stadium, but I found it quite emotional and it gave me goose bumps. I even failed to notice they had kicked off already. In a classy move, Tito’s name was put on the match shirts and I for one would not mind if we did the same next season.

Spot the writer!

Spot the writer

So, are we finished then?

About the match, let’s keep it short. Barça weren’t bad without being particularly good, which on most days means that the team were a lot better than their opponent without creating all that many scoring opportunities. The problem is that we gave up three as well, from which they scored two. Heck, if you watched the game you’d be forgiven for thinking that Getafe passed the halfway line less than a handful of times and came back with two goals, which is kind of like the chorus of this year’s song. We control the match for eighty-five minutes and draw or lose it in five. Now the season is all but over and we can only hope that Atletico prevent M*drid from winning the treble, whether they do so in la Liga, in Lisbon or in both.

Taking the blame

Taking the blame

The blame game

As has become all too familiar, certain people named Martino, Dani Alves and Song get scapegoated for the loss. Dani Alves shouldn’t have given up that foul, they say. Dani Alves should have covered his flank, they write. Yes, but he gave up the foul doing the very same thing we all say our team is missing, aggressively pressing his opponents.

Martino shouldn’t have moved Busi to the defense and taken off Xavi for Song. What an idiot, is being yelled in unison. Funny how nobody lauded him for taking off Mascherano to insert Cesc, a substitution that arguably led to our taking the lead. And are the same people who blast our coach for taking off Xavi the ones who say that Xavi doesn’t have the legs to defend?

When you look at the goals, you have to feel for Tata. For Getafe’s first, Mascherano made up for a mistake with a foul that led to a free kick at which his team got caught napping at a trick play. For the second Adriano and Pinto were left to defend by themselves. I don’t think any coach makes those decisions for their players. I am not saying Martino should stay, but it’s a damn shame nevertheless, because for those first six months of the season it sure looked like we had a Barça coach.

This season nobody is to blame, along with everybody. If you really want to point your finger, I’ll give you a hint. Something flows downhill and it’s brown and smelly. If the board supported anybody else but the board, like our players and our coach for example, things might turn out different next year. As it stands, however, we can fear the worst. Our problem, apart from socis that don’t want to do anything about it, is institutional.

It's over

It’s over

Death of tiki taka

Let me get another thing straight. I am sick and tired of the term “tiki taka”. I never liked it to begin with – it sounds like a cheap Bangkok bar from which the rich and sleazy take under aged hookers with fake smiles and sad stories back to their hotel rooms. If this is the death of tiki taka, it can’t come too soon. What is it anyway, other than the evolution of a football system that uses fast and technical players that like to pass the ball a lot. Tiki taka by and of itself was never “revolutionary” to begin with. It was made so by legendary players and a very good coach. And just how it evolved from something that was already in place, the team needs to keep evolving to move forward.

There are calls for more strength and athleticism, which I agree with, especially in defense. For some reason fans want Reus, forgetting that we already have Pedro, Alexis and Neymar, don’t know what to do with Deulofeu and will hopefully find a way to develop Adama Traore into a first team player in the next couple of years. There is also a lot of noise about the need for an Arturo Vidal type player. Never mind the fact that we are stacked with some of the best midfielders in Europe, and we have Rafinha, Suarez and Samper waiting in the pipeline. As for that bite we lack, we got Mascherano being misused because we never bought adequate cover for Puyol and Abidal. If I were in charge I’d move Masche up a line, Messi back a line, and get a mobile striker who can both head the ball and make runs for through passes. But hey, I’m just another guy with an opinion.

Then there are those want the club to sell half the team and buy half the world. They draw comparisons with Pep booting out Ronaldinho and Deco. Let’s stop right there. Ronaldinho and Deco spent more time on the dance floor than on the training grounds. Today is not yesterday. Our guys, these extraordinary players, have always shown respect and dedication to our colors, up to and including this season in which we have finally stopped winning anything at all. The least we can do, as fans, is to give them the respect they deserve. Make no mistake, Barça has got to change and adapt. The team needs fresh blood and some players might have to go. However, the nucleus for another best team of the world is right there, in front of our eyes, losing the league in five minutes per game.

Posted in Barcelona, La Liga, Review370 Comments

Atletico 1, Barça 0 (2-1 agg.), aka “That fist to the face … who put that there?”

atmlead

Well doesn’t THIS feel weird, this feeling of coming home on a big match day from wherever you watched, with that empty feeling, that difficult-to-describe sensation of having watched your team lose.

Seems like just yesterday that we were capering about in glee through throats made hoarse from screaming as we swept the Classics, beating RM in their house.

But today, the best team from the capitol city, without two of its best players, beat us. And today, in another bit of empty-feeling weirdness, our team didn’t have any answers. Make no mistake, however … Barça didn’t lose today. It was beaten by an opponent with a better plan, its own naivete and institutional failure.
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Posted in Analysis, Champions League, Review, Thoughts68 Comments

Real Madrid 3, Barça 4, aka “The space race”

clascrest

Wow. Just … wow.

It is rare that a Classic lives up to the billing. At the nexus of all the hype, all the reams of verbiage and speculation have in the past, resulted in high-volume bits of drollery. Even the first Classic this season was, truth to tell, kinda boring unless you were culer. It was 2-1, and Barça pretty much put the match on lockdown.

But Bale was knocked, RM was still finding its way, pundits said. They are playing great right now, and know what is at stake. Bale is fit and productive, Ronaldo is in rare form. Barça on the other hand, is beleagured, set upon even by people who were presumed to be friends. It’s easy to see why pretty much everyone said that RM was going to win today.

I Tweeted before the match that we were going to win 1-2, and would walk it if Alba brought his defensive game today. Why? Because this club has not, this season, lost a big match. And there is absolutely no reason to think that they were going to lose this one, because Barça still has the best players in the world. Is Barça the best team in the world right now? No. But it is a team that is made up of players who are the best or among the best at their position.

Valdes, Alves, Pique, Mascherano, Alba, Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta, Fabregas, Neymar, Messi. That is a fantasy football side that you buy if you have an unlimited budget in Football Manager, rather than one that a manager can routinely call upon. People bet against that team, call it inadequate, say that it can’t defend, can’t attack, can’t do this or that. And when it confounds its critics, the cries of “Yeah, but …” begin, nitpicks at this or that player.

I have said it before and will say it again: you go all in with love. There shouldn’t be half measures to cushion the blow should a bad outcome happen. It diminishes the potential joy. Go all in. I believed this team would win because I believe this team can win every match that it plays. Just look at the roster.

As we know, it doesn’t win every match that it plays, because those great players are also human beings. Can’t say that such knowledge will ever affect the belief I have in this team. And it showed why today in a glorious moment, made more so by a very simple fact: win or go home. The Liga is either 1 point, or insurmountable at 4 or 7 with 9 matches left.

So those little geniuses won. But they didn’t just win by outplaying their more physical, bigger, stronger opponents. They won by controlling space more effectively than their opponent. Every key play in the match today was the result of space — taken or created — being used to positive effect. RM ran and slashed, while Barça picked and plucked.

clasini

31 games without defeat. The last time RM was beaten was the last time that they played us. There are now 9 matches left in the season. The big winner today was Atletico, who are now top and have the head-to-head tiebreaker against RM, but they play us in the last match of the season.

