El Clasico Foreboding
The biggest rivalry in the world of sports, the Clasico, is here once again. And I am worried.
Tomorrow, Real Madrid FC and FC Barcelona will met in an epic clash in Barcelona’s Camp Nou—a bitter rivalry that has in recent times come to be known for its fierce competitiveness as well as its symbolism. It will be watched by an estimated 400 million people all around the world. You couldn’t ask for a bigger stage if you were a professional. Football stars from other leagues are going to be tuned in to see what the two biggest clubs in Spain will do.
So far Mourinho and Xavi have been trying to manage expectations. In all reality, it is just a game, but it is a game that really matters. Let us consider these facts:
- Real Madrid, the league winners last year, are 8 points behind Barca in the league standings this year having won three, lost 2 and tied 1 of the six games played so far this year. Barca by contrast has won all 6 matches to be at the top of the league table.
- Real Madrid has been outperforming Barca in recent head-to-head matches. Ronaldo has scored against Barcelona in their last 5 meetings. Also, you might remember that Real Madrid defeated Barcelona to take the Supercopa earlier this season.
- Unlike Real Madrid that has a relatively healthy collection of eager and motivated players especially players in fine form waiting on the bench (what we call a deep bench), Barcelona by contrast has been plagued by injuries. Since the season began Pique, Puyol, Thiago Alcantarra, Iniesta, Alves etc. have had one injury or the other put them out of action. As the Cules get ready to battle the Blancos, I must point out also that they will not have the services of Pique and Puyol at the back.
All these lead me to conclude that Barca must have to be exceptional form if they are not to come away with a loss at home to a physically less depleted, stronger and hungrier Madrid team. This is compounded by the fact that Barcelona seems to not have a reliable Centre Back. Like I pointed out several times last season, Barcelona desperately needs to fortify its back line, and since it hasn’t done so, it is actually within the bounds of reason to expect that Real Madrid’s rapid fire offence will cause a lot of headaches to Barca’s weaker defensive line. As a matter of fact, I am expecting a Barca loss tomorrow strange as that might sound to come from a fan.
We have struggled to win these matches unlike the Barca of a few years ago. One might even say that other teams have somehow managed to fashion a winning strategy or formula when faced with Barca’s tiki-taka. Do you want to know what this winning formula is? I’ll tell you. In any game with Barca, you automatically know we will dominate the possession. You know we’ll surely pass the ball around more often than your team. Our problem now seems to be that since Messi has suddenly decided to feature more prominently in mid-field (one wonders if he has lost his scoring drive or if he is trying to share the stage by assisting other’s to score), Barca will continue passing the ball at the edge of the goal seeking for a way to break down Real Madrid’s defense in other to score. Madrid simply has to defend aggressively in order to frustrate Barca’s slew of passes which ultimately go nowhere. While the passing is a good strategy to lure out sit-tight defending, it has its own downside.
First, Alexis Sanchez and Cesc Fabregas aren’t as sharp as they needs to be when faced with clear goal scoring opportunities. Pedro on his own part shoots too hastily and misses or else he is just passing the ball rather than trying to intimidate the opposing defenders with fast runs down the flank and the occasional cross. Messi uncharacteristically makes little effort to score. It is as though he is trying to de-emphasize his goal-scoring form this year, and besides, I have seen him complaining and arguing with referee decisions more often than he is used to.
Secondly, Real Madrid is fast on the counter-attack. They should use that often to stun or force Barca into defending their own portion of the turf. If Barca passes a lot of balls that are quickly converted into quick goals by Madrid, they may have to reconsider the strategy. In fact if that happens, it will so much dampen morale that Barca might eventually lose the match. Therefore it is crucial that Madrid does not allow Barca to get into their usual free passing mode. If Barca dominates early, and gets ‘into sync’ with their passing, it will be a long night for Madrid. That means they should always be sending balls forward to test the ability of Barca’s defense tomorrow.
