Posts Tagged ‘ Barcelona Football Blog ’

Morbo Minute–Back to Work

La Liga returned from the Winter Break and the goals were plentiful. Again no scoreless draws, with a crazy game at the Bernabeu, a thrashing at the Nou Camp, a dramatic turnaround at Los Carmenes (Granada) and three points for Depor under new manager Domingos Paciencia.

After Round 18’s results, a greater net has been cast around relegation candidates as six teams are within four points of each other at the bottom.  This aspect of the league will probably be the story of the season along Levante’s quest to return to Europe.

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FC Barcelona 4  Espanyol 0

Before we get talking about the game, (not much to say), glad to see that Alves and Alba found their razors over the festive period.  Cesc, however, was still doing the quasi-beard thing and I’m still looking for confirmation that he got a new tattoo on his elbow.

The first half was a feast of attacking play as Barca put their city rivals to the sword in under 30 minutes.  Los Pericos came out in a narrow 4-1-4-1 with Forlin shielding the backline.  The visitors conceded width allowing Iniesta to hang on Barca’s left hand fringe ready to attack.  Espanyol’s central players switched off and allowed Xavi to walk in and turn in Iniesta’s cross to open the game. From there, Pedro scored two (hopefully getting him back on track) before Messi converted a dodgy penalty.

After that, tactics and the result went out the window.  Espanyol had very little to offer and FCB tried for 40+ minutes to get Pedro his hat trick, which went unfulfilled due to two very tight offside calls.  The defeat was Aguirre’s first in charge of Espanyol and keeps them firmly in the relegation battle.  As for the Blaugrana, they continue their record setting season thus far.  Dropped points are on the horizon but for now they are out of sight.

Kxevin of Barcelona Football Blog worried about this match, identifying the possible ingredients for failure: holiday break, resurgent opponent with something to play for, rust.  In the end Barca overwhelmed their opponents, putting them under pressure from the first moment to the last.  The second half, as he rightly noted, was a testament to this team’s hunger and desire.  With the match all but over, every turnover was immediately challenged, Valdes kept a clean sheet with a big save and the search for another goal continued.  Kxevin encourages everyone to keep watching, to keep admiring, to keep appreciating.

Chalk on the Boots focused on the passing of Busquets and the movement of the Barca players in the demolition of Espanyol.  Iniesta and Fabregas interchanged on the left, supported by Alba, while Pedro cut in from the right, all the while Messi drifted around the field.  At its peak, the dynamism was breathtaking.  Add to this a poor effort from the opponent, which he also touched on, and you get Sunday’s scoreline.

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Podcast, Articles, and Kits

Inside Spanish Football produced a winter break podcast, which broke down the season month by month.  Then the panel shared their moments of the season thus far.  Definitely worth a listen as it put the opening months in perspective and set the stage for the rest of the season.

Phil Ball returned to Spain just in time to stop by the pub for Real Sociedad’s visit to the Bernabeu.  Mourinho went with Adan again only for the young keeper to be sent off and replaced by Saint Iker.  Prieto’s hat-trick was not enough as the hosts survived with a makeshift defense (Arbeloa, Varane, Carvalho and Essien) and playing with 10 men for 80+ minutes.

I was able to catch the last nine minutes plus injury time so I missed all off the goals.  Prieto’s finishes were nice but a lot of attention was given to Ronaldo’s free kick.  It was well struck but the goalkeeper really should have done better.  Any touch by Bravo and the shot would have been saved.

Los Merengues gained two points on Atleti to cut the gap to five, but alarm bells must be going off in the defense.  Real Madrid has given up 20 goals this season, conceding 10 in last four games.  They now turn their focus to the return Copa match against Celta.  Down 2-1, Real Madrid will need to put their internal conflicts behind them in order to progress.

Sid Lowe also examined the Real Madrid/Real Sociedad game for his weekly column, noting the special circumstances with which Iker Casillas arrived on the scene over 10 years ago: coming on as substitute in the European Cup Final and taking over for Canizares before the World Cup after the Valencia keeper injured himself just before the tournament.  Since then Saint Iker has been an institution and Mourinho has been playing with fire by demoting him to the bench, and the Special One looks to burn all of his bridges before exiting the capital.