“We weren’t always in the right shape on the pitch, and we paid the price,” said Ancelotti. Spot on.

The consequence of being in that wrong shape was opportunity and difficulty.

Space: The contested frontier

In just one example, look at the astonishing pass (14:35) that Xavi puts right on Messi’s boot. When Xavi looks up, he sees that Messi is in between two RM players, with nobody covering the inside. The run is just begging, and when Messi makes it, the ball is already on the way. It lands directly on his boot, and you would have bet your house on Messi making the score 0-2 instead of bending the ball wide. And yet, there it was, space being used and ceded, as only the Gods know what possessed them to let Messi get behind the back line, unmarked.

Truth be told it was a pass that few players in the world can make, a pass that maybe you just don’t account for in your Probability Factors. But it happened, and was another symbolic moment in a match absolutely filled with them.

Look at earlier in the match, when the first goal came. At the moment when Messi is about to receive the ball that he is going to spank to Iniesta for the first goal, if you pause the image (at 6:08), Iniesta is all alone on the left side, trotting with purpose like a sleeper. The RM players are ball focused, with four players around Messi. Bale just let Iniesta sashay past him to begin the run, and when Messi gets the ball he already knows what is going to happen, and so does Iniesta.

Iniesta takes the pass in acres of space, and detonates past Diego Lopez to give Barça a 0-1 lead. Just like that, in the 7th minute. Can RM be forgiven for thinking that Iniesta doesn’t score goals, or did someone not do their job on that run? Either way, space was crucial.

Even before that it was clear the kind of match it was going to be, as Messi (again) laid out a pass for Neymar to run onto, a ball into space created by player movement. In the past, in more violent times, a tighter back line probably cuts out both those passes, or Arebeloa just knocks Iniesta over. In this match, today, a goal was the result, a goal that defined the proceedings.

Carvajal pointed at Bale as Ray Hudson screamed, “The mad magic of Barcelona comes out, with beautiful football!” And so it did as more than 20 passes were strung together, up and back, passes that made a pressing, ball-hawking RM defense move and pay attention, waiting for the sleeper. Neymar on the right was an interesting decision from Tata Martino, almost one that optimists could suggest shifted attention to that side of the pitch, with just a mere creator on the left in Iniesta, while hell raisers in Neymar and Alves were on the right.

clasney

When RM equalized, again space was used and ceded. But rather than making space with passing and control, Di Maria did a slash-and-burn run, facilitated by an exquisite flip pass from Bale. At the moment Di Maria crosses the ball, there are players looking at him. Neymar was trotting back, while Alves was laying off. Space. So Di Maria put the ball directly onto Benzema’s head, whereupon he made space by outleaping Mascherano. 1-1.

Shockingly, the same thing happens again, and Benzema tags us for a brace in less than 10 minutes, all because of space, poorly controlled.

Whenever a goal is conceded, goats are looked for. Mascherano was the whipping post on this goal but if you look at the situation when Di Maria lays in his cross, Benzema is on the dead run, already to the inside of Mascherano, who didn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of outjumping the bigger, stronger Benzema. Pressure on the passer from Neymar (trotting) or Alves (watching) might have prevented such an accurate cross but there again, space conceded, and taken advantage of.

“You cannot give Benzema that amount of space,” said Ray Hudson after their go-ahead goal and he was absolutely right. But the space creation started with quality. This pitch was filled with great players. How can anyone really, truly expect this match to NOT have goals, NOT have great plays? Spectacular players make things happen, things that create an advantage for their team.

Genius+space=goals

Pundits mutter that Barça relies upon great individual players doing their thing rather than team excellence. That isn’t a valid argument for me, because why the hell do you have those kinds of players if you aren’t going to let them do what they do? The first Barça goal was team and system. The second was individual wonder, as Neymar and Messi did the kind of craziness that they do, in phone booth-like spaces. The final, go-ahead goal was Iniesta being his own absurd self, forcing an error from yet another world-class player.

Look at that second goal. Messi did a high-speed give and go, bounced off an RM defender, stumbled, regained control of the ball and slammed it to Neymar who somehow controlled it while surrounded by 3 defenders, then did a crazy sort of side-foot pass to Messi, who slammed it home. You can take every X and O in the world, diagram stuff and whiteboard plays in practice. But the goal came down to two top-class players deciding to make some magic.

Rather than seeing those moments of solo magic as some sort of failing, I see it as a broadened success window. If that whole team thing doesn’t work, give it to a genius and let him do his thing. Our geniuses were slightly better than their geniuses, with one in particular standing above all: Messi.

For me the worst use of space by RM was in how much they ceded to Messi. Maybe they read Marca, who said before the match that Messi was in crap form. But pass after pass, when he got the ball he had space to move, space to pick passes and make runs without fear of a rugby tackle or cleat to the Achilles. In one absurd moment (18:32) Messi AND Neymar have gobs of space to play with, as Fabregas runs into his own bubble on the left side. Messi plays it to Neymar, who is stopped by a last-ditch tackle in the box.

Complicating matters is that Barça continued to play as a team that includes the best player alive. And that best player decided that he didn’t care how he hurt an opponent. He scored goals in the run of play. He scored a hat trick, two from penalties. But most impressive for me is the stupefying passes that he laid on, one for Iniesta on his goal, the other for Neymar in the red card incident.

“You don’t need to love these players, people, but you should marvel at them,” says Hudson.

clasmessi

Tactics and selection headaches

Knowledgeable people say that Ancelotti got the tactics wrong. Culers screamed that Martino got the starting XI wrong. Maybe they are all right. The space was odd, to be sure. But was that because of a system that worked? People always think that teams play in a vacuum. “So and so can’t defend.” Ronaldo makes his living making defenders seem inadequate. Messi makes them seem invisible. These top-class players will wreak havoc with any coach’s game plan.

But boy, were people out for Martino. “Should have started Sanchez,” “Going for name players instead of relying on form.” But Martino knew what he was doing. In a match in which teams can play to a standoff, talented 1v1 players can make a difference. Neymar set up Messi for the tying goal, then drew the penalty that put RM down to 10. Yes, he was laggardly in tracking back in the first half, but clearly got a talking to before the second half. Neymar was decisive even as he wasn’t brilliant, because of potential that was respected by an opponent, potential that created space.

When Pedro was brought on for Neymar, the difference was clear. Pedro got the ball, did a feint or two and passed it back to midfield. That is what he was supposed to do at that point in the match, in a substitution that was as much defensive as offensive.

Was Mourinho right?

Classics under Mourinho were nasty, violent, contentious affairs. And finally, he beat us by playing a different kind of football. It distracted, bowled over and turned talented sprites into unfocused whiners. And it worked.

Ancelotti came into this match riding a 31-match unbeaten streak. The last team that beat them was us. They were, by all accounts in brilliant form, and many people whose opinions I trust had us losing this match. Ancelotti came out to play a football match, because he had football players. He pressed, played a high line, attacked and lost.

