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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.

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Wounded But Still Fighting

FC Barcelona Squad 2011-2012

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.

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?

Possession

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.

Skills

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!

FC Barca: A Tougher Path To Glory

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?

I know that the common retort would be to say that Barca was not really serious with these preseason games. Or that since many of our star players were away on international assignments or injured, we should be content with a result that wasn’t too dismal. But I have a different conviction on the matter. Please indulge me a little.

The preseason games would have provided an excellent avenue to assess the strength of the team overall so as to give valuable pointers on what positions in the Barca line-up needed to be reinforced. That would have helped determine what caliber of players to buy for what appears to be another grueling season. It seems to me that Barca appears slightly weakest in the back line/ defense line (I’m open to corrections by the way). Eric Abidal had an operation and is not yet at 100% capacity. Puyol was operated upon recently and is still recovering. Pique and Dani Alvez are also injured.  No matter how great your attacking line is, or how dominant your midfield is, you cannot expect to win games against strong teams if you have an underperforming backline. For Barca, their backline troubles were already there for everyone to see since last season. No wonder Mascherano is often deployed at the back. This is why I expected Guardiola to have gone for defenders as a matter of urgent priority instead of acquiring Fabregas and Sanchez.

I have nothing against Cesc Fabregas first of all. Unless Xavi is retiring at the end of this year, I don’t see why we needed to secure Fabregas when we already had Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets, Thiago Alcantara and Seydou Keita. Why did they have to spend all that money to get someone when we are already fully fortified at the position he normally plays?  The same thing worries me about the Chilean Alexis Sanchez. Do we not have able and competent strikers up front to take on the task of scoring goals? Of course we do.  Once again, I assure you that I realize how great these players are, and what a blessing their addition to the team is. For example, Fabregas and Sanchez just proved their worth in this first league match by scoring goals. I simply feel like Barca is better served securing every aspect of that formidable line-up—for me that means making important fortifications at the back line. I suppose we shall see if these new signings keep up this great performance. If they do, they’ll more likely snatch the starting duties from Villa and Pedro.

Anyway, we’ve seen Barca win the Spanish Super Cup, the Gampa Cup, and the UEFA Super Cup—a very impressive start to another title-chasing season. Messi, recently crowned the world’s best footballer, seems to be showing no signs of fatigue or depreciation as he continues to provide inspirational plays right when it is needed. I want to believe that Guardiola also has a secret desire to bag a few more titles in order to comfortably establish himself as the best football manager ever on this planet. If his drive and ambition to utterly crush all coaching records (even those set by Johan Cruyff) is matched by the same zeal from his players, then my worries will be assuaged for that can only mean that the tradition of glorious and excellent football by the Catalan giants will continue in these historic times. Truly, at no time ever has the world of football experienced the awesome beauty and majesty of Guardiola-era Blaugrana boys. If they lose focus or have too many injuries then I fear that their potential notwithstanding, they may not win the titles and the glory that is to come.

The season has just started, and as expected, the top 2 teams in the Spanish La Liga have kicked off their fierce battle for supremacy. Real Madrid started their season’s campaign to dislodge Barcelona from the helm by trouncing Real Zaragoza 6-0. Barca replied the challenge by demolishing Villareal 5-0—and just like that these two teams are first and second on the table; another cold war has started. Barcelona may have begun with a bang, but the real question is will they end with a bang or a whimper? What weaknesses are we going to discover about Barca this year? What sort of season lies in stock for them?

Mes Que Un Club—we’ll be watching and cheering all the way.

El Clasicos 2011

Real Madrid vs FC Barcelona

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.

Real Madrid vs Tottenham

I just watched an interesting Champions League encounter between Real Madrid and Tottenham Hotspurs. Before the match started, I told myself that Real Madrid must do whatever they needed to do to win this match. The reason is fairly obvious: having dropped 8 points behind their archrivals FC Barcelona, I do not see a plausible scenario where they can succeed in winning the league title this year.

And that’s the rub isn’t it? So, even if they succeed in beating Barcelona in the upcoming El Classico, with 10 or less games left in the season, they would still need for Barcelona to lose a few more games home or away to get a realistic shot at the title. That is quite plainly, asking for too much. So, they had to come to this champions league match with a singular determination to do well. If they can keep their superior form, Jose Mourinho may nurse dreams of bringing the Champions League trophy to the Merengues.

So, I wasn’t surprised to see Adebayor score in the 4th minute of opening play as Los Blancos quickly surged ahead by one goal.

What I totally did not foresee was that Peter Crouch, the focal point of Tottenham’s attack, would bag a second yellow in this match and be sent off the pitch. What was his crime? He stretched out his long legs to stop the ball just as Marcelo was running to the ball. Noticing that Peter Crouch had already started going for the ball near the Real Madrid goal, Marcelo lifted himself up partially to avoid a direct collision, but then dramatically tumbled afterwards. It was a well-orchestrated fiction that duped the referee into believing that Crouch had committed a foul. Marcelo deserves an Oscar for that riveting performance.

With Peter Crouch gone, I knew at that point that the game was effectively over. Tottenham had no prayer in this match—certainly not against the caliber of Real Madrid. The first ended with Adebayor’s lone goal. It was during the second half then that Real Madrid came out guns blazing. Adebayor scored his second goal with a magnificent header; Di Maria blasted a powerful cannon that made the scoreline 3-0; and with 87 minutes gone, Kaka wires a cross that finds Ronaldo unmarked. He eagerly blasted another low shot that beat the poor keeper. 4-0 was an impressive way to defeat Harry Redknapp and his boys.

InterMilan lost to Schalke 2-5, strange as that seems to me.

Tomorrow, get ready to see Chelsea take on Manchester United in the Champion’s League. At that same time, FC Barcelona is set to play Shakhtar Donetsk. Barcelona, my team, will be playing at home and I frankly do not want to miss that match. However, I am confident enough to predict a victory. But I am also eager to check out the fierce rivalry between the number 1 and 4 of English football. At any rate, I’ll find a way to juggle both games. Did I hear someone, in earnest anticipation of tomorrow’s entertaining games say “the more the merrier”?

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.

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