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The Greatest Football Rivalry

Real Madrid vs. Barcelona

..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.

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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!

Of Underwhelming Clasicos

Josep Guardiola

This season’s series of El Clasico clashes will end tomorrow after Real Madrid comes to the Camp Nou for the return leg of the Champions League semifinal encounter. The winner of that matchup will in all likelihood meet Manchester United in the final. Before these recent encounters between the Merengues and the Blaugrana started, a lot of devout football fans were beside themselves with joyful anticipation of a great season of impressive football that would thrill like never before. Memories of the 5-0 defeat that Barcelona handed to Real Madrid last November  were all the more reasons why people were anxious to see how Real Madrid would avenge that embarrassing defeat; or else, whether Barca would come close to another impressive and dominant performance.

Sadly, the past three encounters have left a bitter taste in my mouth. To tell you the truth, I am disappointed by what has gone down so far. I’ll make a few observations here.

A. Barcelona’s quality of play has been on the waning end lately. I don’t know exactly why that is the case, but their overall performance is not as crisp and as stellar as it used to be earlier this season. For one, Pedro and Villa need to rediscover their goal-poaching instincts. It used to be that in any match, the opposing team’s defenders could not really decide who to cast their attention on between the three forwards Messi, Villa and Pedro. Any one of them could score on you at any time, and so it was not very easy to exclusively mark one of these three to the point of figuratively taking him out of the game. Now, because it seems that the main task of scoring goals has fallen on Messi’s shoulders (in recent games), I find that opponents just find it easier to put 2 or 3 defenders on Messi thereby shutting him out of the game. Of course it doesn’t always work when Messi finds a way to score, but can you imagine what it would be like if when Messi finds himself in that position, the other two strikers pick it up and start banging in goals? And then there is the issue of the injuries that Barcelona have had lately. All these add up to slightly less than satisfactory performance from Barca in recent times as far as I am concerned.

B. Jose Mourinho’s football philosophy, or his tactical strategy towards games may be adored and praised by many, but I find it exasperatingly negative in matches against Barcelona. Anyone who has seen Real Madrid play against other teams realize that with Real Madrid’s formidable array of players (just look at their bench for crying out loud), they are capable of comprehensively beating any team in the world. The Real Madrid of yesteryears (before Mourinho came along) were masters at the beautiful free-flowing game of football. They had good attackers and good defenders and were content to let a game go on to its fanciful and spell-binding end. However, when Real Madrid meets Barcelona, for some reason Mourinho thinks it best to ask his formidable line of attackers to bury their goal-seeking instincts in order to defend the goal. I find that a very unusual strategy. Why in the world does Jose Mourinho think it a great strategy for a team like Real Madrid to “park the bus” against Barcelona—without directly or indirectly conceding that he considers Barcelona the better team? Does he think that Real Madrid cannot play a normal free-flowing game against Barcelona and win?

Jose Mourinho

C. As we have seen in the first two encounters, Mourinho practically gave up the midfield and football possession to Barcelona; content to just massively defend, quickly counterattack and fall back in a massive defensive posture again. To his benefit, that strategy yielded a 1-1 draw, and a 1-0 victory over Barca to win the Copa Del Rey. But as anyone has seen, that strategy is not without its downside. For one, it makes for a very dull and edgy game of football. The Galacticos have an impressive bench to take on any team in the world without feeling a need to adopt an overly defensive posture. But since Mourinho had successfully employed this “park a bus” approach in last year’s Champions league semis between Inter and Barca, he obviously feels that is the only possible way of getting any result against Barcelona. Secondly, that strategy often results in an overly aggressive game of football—one in which every contact in the game is exaggerated and possibly milked for referee sympathy.

D. When Pep Guardiola noticed Mourinho’s strategy in the first two encounters, he switched it up for the third game. Seeing that Mourinho simply wants to keep his men defending at all times, and relying on quick counter attacks to demoralize, Guardiola had to come up with a new strategy. So what did he do? He decided that the best way to go about this was to maintain maximum possession. And so Barca was content to just pass the ball around all day, daring and defying Real Madrid players to come out and attempt to get the ball. The result was a very dominant and frustrating 71% of ball possession for Barca in front of Real Madrid’s home fans. At a point, the crowd became restless and wanted some results from their players. But because of Barcelona’s stranglehold on the ball, Real Madrid’s players were frustrated to the point where they became inpatient and overly aggressive. You could see it in the kicks, jabs, pushing and shoving, tugging and grabbing that ensued. And that was just what Barca wanted, for they milked it to perfection—diving and feigning injury at every opportunity they got. It was all embarrassing to watch Alvez and Busquets falling all over the place pretending to be hurt, only to quickly jump up and continue after a card had been given. But who is to blame Barca for Real Madrid’s intentional decision to play an overly defensive game? Is Barca to blame for the fact that Mourinho chose not to deploy his attacking talents in the game?

E. Tomorrow’s game is probably going to be like the previous ones. I expect to see another overly aggressive game of football where impatient Real Madrid players try to suffocate the dominant and slithery passing game of Barcelona. But I have a nagging feeling that we will see another serious round of drama tomorrow. Barcelona defeated Real 2-0 on the home pitch and as long as they maintain a tie in this upcoming game, they’ll advance to the final. But anything can happen. If Mourinho dumps this overly defensive posture and comes out to snatch goals, then truly anything can happen. They might even succeed in beating Barcelona on their own field—a feat which is well nigh impossible this season. Perhaps this last encounter will give lovers of football a memorable and entertaining game of impressive football to be discussed for weeks or possibly months. But I doubt that. In all likelihood, we are going to witness another ugly match to emphasize the depth and bitterness of this long-standing rivalry.

So in three games we have seen a draw, and a win by both Madrid and Barca. What would tomorrow hold? Will it end in a draw?

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”?

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