There were fouls, but things didn’t really acquire an edge until late in the match, when the outcome was beginning to feel like a done deal. But 95% of the match was two teams, each with their own style of play, running at each other like gladiators.

And Mourinho had to be watching and thinking, “See, told you they can’t be beaten by playing football.”

Controversy

There were three penalties and one red card in this match, a match that was nonetheless well officiated. Culers usually mutter about an official who keeps his whistle in his pocket because it benefits the opponent. But in a more cleanly played, balanced match, that same ref can benefit us as much as the opponent. So it was today.

The penalties are most contentious, of course. When Ronaldo got his penalty, dragging the leg and being clipped by Alves, my first reaction was to suggest that Messi or Neymar get into the RM box at the first opportunity, to force the official to make that same call on the other end. Neymar did, and got the call. Supporters of each club will say that no, theirs was justified. But the Neymar and Ronaldo penalties were pretty much the same, a dragged leg and player looking for contact in the box. Yes, Ronaldo was fouled outside the box, but between continuation and the pace of the play, you try making that judgment call.

The Iniesta penalty was a flat-out mugging. So. Was the controversy that the visiting team got not one, but TWO penalties in RM’s house? That is the only rational contention that anyone could have. All three were penalties, correctly adjudged. Play was allowed to flow, niggling calls weren’t being made and a great match of football was the result. Controversy? There will always be controversy in a Classic. But today’s, for me, didn’t come from the officiating.

Quality in abundance

Individual performances in such a dynamic match are easy and difficult to evaluate. Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets were delights. For a player who is past it and doesn’t make forward passes, I wonder who that was playing today.

Alba continues to be the defender many hoped he would be, holding down that side of the pitch and roaming, a la Abidal.

Pique was excellent today, even keeping Benzema from a first-half hat trick with an off the line clearance.

Mascherano was strong, even having the audacity to take a poke at goal from distance.

Neymar wasn’t great, even as he was decisive, and Valdes, truth be told, didn’t have much to do but did make a couple of fine saves.

Yes, those players all made errors. Of course they did. When you square off against excellent players, they will make you create some errors, but don’t be mistaken: this team rose to the occasion with quality and style.

What now?

Now it’s a Liga horse race in which Atletico has the upper hand. Win out and they win the Liga. It’s simple for them. But they play us the last match of the season, a match that could well, if we win, result in the RM winning the championship. And wouldn’t THAT just be a kettle of crap?

But for now, there are 9 matches left. The top two teams are level on points and the third-place team, Barça, is but a single point off the top. Every match is a final is usually a cliche, but not in this case. 9 matches to decide the league, and we can delight in being fully in love with a team that has found its form.

Posted in El Clasico, La Liga, Messi, Review130 Comments

Barça 2, Manchester City 1 (4-1 agg.), aka “Taking care of business”

cityteam

So much doubt, so much worry, so much anguish all at the roots of a moment of collective human frailty. When Barça lost to Valladolid this weekend past, it was more than a loss. It was like the starting pistol in a race to establish culpability. Something is wrong, whose fault is it. And we know something is wrong, because a history-making football club lost to a relegation side.

Whose fault is it, and oh my, Manchester City is coming to down with “only” a two-goal lead to overcome. By cracky, they can do that in their sleep, especially with Aguero back to fitness and in the lineup. Oh, my!
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Posted in Champions League, Messi, Review, Thoughts133 Comments

Fear and Loathing in La Liga, a review, aka “It has been forever thus.”

book

Joan Gaspart: “Barcelona is the defense of a country, a language, a culture.”

Okay, I’ll buy that. But you know what? I’m not Catalan, and I HATE Real Madrid. At my first Camp Nou Classic, I almost fell over the rail in a froth-mouthed rage. A complete stranger supported me at the waistband as I leaned over to spit invective.

After finishing Guardian journalist and Spanish football authority Sid Lowe’s “Fear and Loathing in La Liga,” I don’t hate them any less, even as I understand them a lot more, because Lowe makes it all make sense.

Jorge Valdano describes the Classic as “a club versus more than a club.” But, it should be added, not in the “mes que un” slogan sense. Barça means more than a successful team to culers and Catalans.

And if familiarity can breed contempt, so too can similarity. Because in so many ways, Barça and RM have parallels galore, as well as differences that are in fact similarities. That this is to be an unusual book is apparent early on, when Lowe takes on the myth of “Franco’s team,” and continues with a messy historical merging.

– The Catalans supply more Spain NT players.
– Barça was founded by a Swiss businessman.
– RM was founded by two Catalan brothers.
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Posted in Book Reviews, El Clasico, Review17 Comments

Betis 1, Barça 4, aka “Plan A, B and C … What sort of madness is this?”

betpdr

“This was an intelligent win,” said the team’s coach, Gerardo Martino.

While it’s always tempting to analyze statements, like when someone says “You look nice today,” and your thought is “What, do I look like crap all the other days,” that analysis is often dangerous. But let’s have a little look at it, just for fun.

This team has been pragmatic, pretty, direct and any other modifier that you want to throw at a football club. But for me, what made Martino’s statement so true is that the club let Betis kill themselves. It used the space they left, the weaknesses they displayed the flaws in their approach. It was a win based in malleability and understanding, one of those wins after which an opponent says “How the hell did THAT happen?”
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Posted in La Liga, Review, Thoughts42 Comments

Osasuna 0 – Barça 0: Spots of Sunshine vs Rumors of Rain

1. This match really doesn’t deserve a full-fledged review, but I will offer up my thoughts anyway. Numbered for easy consumption, you should beware that some might be of the knee-jerk variety.

2. A draw at Osasuna is not the end of the world. It is not even the end of the season. Winning streaks aren’t meant to last, and you can thank the mighty Maker for that. It does mean that we are not going to win the league before Christmas. Heck, come to think of it, only a short time ago I wrote we would be empty-handed come June, a prediction I almost forgot about after the eight straight W’s we started the competition with, but oh well, who’s counting. If you are, our club is still three points ahead of proving me wrong.

3. Three points? They would have been five were it not for bad finishing. El Sadar has always been a tough ground for us, and this fixture was further complicated by appearing after two World Cup qualifiers. On a pitch that looks pixelated in a high definition broadcast, Barça really struggled find their rhythm, especially in the first half. Still, Bartra, Neymar, Montoya and Cesc (2x) all had excellent opportunities to put us on top, which, given the lack of threat posed by the home team, would probably have meant we only ever needed the one goal.

4. It was fun to see Puyol start, although I sometimes thought he looked a quarter step off. Well… that is probably a bit unfair, considering that our capita has spent the last two hundred and something days in rehab, so let’s just say he looked good out there. Marc Bartra must have been thrilled to play with his idol. The kid keeps giving us solid performances, and it will be interesting to see how he does against the likes of Balotelli* if he gets the nod at San Siro. I hope he will play, and against M*drid, too. Time for us to see what he is made of when facing teams that can hurt us. I have a feeling he won’t disappoint.