Kaushik took over for Madridista Mac at Real Madrid Football Blog, lauding the midfield performance of Alonso and Khedira and giving special praise to CR7, who was captain for the match.  This game also saw the return of Higuain, giving Los Blancos much need depth as they fight on three fronts.

For the other side of the capital, Martin Rosenow recapped the game for Atletico Fans and saw Los Colchoneros give up a late equalizer away to Mallorca.  The visitors were without Miranda, Turan and Falcao, and manager Diego Simeone was pleased with his team’s performance, which including fine efforts from Diego Costa, Koke, Tiago and goalscorer Raul Garcia.  Atleti should progress in the Copa and then get back at it against Zaragoza on the weekend.

Tim Stannard commented on the return of La Liga for Football365.  Besides Barca’s destruction and Real’s crazy victory, he looked at Atleti’s possible prospects next season without Falcao and Turan and Betis’ continued success before concluding with Depor’s vital three points.

Garreth Nunn did a La Liga Top 11 for 2012 for Forza Futbol, with one small tweak—no Real Madrid or FC Barcelona players.  He has a much better grasp of the league than I do, so his picks made sense to me.  Imagine his proposed midfield—Joaquin, Isco, Benat and Turan. Wow!  I would have gone with Leo Baptistao up top instead of Vela but not sure how the young Brazilian striker did in the second of half of the 2011/12 campaign.

Peter Alegi turned me on to Spanish Football Tales, a blog that looks at snippets from the history of the Spanish league.  I read a post called the Tenerife Leagues, which saw Real Madrid surrender the league title to FC Barcelona two seasons (91/92 and 92/93) in a row against Tenerife in the most dramatic circumstances.  Nice slice of history and shows how narrow the margins of victory were for Cruyff’s Dream Team.

A Football Report released their best of football writing of 2012, broken into the following categories: Most Compelling, Most Creative, Best Research, and Best Storytelling.  The list is overwhelming and not sure when I’ll find time to go through it, but I clicked on Brian Phillips’ eulogy for Pep Guardiola from last spring as he examined the “cocoon of silence” created in a world of noise and hype and tension.  Not only did Pep fashion a team that was pleasing to the eye, but the players performed with a joy and a spirit that was captivating.  Eventually Mourinho came in and upset the balance, yet for a short period the Blaugrana were the greatest show on Earth and under Tito Vilanova they are returning to those levels.

Many times I have stressed that this cycle will end and hopefully everyone can enjoy this moment now instead of waiting for time to pass and being forced to remember, to put it back together.  It’s happening, right now. We are in the midst of a glorious epoch in footballing history.  Take a second to let it wash over you because it will be gone soon enough.

Couple of kit related items:

Tom Conn reported on Inside Spanish Football that Atletico have finally secured a shirt sponsor—Chinese communications brand, Huawei.  The company has partnered with the club in the past but now look to go full time.  Currently Los Colchoneros have Azerbaijan: Land of Fire across their chest.

According to Football Fashion, Celta Vigo will be changing kit manufacturer’s next season, switching from Li-Ning to adidas.  The brand with the three stripes is already getting a jump on proceedings and released a special kit that the club will wear against Real Madrid during the second leg of the Copa del Rey.

Morbo Minute–Who’s Finishing Second?

Larry Bird arrogantly asked the locker room before 1988 NBA Three Point Contest–Who’s finishing second? Barcelona can simply look at the table after 16 matches and ask the same question.  Round 16 started slowly and was fairly muted on Monday in terms of goals, but in the middle were two fascinating games—Real Madrid v Espanyol and FC Barcelona v Atletico Madrid—which produced drama and astonishing goals.  More on that shortly.

Thus far a couple of tiers have emerged in the table: Barca alone at the top, with the Madrid teams below them; then the contenders for fourth including Malaga, Betis, Levante and Getafe; the middle of the table sees seven teams separated by three points from 8th to 14th; finally there is the relegation zone with six teams under threat.   One more round before the holidays could change all that, but the teams are at the bottom are in real danger, with goals at a premium.