Now, you might wonder why I seem to be giving these points to Madrid, and supposedly exposing the flaws of my own team. The answer is simple—this seems to be open knowledge to many teams now who have used them to great effect against Barca. Furthermore, like I pointed out, I will be surprised if Barca wins tomorrow with the depleted team they seem to be fielding against the Merengues. Of course any Barca win will extend our lead to 11 points, but that will not necessarily mean that the title has been won. We have been winning matches but not with the same flair, style or dominance like we are used to; something is clearly off. For now, I am putting it down to injuries and the lack of rock-solid defending. After this encounter, we’ll know how well Barca is prepared for the rest of the season.
Finally, I expect a mature entertaining match devoid of fighting, pushing, shoving, bickering and all the other unwholesome shenanigans that we have come to expect out of a match of this stature.
Go Barcelona—surprise me if you can!
The Race To Wembley Begins
The Champions League has finally kicked off in earnest. Yesterday we saw some good first matches and today it is Barca’s turn to get their Champions League campaign off the ground. FC Barcelona gets ready for its UEFA Champions League campaign today against Spartak Moscow at the Nou Camp at 2.45pm EST. I expect a good match today and a convincing defeat of Spartak Moscow. Indeed, If pressed to predict a score-line at the end of the match, I’d say that it would end either a 2-0 or a 3-1.
This does not mean that Unai Emery, the coach of Spartak Moscow, who was formerly the coach for Almeria and Valencia, will not be trying very hard to beat the Cules. However, if history is anything to go by, he has never defeated Barca in 12 attempts, and I am not sure he is about to start today.
Wounded But Still Fighting
Last year, at the beginning of the season, I was reflecting on the sort of season the Catalan giants were going to have this year/season. I said inter alia:
What kind of season is FC Barca going to have with this new season? As a committed and passionate Barca fan, I find myself thinking about this a lot lately. You may be wondering why I would be worried or concerned about this judging by Barca’s superlative performance over the past 3 seasons. And of course, your musings would be justified. But, I have a sneaking suspicion that the journey for titles and trophies will be much harder for Barca this time around.
Let me start with their lack-luster preseason games. Based on their success last season, you might expect that the La Liga and Champions League victors would easily dominate their preseason matches. Having partied and rested for these games, you would expect them to show mental and match fitness that testify to their current dominance in this sport. But that was far from what actually obtained. Is it that the players are already burned out? Or could it be that having won 14 titles in three years, they now feel like they’ve done it all and so they now lack the fire-in-the-belly required to hunt for more trophies?
It does seem like my fears has been realized, doesn’t it?
As any sincere watcher and admirer of Barcelona will tell you, they have not been as smooth, sharp and dominant as they have been in the recent past. Their defense formations have regularly come up short; their overall technical dominance in the middle of the field has lagged considerably, and unsurprisingly, their main strikers (with the exception of Messi ) have performed below par. It is therefore not bewildering that what began as a promising season for last year’s league title holders—with the 5-0 demolition of Villareal—is at this point all but lost.
Tormented by multiple player injuries, the blaugrana have nevertheless managed to cling on. Despite the devastating injuries to Affelay, Villa, Sanchez, Pedro, Busquets, Pique, Puyol, Iniesta, Xavi, and Fabregas at various times in this season, the team remains committed to excellence. It is true that they’ve dropped 10 points behind their archrivals Real Madrid when they lost or tied some very critical away games, but their spirit is not altogether broken. They still believe they can close the 10-point gap even if they do not necessarily win the league title this year. Besides, there are still other tournaments which they realistically have a good shot at winning besides the title.
So what happened to this great team that we’ve all come to love? How come they are struggling to win matches, or to maintain their lead in a match? In some of these recent matches, they conceded a goal first and had to come from behind to tie the game. What is going on?
Apart from these beleaguering injuries, it has now become clear (to me anyway) that Barca’s string of heart-wrenching losses and hapless ties can be critically traced to some weakness in the backline. This is not to say that the present cast of defenders is not doing their best. However, as anyone must have noticed, they lose concentration/focus every now and then with some sloppy defending, or some unnecessary passing right in the danger zone when the wisest course of action would have been to clear the ball from the 6 or 18 yard box. On some cases, the defenders have been caught napping or inattentive to the man they were supposed to mark. A number of their conceded goals came from such sloppy defending and not necessarily from the outstanding ingenuity of would-be attackers.
