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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.

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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.

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.

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