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Sevilla 0  Malaga 2

John Pelini analyzed Malaga’s tactics through the first half of season for El Centrocampista.  Los Boquerones have been lining up in a 4-2-3-1 with full backs supporting the attack from wide positions.  Two holding midfielders control the central part of the field and supply the ball to a fluid attacking group that interchanges positions and likes to combine through the final third.  They have been able to turn some of their dominance into goals and results this season as they have progressed to the knockout stage of the Champions League and headed into the Sevilla match tied with Betis in fourth place.

I anticipated this contest as Sevilla needed three points to keep pushing up the table while Malaga looked to consolidate fourth place.  The first half was lacking in excitement, even with the hosts’ energetic start.  Negredo hit the post early and was a strong physical presence up top against Welington and Demichelis (no place for Onyewu, even on the bench).  Navas was active but had a hard time getting on the ball.  Defensively, the Rojiblancos were organized as they tried to keep track of the varied attack from the visitors.

As for Malaga, they were able to bring a little balance back to the match but lacked thrust in the final third. The attacking players interchanged positions in an attempt to create spaces and mismatches but Joaquin did not see much of the ball and Santa Cruz lacked the activity to cause much trouble.  How does RSC fit into this team?  Malaga don’t cross for him, preferring to keep the ball on the ground, and he doesn’t seem to show for the ball.  RSC was always a half step behind and had two chances in the match that a poacher or striker in a rich vein of form would have finished off. Anyway, Los Boquerones struggled to switch the point of attack from right to left, leaving Eliseu forlorn figure in the left hand channel.  The back line was strong after the opening scare as Negredo’s influence faded.

Demichelis opened the scoring on 48th minute as his hopeful header floated into the far post to give the visitors the lead. The method of the goal was surprising, because up until that point set pieces had rarely threatened the hosts’ goal. The corner kick appeared to be slightly overhit but the Argentinean center back somehow scored. Later Willy made a hash of cross and Rakitic went down as Camacho tried to clear.  Not sure if it was a penalty.  Maybe on a different day.

Malaga finally got separation on 70 minutes as Joaquin made a lung bursting run through the middle and was awkwardly taken down by Fazio, who earned a red card and a penalty for the opponents.  The move was set up by RSC’s run wide (an example of what I would like to see) and then the Spanish winger filled space down the middle.  Eliseu (surprise choice) stepped up and buried it, giving the visitors a commanding 2-0 lead with 20 minutes to go. Saviola immediately came on for Joaquin who had worked his socks off.  The game tailed off and Malaga are in fourth, ahead of Betis on goal difference, while Sevilla are 13th, now behind Bilbao, who are finding points.  Expected a better match, or at least a better performance from Sevilla.

Paul Wilkes analyzed the game for La Liga UK.  In the end, Sevilla paid the price for squandering the chances of the first half.  Michel’s double substitution early in the second half was blunted as Rakitic went off injured and Fazio was sent off, leaving the manager with no additional subs to get back into the match.  One thing Paul noticed was Demichelis moving into a defensive mid position in the second half.  To be honest I missed that.  Pellegrini’s men withstood an early battering and managed to capitalize on their few opportunities to secure three points on the road.

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FC Barcelona 4  Atletico Madrid 1

As Morrissey says, stop me if you think you’ve heard this one before.  Opponent gives FCB fits for a while but eventually capitulates.  Atleti played a brilliant first half, toning down the physical approach used in the derby.  They added a layer of intelligent and swift counterattacks, which saw them isolate mismatches between the forwards and the Blaugrana rearguard.

Playing a narrow, compact 4-4-2, they frustrated Barca for over thirty minutes, with the hosts barely getting a sniff of goal while El Tigre got closer and closer.  Los Colchoneros took a deserved lead but Adriano pegged the visitors back with a stunning effort and proved his worth yet again.  In a team full of stars, the Brazilian has scored vital goal (six this season, including the solitary goal against Valencia), played all across the back and provided energy and width and competence in every match.  Busquets’ goal was so composed it makes you wonder what he can’t do. . . besides chase down Falcao on a breakaway.  (Sidenote: again Barca has gone with direct corners, which resulted in another goal.  Will be interesting to see if they use that tacitc in the knockout rounds of Europe where they will encounter bigger, stronger teams.)  That goal turned the match as FCB came out full of confidence in the second half and proceeded to pass Atleti into submission.  Messi’s sumptuous finish finally gave the cules some breathing room and from there it was something of an exhibition.