5. I wish I could say the same of our young right back, however. Obviously we cannot world class players backing up other world class players, and I do think that Montoya is an adequate second choice for his position, but I have yet to see anything to convince me he will one day replace Dani Alves for good. He inspired zero fear in an Osasuna defense who hardly even bothered with him and did not always look assured with the ball at his feet in his own half, either. He did have the bad luck that his one good cross was left unmet by Neymar, who arrived a split second slow. Still, in my opinion, with Messi on the bench and Alexis in the stand, this was not a good game for him to start, because it robbed the right side of our attack of its panache, and predictably so.

6. Neither would I have started Cesc as a false nine, a position at which I never like to see him play, anyway. Then again, I would have been proved wrong had he scored either of his one-on-ones with Andrés Fernandez. As it happened, whenever he wasn’t invisible the sheer awfulness of his misses just underscored how bad he was playing – one he blasted a meter over, and the other he tried to lob the ball over a retreating goalkeeper.

7. Last but not least, I would have brought on Tello a lot sooner. To be honest I wanted him to start him over Pedro, but since he didn’t I would have subbed out either Cesc or P. at half time in favor of señor Speeding Ticket. In defense of Martino, hindsight is king, and anyway Tello didn’t do all that much after he came on, as he is still looking for his first goal this season. A smarter man than myself might be able to tell you the what and why of his so far disappointing campaign, although a certain young Brazilian taking up his minutes on the left flank could certainly have something to do with it…

8. As always Neymar had some dazzling moments. It probably would have served us well had he moved to the center of the pitch where he could influence the match more. He still gets kicked a lot, and we can expect M*drid defenders to get away with murder next week when Iker’s shower buddy is arbitrating the clásico.

9. The midfield did a great job at controlling the match that needed to be taken over. Some well-timed forward dashes were sorely lacking. Were Xaviniesta affected by the international “break”? Neither of them played badly, but on a day where our two of our three forwards did not exactly make things happen, it sure would have been nice for our midfielders to step up some.

10. So what can we expect at San Siro? Will we face a similar opponent as in Pamplona, looking for ways to stop us from playing and on a horrid pitch? Will Messi be fit(ter)? Will we rest anybody with the clásico in mind? Your guess is as good as mine, but I look forward to finding out. Let’s hope we’ll do better than our last two visits.

11. See 2.

 "I'm happy I'm back, they have been tough months, but not happy with the result. We knew it's always a difficult game here" Carles Puyol i Saforcada

“I’m happy I’m back, but not happy with the result. We knew it’s always a difficult game here”
Carles Puyol i Saforcada

* EDIT: Just found out Balotelli is not playing. That’s too bad, I prefer a full strength Milan four days before the clásico.

Posted in Barcelona, La Liga, Review55 Comments

Barça 4 – Real Valladolid 1: Music Minus Messi

The cover

All right. Let’s not waste any time today. Record breaker Tata shuffled through his vinyl collection and selected the following tunes: Valdes, Dani Alves, Bartra, Piqué, Adriano, Song, Fàbregas, Xavi, Alexis, Neymar and Tello. Yes, his favorite hit single no.10 was scratched, which, if it doesn’t get fixed any time soon, might not only effect the Argentine’s unprecedented four-year run at the top of the Billboards, but could actually rob our band of its best lyricist. However, let’s not mind the tango* for now. Today is about samba*.

Gerardo Martino: all about the music

Gerardo Martino: all about the music

The twelve inch version

In a first half that was quite open, Real Valladolid hushed the crowd after fifteen minutes of play.  Both Tello and Ney struck upon a false key and left it up to the Chilean Steven Tyler to seek rock star immortality by scoring an absolute screamer. After forty-five minutes in which Barça riffed back and forth with their guests, both went into the dressing room with the score level. Only one team came out of the dressing room to take over the show however, and with Neymar playing the lead guitar, Barça offered up a beautiful performance. Well rehearsed interplay of Xavi y Los Culés saw the band leader put the home team up by one and, backed by Song’s steady bass line, another two hits were soon added to the repertoire, courtesy of Lex and Ney. That’s all she wrote, folks, four to the one. And although the spectators in the stands who had their five fingers raised were left hoping in vain for an encore,  they surely must have gone home satisfied after witnessing a gorgeous concert in which our team hit pretty much all the right notes.

The standout track (1)

Two goals and an assist for Tocopilla’s most famous son, Alexis Sanchez, certainly makes him joint MOTM in my book. His first goal, an unstoppable nuclear strike from outside of the box, was possibly the finest he has ever scored in our colors and his second was taken with the precision of a poacher. I personally would have preferred him to go for a hat-trick instead of assisting Neymar for the fourth goal, if only for the fact that he was in a better position to score than the man he passed the ball to, but oh well. Some might notch it up as a “team-building” assist and he did end up getting the Brazilian wundermeninho a much deserved goal for his performance. I guess I can live with that.

Last year I criticized Alexis heavily for not scoring. Some did not agree, calling attention to all the positives he added to the team. People also argued that he had never been a scorer at his previous clubs. They were all valid opinions, but in my view very much beside the point. First of all despite rythm-interrupting injuries he scored 15 goals for Barcelona during his debut season, showing us that in a system which affords him plenty of opportunities to do so, he can definitely put the ball into the net. Secondly he just missed way too many chances during that first half of his second season, a simple matter of lack of confidence which I was reasonably sure he would overcome.

He now has four goals and three assists in ten appearances (note: not starts, appearances). By comparison, last year he did not score a league goal until February. Quite a difference.

Alexis Sanchez: jugadorazo

Alexis Sanchez: jugadorazo

A new voice

Did you notice that every minute he spends on the pitch, Marc Bartra pinches his arm to make sure he is not dreaming? He has now started three consecutive matches in the center of the defense and the world has not ended. I am not quite sure why his minutes feel so unexpected, because since the only thing we can reasonably expect from our defenders is that they get injured, Marc was bound to get his chance sooner or later. And while our defense did not get tested all that much by any of our last three opponents, he has certainly performed well as far as I can tell. The young defender looks more confident than last season and he has the support of the Camp Nou, who cheer him on whenever they can. I am still not sure whether he will be a future starter or not, but I certainly feel better about our defense knowing that Bartra is part of our squad.

The sleeper hit

Despite an underrated first season at the club, many culés (myself included) are not convinced about the need of Alexander Song in our squad and would have preferred that money to have been spent on someone else. So ladies and gentlemen, may I present to you, the following Fact with a capital F. According to whoscored.com our Cameroonian midfielder had 110 touches of the ball and a 100% pass completion. Let me repeat.

100% pass completion!

That right there deserved its own paragraph and exclamation point and there is not much that I can add to make this any more noteworthy.

song

100%

The remix

Myself to BFB team, by e-mail, a little more than a month ago:

 “I’m really into the idea of using more video material, something I will get better at as time goes by … I’m thinking of a video comparison between Xavi’s horizontal passing and Cesc’s vertical passing, for example.”