It is pertinent to note that Barca has a number of potent strikers and super-creative midfielders—and more are coming in or set to come in from the youth ranks. The most pressing and urgent area of Barca’s line-up that requires a shot in the arm at this time is the back line. It is not enough to be able to score goals as we’ve all seen—you need to have defenders in truly remarkable form as well to counter whatever a worthy opponent will bring. One hopes the people at Barca’s helm of affairs will seriously look into getting a great defender to boost Barca’s diminishing defensive ranks.
Be that as it may, it is still heart-warming to note that despite Barca’s fall off the perch of la Liga, or the possible exit of Pep Guardiola as team coach, or the debilitating injuries that has helped to take the shine off Barca’s usually impressive performances in recent times, the Catalan giants continue to soldier on –much to the delight of their fans all over the world. The league title may be lost at this point nevertheless there is still much to play for, to fight for. Their performance for the rest of the Champions League, or for the final of the Copa Del Rey, will indeed show whether they will end this season with a bang or a whimper.
The Greatest Football Rivalry
..of all time is here again. Oh yes, it is El Clasico time once again. Last year, there were 5 different encounters between the Real Madrid and Barcelona which, more than anything helped to worsen the rivalry and bad blood between these two titans of Spanish football. If you can remember, the very first Clasico of last season, and incidentally Mourinho’s first clasico as a new coach of the Galacticos, saw Barca utterly demolish the Galacticos 5-0 in Camp Nou. The methodical and classy way with which Barcelona dismantled Real Madrid in that match was something that Mourinho will never forget in a hurry. As a matter of fact, it completely changed the way and manner with which Mourinho would subsequently approach any and all future encounters with Barcelona. To Mourinho’s credit, he quickly had to adapt to the reality on the ground.
The subsequent matches were no longer a test to see which one of these two teams can play the most entertaining flavor of football—Real Madrid virtually ceded that contest to the Catalan giants. But if Real Madrid ever wanted to record favorable results against the seemingly unstoppable Blaugrana team, something had to give. If you just couldn’t outshine or dominate possession against that Barca team, you had to find a way to make the match a more physical game. The hope is that by so doing, you are able to prevent another merciless rout. This was precisely the strategy that Mourinho adopted. Was it a smart move? Well in 5 matches with Barcelona, Real Madrid won 1, drew 2 and lost 2. It certainly didn’t seem like a very bad record for Mourinho’s first year as coach of Real Madrid: especially given Barca’s formidable form last season. However, Real Madrid remained sharply behind Barca in the chase for the title as they continued to work on their own internal problems. Barca finally won the title and crowned it all with a spectacular win over Manchester United to lift the Champions League trophy.
This seems like ancient history now. At the beginning of this season, I expressed a slight apprehension over what I perceived to be a slight deterioration in the drive, quality, finesse, and the hunger for supremacy by Barcelona. I have noticed that Barca’s defensive line has not been as strong and united as it used to be; Barca’s forwards Pedro and Villa have not had the sort of success at goal scoring that I imagined—and they probably already realize this; Messi is getting overworked and closely marked. He may be a phenom, but he would surely appreciate his fellow strikers picking up the slack whenever he wants to gradually slip into the supporting attack role. Let’s also not forget that for a long time Barca has been plagued by personal injuries. These have translated into Barca narrowly tying matches they should have won convincingly and slumping from their prominent number 1 position.
Now, it may be that I am unfairly expecting matchless excellence from Barcelona every time they step out on the field; someone might even remind me that despite my uneasiness about the current quality of Barcelona’s weekly performance, they are still doing very well in the Champions league fixtures and are currently 2nd on the table immediately behind their eternal rivals. As such the proverbial ship is not sinking and the proverbial sky is clearly not falling in on Barcelona. I don’t know what it is, but something deep in my gut tells me that this season’s Barca has clearly not been as lethal as they were last year. It is a feeling that I have found hard to shake in recent times even though any objective analysis would quickly point out that Barca is playing laudable football.
On the other hand, it is evidently clear that Real Madrid is much improved this season. They are stronger, sharper, more cohesive, and clearly more lethal. As a matter of fact, they have never quite looked better and more capable of wreaking havoc. And this they have proved with their amazing goal-scoring form this season. Whatever faults you may perceive in Mourinho, you must admit that he has managed to transform Real Madrid into a force to reckon with— by ball possession, quality of play and goals scored. There was the danger that he was going to remake the team into a defensively minded bunch of ruffians, but then I suppose that has proven not to be the case so far. But then again, it may be that those aggressive rugby tactics only show up when they meet a team like Barcelona; I suppose that remains to be seen tomorrow.
Tomorrow’s match with Barcelona will be very decisive. With one match to spare, Real Madrid is already leading Barcelona by 3 points. If Real Madrid wins tomorrow’s Clasico on their home pitch, they could quickly open up a 9 point lead over Barcelona after they might have played an equal number of matches—a prospect that leads one to the inevitable conclusion that the title is theirs for the taking. This is why Real Madrid will come out guns blazing tomorrow—to avenge that painful loss against Barca last year, to establish themselves as the undisputed best in La Liga, and to put the title race out of contention.
Furthermore, since 2006, Barcelona has met Real Madrid about 16 times—they tied on 5 occasions, Real Madrid won 4 times, and Barcelona won 7 times. There will be a deep burning desire in Real Madrid to win tomorrow’s match, if for nothing else, to sort of bring up their head-to-head victory tally. Because of these reasons, I can see Real Madrid actually winning tomorrow’s match, but I hope it would certainly not be by a five-goal margin. For Barca to go to the Bernabeu and win, they will have to play the sort of amazing football they are known for last season but which sadly hasn’t quite manifested itself this year. They will need every member of that team to perform at peak capacity and avoid silly mistakes in the back line. It is also very possible that in the end, both teams will go with a draw.
Enough said for now. Let’s see what tomorrow will bring.
Why Do They Hate FC Barcelona?
In which FC Barcelona gets pilloried:
Barca don’t allow anyone else to play that’s why watching them is boring. Footie is supposed to be a 2-sided affair. The only time I enjoy watching Barca match is when they play Madrid, Chelsea or JM’s Inter cos those are the only teams who make the match a 2-sided affair. Watching Xavi make 800 passes a game makes me dizzy. They should give the opposition a chance to attack them and then Ill start watching Barca matches.
Holy Mackerel! Who could have imagined that FCBarcelona had so many completely-consumed, violently-spiteful, and viscerally-hateful detractors all over the place! I am tempted to opine, as many did, that the only way it is possible to harbor such powerful feelings of hatred for Barca’s style of play, or of their unquestionable position at the pinnacle of world soccer, is if you are completely new to football or worse, opposed to the concept of Joga Bonito; or maybe it is possible only if you are one of the blinkered and reliably prejudiced fans of their eternal rivals Real Madrid. But I assure you that such people in fact really do exist—wandering all over the place brimming with nothing but antipathy for the current best team on the planet!
What are the reasons for the rage evident in the enemies of Los Cules? What consumes them with such habitual and visceral dislike for a team that has demonstrated their dominance in such superlative fashion? Should not one at least grudgingly admire their excellence even if one does in fact cheer for their opposition?
Indeed, I now begin to appreciate the reason why some people may be moved to hate Barcelona’s style of play. It is their stranglehold on the ball. Even against big name teams they have this uncanny ability to dominate possession; sometimes recording as high as 60-66% of the total football possession. As someone once said to me, “this team will pass you to death”. And true indeed is that sentiment. Barca relies on tapping the ball around, spreading it all over the field and gradually breaking down defensive formations. It is not as though their players are not gifted with individual skills, or that these players are not capable of holding on to the ball for much longer, the simple truth is that to blend into Barca’s excellent all-round team play, their players have learnt to play as one single cohesive unit. That means short and accurate passes, diagonal crosses, incisive positioning and the patience to wear a team down with such methodical and graceful possession until the defence weakens or fumbles. When that happens, you’ll behold the magnificence of Barca’s individual players as they produce spectacular world-class goals.
No wonder the fans of their opposing teams may be motivated to such fruitless anger. It is certainly no fun watching your favorite team run around for the ball in vain. I am sure it must really annoy people to see their players work so hard to get the ball and get dispossessed moments later, only for Barca to continue their famous tiki-taka. It is at times like this that opposition teams turn into rugby players and take fouls to an absurd new level. I am reminded of Real Madrid under Mourinho who often imagine themselves wrestlers of some sort whenever they are confronted with Barcelona’s frustrating ball possession.