This was right after our game at the Mestalla, where Cesc ripped Valencia apart in the first 40 minutes by attempting an assist almost every time he got the ball. What happened to that great idea, some might ask. Well, apart from unexpected time constraints and very annoying technical issues**, Xavi Hernandez has gotten wise to the idea that not every ball has to be passed to the left or the right. His style, in concurrence with the team’s philosophy, has gotten a whole lot more vertical. That’s right, with a “Daddy’s got a brand new bag full of passes” remix, one of the oldest members of our squad, whose game has looked in steady decline for two seasons now, is enjoying himself like a young dog out there, ready to bite any sleeping defender into the hind parts. I will even go as far as saying that when Iniesta came on it was our captain who seemed to play the most forward role of the two.

The standout track (2)

I saw Neymar play as a false nine several times for Santos last year and was left thoroughly unimpressed. His talent was plain to see and it was obvious I was watching a player of guile and vision, but it was a player who made wrong decision upon decision, which put his team at a steady disadvantage every time I watched them. Was I happy that we bought him? You bet! I had seen (and heard) enough of the player to think the Robinho comparison needlessly facile and too easily employed by the legions of haters out there. Here was a young man with genuinely special talent and the apparent will to make it at the club we all love. But I did not think that he would quite lead Brazil the way he did at the Confederations Cup. Not at his age. Or that he would not only integrate so seamlessly into the Barça line-up but already be one of our consistently best players this early into the season. I honestly did not expect that much, that fast. Surely all the Brazilian ex-superstars who kept telling us O Ney was the greatest thing since sliced bread were just hyping one of their own…

It turns out that even those of us who wanted him to come did not realize how right we were. O Ney led the attack and then some. His dribbles and passes electrified the crowd, who expected the unexpected every time the young Brazilian received the ball. He was directly involved in three out of four goals, which could have been seven or eight. And more often than not, positioned in the center of the attack, he made the right choices.

Some hours after the game I texted a merengue friend of mine that if it weren’t for their incredible luck, they would have already given up their league hopes this season. He answered: “tenemos Ronaldo. El Unico” (we have Ronaldo. The Unique One***). I laughed to myself, because as special as Cristiano Ronaldo is, something only a fool would deny, I secretly wondered whether Neymar was already a better player than the Portuguese superstar who scores more goals than he plays games. The fact that the very question entered my mind, at the start of the 21 year old’s career in Europe, helped me realize how lucky we are to have him at our club.

Worth every penny

Worth every penny

Parental Discretion Advised

Speaking of which, had Neymar worn a shirt the color of toilet paper he would have been awarded two penalties. I’m just saying…

The man behind the band

Gerardo Martino has now started the league with eight consecutive wins. Another year, another record. He has intelligently brought Neymar slowly. He might be the first to get the best out of Cesc (well, other than Wenger) and he has Alexis Sanchez brimming with confidence. His team averages more than 65% possession yet seems a lot more direct than its previous incarnations. We seem to concede less counter goals, although Victor Valdes’ excellent start of the season might have something to do with that as well. He also appears to rotate more than Tito or Pep, which leaves a lot of us scratching our heads as to why Xavi Hernandez still plays so many minutes. His stroke of true genius, however, is to make our opponents think they can score from every corner. Our weakness has officially become weaker. No coach in the world will ever worry about an offensive gameplan that focuses on anything else than F.C. Barcelona conceding corners. After all, any reasonably well taken cross will result in a goal. And then, six months into the season, all of a sudden and without any warning whatsoever, Tata will spring the mother of all surprises and position a player at the first post and another one at the second post to defend the corner kicks. Opponents will know neither what to do nor how to score. Genius, I’m telling you, the man’s a genius.

The encore

So we annihalated another opponent, only this time without Lionel Messi. Strangely enough, I believe it makes for the ninth straight match (correct me if I’m wrong) that Barcelona won without the Flea. Are we better without the Best? Are defenses more focused with Messi on the pitch? Does he press / track back that much less? Are Neymar and Alexis more comfortable without the Argentine superstar stifling their movement or creativity? Or is it all just a coincidence? My short answers are no, no, yes, maybe but they shouldn’t and yes. We are not better without Messi and any professional soccer player is focused when facing a team of Barcelona’s caliber regardless of its line-up. I think Messi still presses and tracks back less but I am willing to make that trade off – when it comes to pressing he chooses his moments more carefully than others and as for tracking back I would prefer him to be fresh when he receives the ball. A lot has been made about how Sanchez plays better without Leo and this might be true – his best performance last season was the 2 goal, 2 assist game with Fab Four hat-tricking from the false nine position. However I believe that Alexis has been playing with more confidence, period. As for O Ney and La Pulga, we have already seen how in a short time they have gotten to understand each other on the pitch and this should only improve. Ultimately I think it is up to the team to work together, and I think we are lucky enough for our stars to understand just that.

"You always miss Messi, for everyone's he's the best player on the planet. The center forward position is his." Neymar Da Silva Santos Junior

“You always miss Messi, for everyone’s he’s the best player on the planet. The center forward position is his.”
Neymar Da Silva Santos Junior

*To people who realize that not even in South America does time stand still and that yes, the 21st century has reached the shores of this wondrous continent also, this should actually read: let’s not mind the cumbia, today is about funk.

** Really, Adobe Premiere can’t handle .mkv files? And Windows Movie Maker shuts down every two minutes? What’s up with that?

*** Ronaldo scored M*drid’s overtime winner earlier that afternoon. I replied that he was an excellent player and certainly among the top five in the world right now. I think my friend lost it a little.

Posted in Barcelona, Review78 Comments

Barça 3 – Sevilla 2: Last Minute Mwa-ha-ha

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Posted in Barcelona, La Liga, Review61 Comments

Valencia 2 – Barça 3: Virtuoso Vertigo

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The famous story of a man jumping off the roof of a skyscraper and no, he is not suicidal or anything, or at least not that he is aware of it. During the fall he says to himself, “So far all is well… all is well… all is well…”

And he only jumped because he was told to, really. One could easily make the argument that Mad Man Martino pushed Valdes, Dani Alves, Piqué, Mascherano, Alba, Busquets, Cesc, Iniesta, Pedro, Messi and Neymar Jr. off of the ledge.

But that’s okay because all is well…

The Flea scored three. Was I alone in thinking that none of his goals were all that spectacular? That he could have doubled up on his first half hat-trick after the break? That he should have passed instead of shot or dribbled on one or two occasions? Then again, the fact that those thoughts even enter the mind just serves to underline how much we have gotten used to his greatness over the years.

All is well…

The Brain showed signs of waking out of his slumber – freefalling will do that to a man – and Octobusi flailed his tentacles in the air to swat the bats. The man formerly known as P! was his usual industrious and inaccurate self as he could be seen from robbing balls around his own sixteen to wasting bonafide scoring opportunities within the blink of an eye.

All is well…

Who said that Messi and Neymar couldn’t fly together? If Junior’s first assist to the Argentine’s third goal was sublime, the stylee backheel to set up our no. 10 for a potential second half match winner was mouthwatering. We haven’t seen a forward with that kind of magic in his feet since a big Bosnian Swede “graced” us with his presence. Unlike Ibrahimovic however, the young Brazilian has arrived with a humble attitude and he plays a position that does not upset the balance of our team. The sky is the limit for this kid. O Ney indeed.

All is well…

While Piqué and Smash mostly dealt with the fires our two Al’s left behind when screaming up and down the Mestalla, VV was a motherflippin’ rock that hurled F-bombs at any ball that came at him and probably a bit worse at the two that slipped by. When our goalkeeper is at the top of his game he is the best in the world and by the looks of things he is striving for immortality in his last season defending our colors.

All is well…

Just hand Cesc the keys to your car. It goes a hundred and forty you say? He’ll get it up to one sixty. And don’t worry about your airbags, he probably won’t crash it today. With two assists, Mr. Fábregas was hugely influential in securing a three goal lead after only thirty-nine minutes. Except that the lead was not all that secure, and eight minutes later we went into the dressing room with only one goal between us.

The second half was even more helter skelter than the first, only without the goals. We always looked like we could score, and we never felt safe. Messi, Pedro and Jordi Alba all had excellent opportunities at killing the game in our favor. Valencia was a post and a header away from equalizing. With Xavi Hernandez not called up, this is what we look like when we leave our parachute at home. Up in the air at breakneck speed with the wheels off the ground, Valencia was first overwhelmed and then decided they could hang.  They couldn’t, but could have, if that makes sense. It’s funny, because it kind of reminds me of another game in which Cesc ran the midfield, in which he played great and which pointed to a future without Xavi. Last season at the Riazor. We led that game 0-3 after twenty-five minutes or so before Deportivo de La Coruña turned it into a 4-5 nail biter.

Valencia’s goals came from weaknesses opponent coach’s grandmothers know about, attacking Jordi Alba’s flank and set pieces. For the latter I remain as skeptical towards the man-on-man as I was towards the zone defense.  You can’t coach length and that’s our whole problem to begin with. As for Jordi’s flank I am not even sure if he is to blame or if it is just a natural consequence of how our team is set up to play. As our tiki taka has started to come up short with the Boeing share of possession not always translating into chances, we have begun to slowly move away from our horizontal ways. The thing with verticality is though, it works both ways, as in for us and for our opponents. Just like how Neymar has to figure out when to make the individual action and when to pass the ball, this team must learn when to check or when to go all in. Without a doubt Martino has his work cut out for him…

The man jumped off of the building, because too often the stairs are blocked. All is well, and if he aims straight he’s gonna hit the net. If he doesn’t, it paints quite a different picture. We’re gonna cheer wildly when he hits the net, and be pretty depressed when he crashes on the concrete… Isn’t that what football is all about?

Visca Barça!

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“Usually I suffer, but I enjoyed this game. It could have been 3-3 or    2-5, but I would have been satisfied no matter the result.”                               Gerardo Martino

Posted in Barcelona, Review217 Comments

RETRO DIARY: May 20, 1992, as Barça were crowned Kings of Europe

Back when the Champion’s League was still called the European Cup, a thirteen-old boy sits in front of the tv to watch the final between Barcelona and Sampdoria. No, he did not yet own a Barça jersey at that time – having travelled to Indonesia the previous summer, a trip on which his mother had spent a good three years worth of savings, there is no money for such frivolities this year. Besides, his mother hates soccer and can’t stand people watching it, so she has resigned herself to the bedroom, making way for yours truly. Anyway, if the young Barça fan (though not yet a culé) would have written a match diary from his living room couch that evening, it might have turned out something like this:

01

Remember the names, bee-yotch! If we end up winning the first European Cup in the history of our club, these eleven warriors will be the ones who, maybe won’t have gotten the job done, but at least started it. The babes in the woods among you should at least recognize some of the names in the line-up. Zubizarreta is of course our technical director, Laudrup is currently coaching Swansea and doing quite well and Sacristán Eusebio is leading (or ruining, depending to whom you ask) our B team. There is also a certain Josep “Pep” Guardiola on the pitch – his name might ring a bell. Zubi’s predecessor, fellow Basque Txiki Beguiristain, is on the bench, as is Sergio’s dad, Carles Busquets. For some reason I can’t quite explain, Bakero is one of my favorite players of that team.

1a

Think of American love for football, baseball, basketballl combined and you still won’t get close to how passionate my country is about soccer. Holland counts 16 million people, of whom a staggering 1.5 million play at an amateur football club. Who knows how many are watching the final tonight. Of course, for those who had not yet turned on their television set, Johan Cruijff proves an extra incentive. Having left the club of his youth, Ajax, a few seasons ago after falling out with some of its board members, he is steadily turning around the fortunes of Barcelona, the club he had previously left the club he just left for. Tonight he can complete the circle by leading his team to the Holy Grail. Take a deep breath, and…

1b

Kick-off! Playing from right to left, in London’s legendary Wembley stadium, Barça is clad in orange. The Italians are wearing whites shirts and blue shorts.

02

The ball soon finds its way to our opponents’ goalkeeper, a man who goes by the somewhat silly name of Gianluca Pagliuca. Thoroughly removed from my memory is whether or not I actually liked keeper uniforms in the early nineties. Unfortunately I suspect that I did.

03

Hristo Stoichkov, one of the undisputed stars of our team, is never afraid to take on his man. Attilio Lombardo, who later may or may not have admitted to stuffing his shorts with approximately two thousand firecrackers in the minutes before the game, runs across the field to stop him…

04

…which doesn’t go down all that well with the temperamental forward, of whom Cruijff had the following to say: “Before Stoichkov came we had a team of very nice people, but you can’t just have a team of very nice people”. In his first season with the club, a Spanish referee found out all there is to know about Bulgarian niceties, when Hristo stomped on his foot. He was suspended for two months, but still scored fourteen goals.

05

Another integral part of the dream team was Ronald Koeman, whose forward surges and pinpoint passes made him about ten times as much Piquenbauer than Gerard. As it stands, he was already given the quite brilliant nicknames of “snowflake” and “tintin”. It’s a good thing Catalans don’t speak Dutch all that well, for they might have simply translated his last name into the unflattering “cowman”.

06

For all of Fifa’s boneheaded decisions, they do make good ones from time to time.

06a

Changing the rules so that a keeper cannot pick up a ball that is played back to him by a teammate has definitely been a good decision. If you think teams tactics are negative today, imagine defenders and keepers passing the ball back and forth a good 30-40 times per game. This final, however, is not one of those games, as both teams set out to play football.

07

After 10 minutes the score is still nil-nil. Barça are establishing their possession-based game which would define our style for decades to come. The players touch the ball one, maximum two times before passing to a teammate and mostly succeed in avoiding Sampdoria’s press.

08a

It is still early in the game, when Barça receives a free kick not far outside of the penalty area. Our renowned set piece specialist lines up. Known for his killer right foot, Koeman could strike the ball with a caressing finesse or with devastating power. It must be said that he often prefers the latter.

08b

In the man’s own words: “Sometimes I just like to shoot the ball into the wall as hard as possible, especially if I know that I will face them again – later on, they will know how to duck”.

08c

This time around, he by-passes the wall. His shot troubles Pagliuca, but not nearly enough. The whole of Sampdoria breathe a sigh of relief… For now.