Not only is FCBarca great at dominating the ball possession, they have world-class playmakers. They may not be the tallest or sturdiest looking players; as a matter of fact they may not even carry themselves like superlative talent. But what they lose in physical stature and presence they more than make up for in creative play. If I were to start analyzing the individual talent of each member of the Barca first 15, this post will become unnecessarily long but I’ll focus on a few players for emphasis.
Take Andres Iniesta for example. Unless you are completely new to football, and thus cannot be trusted to tell what amazing talent is, there is simply no way for you to have watched Iniesta over the course of two or three seasons and not come away impressed by the talent he brings to the field. He has an amazing ability of winning the ball in dead-ball situations; sometimes emerging with the ball after being ambushed by 2 or 3 opposing players. It is as if he is some kind of magician that temporarily blinds the people that come to dispossess him of the ball. I still cannot understand how he manages to retain the ball or how he still manages to complete a pass when he is surrounded or trapped by opposing players. Secondly, the man appears tireless. He’ll keep threading passes and making amazing runs down any flank all day long. His chemistry with Xavi is undeniable and rock-solid. It is therefore not surprising that people might hate a team where at least one of her players seems to be wearing an invisibility cloak, making incisive passes all day and the occasional attempts at goal. With Iniesta on the field, it must seem to opponents as though Barca has 12 men on the field.
Then what shall we say about the “Lord of the Midfield” Xavi Hernandez? He is one of my most cherished players of all time. I like his simple humility and his work ethic. Xavi makes everyone on his side, especially his side’s forwards look better. I simply lack the words to describe his greatness. Xavi has an unequalled reading of the midfield, and a dominating presence on it. He sits at the center of the field and makes the plays, the passes, and the distribution that allow other Barcelona players to excel. It is almost impossible to dispossess him of the ball; and to add to his creative distribution, he can effortlessly dribble anyone that dares come to rob him of the ball and just as immediately send a diagonal cross that will produce a goal. The man seemingly has eyes all over his body. With him controlling the midfield and methodically breaking the opponent’s defensive line, it is hard to see Barcelona losing. The best thing to do is to go and mark closely any player that you suspect would be on the receiving end of Xavi’s creative passes. Do not give an inch of space to Barca’s strikers for the very moment you run out of place to attack or stop an advancing Xavi (a futile venture since he almost never loses the ball anyway), you can trust Xavi to see that opening, that opportunity at that precise moment to connect a very deadly pass. When watching him, I just shudder at his amazing read on the game, and his unequalled ability to pick out a fellow team member who might be better positioned to score or make an impact and subsequently thread an accurate pass. He makes it all so easy—he makes everyone on his side extra lethal. And if you think that all he is good for is creating the plays that result in goals, you would be mistaken. For the records show that he is just as good at scoring goals if he finds himself near the goal.
Then of course, you have the undisputed revelation of football in these our times, the man called Leo Messi. Tomes have already been written in praise of him so I’ll try to keep this as brief as possible. Messi is what you should think about when you try to envision the all-round complete player. He is an absolute delight to watch. Anyone who pretends otherwise is merely being cheeky or is living in serious denial. The accolades continue to pour in to celebrate his passion for excellence as he keeps performing wonders on the field. He is already on his way to becoming the highest goalscorer that Barcelona has ever known—and he is only 24 years old!
Facing a team that is blessed with such amazing world-class players, it is understandable why some people would be annoyed at the jaw-dropping regularity (you might even say predictable monotony) of Barca’s consistent unrivalled performance.
Therefore I do not think it is a valid argument, like the sore loser Jose Mourinho is wont to make, that Barcelona’s success as a team is only possible because Barcelona has the privilege of being the special darling of UEFA. It is a remark borne out of nothing but envy and pettiness. If it appears that people all over the world love Barcelona, it is simply a reflection of Barca’s commitment to excellence. Even with debilitating injuries, the Catalan giants under the able tutelage of Pepe Guardiola, have continued to justify the faith and confidence reposed in them.