09

In minute 17 Sampdoria lets off their first shot but luckily for us, Lombardo aims wide.

10

Stoichkov, who would prefer Lombardo to not shoot the ball at all, gives an all too predictable response: he sends the Italian rolling over the pitch. The referee, honor-bound by an era in football when men were still men and the area from the neck down was fair game to studs up challenges, does not pull out a yellow card.

11

However, Lombardo is not so easily deterred. When Barça fail to clear a corner it is Sampdoria’s number 7 who blasts the ball over.

12

On the other side of the pitch, who other than Hristo Stoichkov tests Pagliuca with an excellent header, an exam the Italian keeper passes with an equally excellent save.

14

And thus the finalists are still bound by a goalless tie at half time. The game has been neither great nor terrible – Barça looked to dominate from the beginning but Sampdoria created two slightly more dangerous chances. Lombardo and Stoichkov have been the main protagonists by far. The Italian star forwards Gianluca Vialli and Roberto Mancini have been pretty quiet, as is (I imagine) the whole of Catalunya, filled with angst over what is to come over the next forty-five minutes. An all too quick look at our trophy cabinet would reveal that Barça has never quite lived up to its status of one of the world’s great clubs. Having been founded ninety-two years ago, we find ourselves in what it is only our third European Cup final, a final that, to make things worse, we have never actually won.

15

Unwilling to let history repeat itself, Barça start the second half determined to score the opener. Striker Julio Salinas wriggles himself free for a shot at goal, and the tone is set.

16

Modern day Catalan foklore has it that Guardiola told Xavi he would one day take over his position as the team’s midfield lynchpin. Upon seeing Iniesta, he added, “and he will retire the both of us”. However, it is this writer’s humble opinion that rather than emulating señores Pep or Xavi, the previous Barcelona player Don Andrés most resembles is Michael Laudrup. Freed from the shackles of playing in the Serie A, the great Dane truly flourished under Cruijff. As elusive as he was elegant, his dribbles and passes were truly a pleasure to the eye. Here he sets up buddy Hristo for yet another…

16b

… chance that goes begging. Barcelona is dominating the game in the beginning of the second half. Is it too early to start dreaming…?

17

Well, if you are you’re in for a rude awakening. Not happy with how things are going, the Italians start kicking us black and azurri. The yellow card stays neatly tucked in the referee’s pocket, and the free kick on the edge of the penalty area leads to nothing.

18

On the other side of the pitch, Sampdoria creates the biggest scoring chance of the match so far. The crowd have their fists raised in anticipation of the goal when Vialli shoots over from close range.

19a

The game is finally opening up. When Sampdoria botch a free kick, Laudrup receives the ball in midfield…

19b

… and releases Stoichkov with a defense splitting pass. The forward is now alone with the keeper…

19c

…who has no hopes of stopping the shot. Time nearly grinds to a halt, as half a second seemingly lasts forever… It’s going in, it’s going in, it…

19d

… bounces of off the post! Laudrup grabs his hair and exhales…

19e

…while the more passionate Bulgarian screams in disgust. Surely there will be more chances to come?

20a

This is turning into a truly spectacular game, an outright celebration of football. Both teams are looking to win this game and the hammer can drop at any given moment. Guardiola, twenty-year old lord and master of the Catalan midfield, looks up and find his passing routes blocked, while a midfielder is closing in on him…

20b

… he turns…

20c

… and turns, 360 degrees. The internet is still an unknown futuristic fantasy, a military experiment. Twenty years later youtube compilation videos will exist of Pep’s understudy Xavi Hernandez performing the same pirouette on bewildered opponents, while the man himself is on the sideline guiding F.C. Barcelona to their third and fourth Champion’s League medals. Today, on May 20, 1992, we simply applaud the brilliance of the move we just witnessed on the football pitch.

21

After sixty-six minutes, Cruijff decides to shake things up a bit. Julio Salinas makes way for Andoni Goikoetxea, one of Barça’s tricky Basque forwards.

22

Vialli breaks through for his second scoring opportunity of the game. Koeman, at times more comfortable creating chances than preventing them, is unable to stop him. Luckily for us, however, the forward aims straight at Zubizarreta. This should be a wake up call for our defense.

23a

But it’s not. Again, Sampdoria break through, and again it is Vialli who finds himself eye to eye with our goalkeeper. This time he tries to beat us with a delicate lob…

23b

… surely it is going in! Half of Catalunya cover their eyes with their hands as they can’t bear to watch. Fans of the club from Genoa wildly jump up and down…

24

Needlessly so. At the pace of an autumn leaf, Vialli’s lob drops ever so gently to the wrong side of the post. For the third time this game, Gianluca failed to put his team ahead. He would not receive a fourth opportunity.

25

Barcelona are rattled. Juan Bakero slows down the tempo with a hard foul on Cerezo and a tussle ensues. Of course Stoichkov is in the mix, too.

26

In the last fifteen minutes of the game, both Vierchovod and Goikoetxea try their luck at goal. Extra time is getting closer by the tick of the clock.

27a

A few minutes before time, Barcelona commit a foul in a dangerous position. The game will be decided by a free kick…

27b

… but Roberto Mancini won’t be the taker!

29

German referee Aron Schmidhuber blows the whistle after 90 minutes and pocket change. The second half has been truly spectacular. Both teams had their chances to win the game, but Gianluca Vialli in particular should prove more successful in kicking himself than in kicking the ball into the net.

30

Night has fallen in London when the teams prepare for extra time. Having lost the European Cup on penalties to Steaua Bucarest six years ago, we definitely want to decide the game in the next thirty minutes. Sampdoria win the coin toss…

31

… and off they go!

32

The first opportunity is for Stoichkov, but he is tightly defended and shoots well wide.

33

Then Manini capitalizes on some dodgy goalkeeper positioning from a corner. Well, he would have had he not headed the ball way over.

34

Both teams continue where they left it after an excellent second half. The winning goal can fall on either side of the pitch. Extra time it may be, but they are playing like there ain’t no tomorrow.

36

After a long spell of possession for Barcelona, left back Juan Carlos sets up José Marí Bakero, but Pagliuca saves…

37

… and one of the 25.000 culés who traveled to London exhales deeply. One out of four European Cup finals make it to extra time and right now, the tension is mounting, as any mistake made can be a fatal one.

38

Fifteen minutes to go, as the first half of the prongation period is finished. The neck-breaking pace of the last sixty minutes are long gone, as tired legs and a more cautious approach have slowed the game down.

39

Around the 120 minute mark, Invernicci fouls Eusebio about five yards outside the box.

40a

Vialli, on the bench after having been taken off some ten minutes earlier, can’t bear to watch. Surely he knows who is going to take the free kick.

40b

Ronald Koeman lines up. It is an indirect free kick, so Juan Bakero takes the first touch, which will allow the defenders an extra half-second to run towards the ball in order to try to block the shot.

40c

Wall? There is no wall… As Koeman is about to unleash hell towards the opposite goal, Pagliuca moves towards the left, anticipating a curler…

40d

… and is completely unable to stop the missile that Snowflake has just launched at him. 1-0 Barcelona!!!!

40e

Scorer of countless free kicks, Koeman is brought to tears by the one he just put in the back of the net…

cruijff goal

…While Cruijff rushes off of the bench in order to instruct his team. “I knew that if my players did not lose their heads, we would hang on to our lead”, he commented after the game.

42

Hanging on to our heads is not something even remotely on culés minds, though…

43

Nor is drawing back into our own half in order to defend the lead on the mind of the team.

43b

And while Sampdoria anxiously tries to make the most of the few remaining minutes…

47

…Barça is content to let time run its course.

48

The game ain’t over til the man in a ridiculous black uniform blows his whistle. And when he does, we have finally done it. Futbol Club Barcelona has secured their first ever European Cup and the players run the pitch in celebration.

50

Visca Barça!!!!!

Posted in Barcelona, Classic Matches, Review244 Comments

Athletic 2 – Barça 2, as San Mamés got the draw it deserved

My match thoughts, numbered for easy consumption:

1. Impressionist Tito envisioned a beautifully lit Bilbao in blue and scarlet with Valdés, Dani Alves, Piqué, Abidal, Song, Xavi, Thiago, Pedro, Fàbregas and Alexis as his brushes of choice. Of course Bielsa is quite the painter too, so we ended up sharing the canvas. It’s all good. Fuck the Guggenheim, San Mamés is where it’s at.

2. Messidependency is all the fashion these days. The diabolical flea turned the game around immediately. Within one minute he threatened the goal and within two he set up Pedrito. Before long he slalomed through the Bilbao defense and scored the equalizer with a flick of the foot. It was a magical effort, his 44th goal of the season a contender for the goal of the season. Shortly afterwards he set up Alexis with a brilliantly headed pass for Barça to take the lead.

3. A steady (and not entirely invalid) criticism has been this year that the fact that our game always flows through Messi makes us relatively predictable and easy to defend. Still when he doesn’t play, our offense often seems to lack a focal point instead of becoming more diverse. Our frontline is still incredibly talented even without our Argentine extraordinaire, but the problem is that most of our attackers like to have the ball played to their feet. The two players we do have who can make forward runs to invite through balls have either stopped doing so (Pedro) or stopped doing so (Villa). Sanchez has that ability but doesn’t do so quite enough. When he starts making those runs more often, watch out.

4. Speaking of Lexus, he was easily our best forward during the first forty-five minutes. He was an active part of the offense and defense and consistently made the right decisions on the ball. He was unlucky not to get the opening goal when he hit the post after an excellent attempt, and although he disappeared somewhat later in the game, he more than made up for that by scoring what should have been the winner. I have been one of his harsher critics among the BfB team, but note that I have never given up on him. I am glad to say that after an extremely frustrating first half of the season, he is making a very strong case to not get sold this summer. Not only is he scoring (like I said he would), his decision making is also improving.

5. Lost possession, long ball… Put Abidal in a complicated position near our own corner flag, lost possession… Long ball, lost possession… Awesome one-time pass, tiki taka, wow, nice… Long ball over the ground which Cesc could not control… Long ball, loss of possession… Long ball under pressure.

What’s that? Oh, you got my notes! I wondered where I left them. The above is what happened every time our Victorian Secret had the ball passed to his feet. Six out of seven times it resulted in a loss of possession. Previous games have offered similar tallies (in my head only though, not on paper).  Now I am not saying he had a bad game. No, Sir, that is not what I am saying. What it does suggest, however, is that when he moves to another club, his passing won’t be missed as badly as is often claimed.¹

6. Barça conceded the 35th goal of our league campaign, equalling our worst defensive year under Pep² with five games to spare. We have been talking about the state of our defense since the season started. I feel there are three factors at play here. We don’t press us much as before, we employ a slightly more direct and riskier style, and we have never adequately replaced Puyol and Abidal. As for the goals, Piqué got absolutely roasted by Aduriz and neither Abidal nor Jordi Alba blocked the assist. And the equalizer would not have happened if Captain Carles or king Eric had been on the pitch at that time – either one of them would have properly headed away the cross that led to Bilbao’s second goal. As some of our female readers might say, size matters, and through no fault of his own, Adriano came up short. Draw your conclusions as you see fit, I have been arguing that our backline lacks height and physicality for quite some time now.

7. With Xavi nearer to the end of his career than to the start, Cesc continues to trade off good performances with mediocre ones. Sport magazine was quick to publish the possibility he might return to London this summer and I dare say some culés would not even mind (though in my mind we’d be crazy to let him go). In the meantime Thiago had one of his better outings of the season. Both midfielders should have a place in Barça for years to come, although a player of Cesc’s quality and maturity would do well to show us some more consistency.

8. I don’t know what’s what anymore… Sport magazine? Culés? Well, yes, a poll taken in the former – and presumably answered by the latter – showed a whopping eighty percent in favor of letting Tito go. Pardon my French and then some, but mother****ers are crazy! You’re telling me that a coach with the winningest start in La Liga since its 1929 inauguration is not good enough for us? The man who made one of the most successful managers in the history of the game, who is leading the most expensive team ever assembled, give up on the league after a mere half season?? And you’re not willing to give him the chance to coach our team for a complete season, uninterrupted by a potentially fatal disease that caused him to observe trainings through webcams for months? Crazy, that’s what’s what.

9. I digress… Back to the game: if we have to lose points, I prefer it to be against los Leones de Athletic Club. As is their won’t, they fielded a team of Basques only, nine of whom were brought up in their own academy (how do you say Masía in Euskera?). Unless your name is Maradona, the games between our two clubs are usually among the more entertaining³. This match was no exception. Since it was our last encounter ever at the San Mamés, one of Europe’s oldest stadiums and home to one of its most special clubs, it is only fitting that it ended in a draw. Visca el Barça! Visca Catalunya! i visca Euskadi!

messi

“Messi-dependent? Leo is the best player in the world. It’s normal you can see it when he’s not there.”
Jordi Roura Solà

 

 

¹ Just for your clarification. I do think that for his position Valdés is an excellent passer of the ball and that that makes him a good fit at Barcelona. This match, however, does suggest that we have a tendency to exagerrate his passing skills, or at least the positive effect those skills has on our the game. Also, the very fact that I decided to take specific notes every time he had the ball at his feet should suggest to the reader that this match was not a one-off either.

² Our worst defensive year? The one that coincided with the triple glory of league, cup and CL championships.

³ The respect that has characterized the matches between both clubs has not always existed. On the 24th of September of 1983, Diego Maradona almost got his leg sawed off by Andoni Goikoetxea, who had broken Barça player Bernd Schuster’s leg two years earlier. Hence, the nickname, the Butcher of Bilbao. When Maradona next faced Athletic a year later he instigated an all-out brawl. It was to be the end of the Pelusa at Barcelona, as president Nuñez unforgivingly shipped him out to Napoli. I sometimes still wonder what would have happened had Goikoetxea not broken the ankle of arguably the best player ever as he was to embark on his career in our beautiful club.

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