Eventually all good things must come to an end; yes eventually a time will come when Barca ceases to be the number 1 team in the world, but unfortunately for Barca’s haters, that time is not now. Sitting comfortably at the top of the Spanish League with 14 points, with the most goals to date in this season, and also sailing smoothly in the Champions league matches, Barcelona is going to continue to redefine the limits of excellence in this our times. Truly they are the team to beat even if jealous rivals or pessimistic naysayers continue to verbally diminish the impact that Barca has made or accuse them of whatever their flights of fancy can conceive. True lovers of football can cheer for their own teams even as they recognize the wondrous phenomenon that is Barca football in these our times.
ALL hail the glory of FC Barcelona; long may we reign!
El Clasicos 2011
Last year, this was what I had to write concerning the match between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid. I frankly did not expect that Barca would rout them 5-0. Well, guess what? That time is upon us again. yayyyyyyy! Only that this time, we have the awesome prospect of watching 4 thrilling Clasico matches in the space of less than 3 weeks. yayyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy!!
Now, I am going to say that considering the present shape of my Blaugrana boys—injuries and card suspensions—I think they are going to have a very steep uphill climb against them when they get to the Bernabeu tomorrow. I might go as far as predicting a draw or a 1-0 victory for Real Madrid. What, you think Real Madrid will beat Barca 5-0? Let me assure you that will never happen. At most I see a 2 goal difference and nothing more. I am even going to wager that we might even dominate Real Madrid on other game-stats like possession, goals on target etc.
It seems to me that we can lose this particular game and still win the league title. What we really need to focus on is the Copa Del Rey final next Wednesday and the upcoming Champions league semi final matches against Real Madrid. If we can beat them in the Del Rey final, and then beat them with enough margin in the Champions league encounter (so as to advance to the finals based on aggregates), then I think it would be only fair to tell Real Madrid fans to submit willingly to Barca as the undisputed Lords of Spanish football.
Less than 48 hours now. I cannot contain my excitement. Pep Guardiola seems ready. Jose Mourinho seems ready. Messi has been an absolute goal banger this season and he seems ready. Ronaldo is just shy of Messi’s 29 goals by just one goal so you know he is definitely ready and eager to score against Barca. The rest of the Barca team is ready despite the fitness worries. Real Madrid team is also ready to revenge the 5-0 loss. And finally, the entire country of Spain , and the entire football world is ready for this EPIC CLASH. Get the drinks and popcorn ready—we are in for some great times.
Just so we do not forget, here is a video of the 5-0 humiliation that Barca handed to Real Madrid last November. It is absolutely delicious. Savor it because you never know when you will be blessed this way again.
Gunners Vs Blaugrana
The entire soccer world is getting ready for tomorrow’s UEFA Champions league face-off between Arsenal and FC Barcelona. Arsenal comes to this match with a lot of confidence following their consistently good performance in the EPL of late. Besides, they’ll be coming out to avenge their disgraceful loss to the Blaugrana boys in the same tournament last year. If you can remember, the gunners came to that game bragging and threatening to dunt FC Barcelona a good clattering. When they were beaten 4-1 convincingly by an unstoppable force of nature called Lionel Messi, they had to learn the hard way that when Barcelona is your opponent, there is no need for empty boasts and an exaggerated show of confidence.
Arsenal prides herself as being the team in the EPL that plays the most beautiful and entertaining football. Nevertheless, I think that after their ordeal at the hands of Barcelona last year, they must have found some new respect for the Barcelona team, and are not likely to approach this crucial encounter with exaggerated confidence. That does not mean however that Arsene Wenger and his boys will not give their very best in trying to prove to the world that they can beat any good team on any given day.
Barcelona, it has to be said, also needs to be wary of being too complacent; too self-assured of their invincibility, or too guarded. Since both teams play that free-flowing, multiple passes, gorgeous football, I expect a match filled with lots of dazzling individual skill as well as a clear demonstration of team cohesiveness. Barcelona should also not forget the rather disappointing result with Gijon last Saturday. It shows that with determination, Barcelona can still be made to draw or lose a game. The trick is to score against the Catalan Giants first and defend aggressively. Therefore Barcelona needs to exhibit a certain eagerness to show their fans that last Saturday’s match was just a slight road bump for better laid plans.
All in all, I expect a Barcelona victory. I predict that Barca will win 3-1.