Atleti were second best, and that’s because they are the third best team in the league.  Maybe if Falcao had been more clinical in the opening exchanges, the game might have gone differently.  But he didn’t.  They are worthy of the “best of the rest” this season, a spot occupied lately by Valencia, but they simply can’t compete.  Starved of the oxygen needed to burn against a great team, the legs finally went as they couldn’t tackle what they couldn’t catch and couldn’t attack without having the ball.

I simply hope that FCB win the lot.  The league is over.  Barring a catastrophic injury to Messi, this team will cross the line early and regain one of their crowns.  The question remains as to whether they can retain the Copa and reclaim the Champions League.

Kxevin posted on Barca’s victory for Barcelona Football Blog while nursing an ankle injury, which was a result of celebrating Adriano’s golazo.  He commented that Atleti did everything they had to yet were still down 2-1 at halftime.  Why?  He sees the difference in the Blaugrana this year thusly:

Last season, you could give Guardiola’s Barça the ball, like a plaything with which to amuse a child. They would pass it around, make wondrous things with it, but you would mostly be okay as long as you retained your shape and didn’t do anything silly. Give Vilanova’s Barça the ball, and it will kill you, because it is impatient. It shoots from distance, it rushes the box, it eschews the magic of tika-taka for one dude saying to the others, “Watch this!” And the longer Vilanova’s Barça has the ball, the more likely it will kill you with a moment of magic.

He does remain readers that Barca hasn’t won anything yet but if the team continues their wondrous passing and maintains a ruthless attitude, it’s only a matter of time.

Martin Rosenow, writing for Atleti Fans, saw Simeone’s troops tease fans before succumbing to a deeper and more clinical Barcelona team.  Still as Martin points out, having a chance to finish with 40 points before Christmas as opposed to the 19 last year is nothing to gripe about

Zonal Marking saw Simeone’s 4-4-1-1 keep a relatively passive Barca at bay and made the point that perhaps Atleti scored “too early” and FCB had time and motivation to move through the gears.  Looking at Barca’s goals– the first goal was long-distance scorcher, the second was from a set-piece and the fourth from an inexplicable defensive mistake—there may be a case that the visitors could have a better shot at the Calderon in May.

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Articles

I caught the second half of 2-2 draw between Real Madrid and Espanyol at the Bernabeu.  Ireland 26 of Managing Madrid saw the hosts dominate large portions of the match but still share the points.  Callejon started up top with CR7, Modric and Ozil behind him, but Mourinho brought in di Maria at the start of the second half as Los Blancos reverted to a more traditional line up.  Madrid battered Espanyol for most of the second stanza but failed to capitalize after Coentrao’s go ahead goal.  I thought Ozil had a fantastic second 45 minutes, as he drifted from the middle to the right, which created space for others to run into.

Mando (The Ball is Flat) saw Los Pericos grab a late point at the Bernabeu as Real Madrid conceded on yet another set piece.  He makes the point that Mourinho doesn’t quite have the loyalty that he had at his former teams, and while I agree to a certain extent, Chelsea got off to a slow start during the 2007/08 season, which saw Abramovich get rid of the Special One.  Mourinho’s schtick wears thin with everyone, and this will definitely be his last season in the capital.  The question now is: will he make it to the end of the season?  As for Espanyol, another point towards safety for Aguirre’s men.

Sid Lowe reported on fantastic match that saw Barca all but seal the league as it was the tiger versus the flea, and the flea prevailed again.  Barca continue to make the amazing ordinary—controlling games with metronomic passing and scoring astonishing goals.  The result leaves Real Madrid clutching at the cups as Mourinho searches for La Decima to add to his legacy before exiting for the next challenge.

Phil Ball focused his attention on the game between Mallorca and Bilbao, which saw the hosts slump to another defeat.  Phil put Los Bermellones’ run in perspective: Mallorca have now gone 11 league games without a win (two points from 33), plus three cup matches either drawn or lost. Aduriz, a former Mallorca player, scored the goal against Caparros, former Bilbao boss, as these two teams appear to be headed in different directions.

Frank Tigani drilled down into Mallorca’s poor run for Football Espana.  The goals of Tomer Hemed have dried up, leaving Mallorca with no punch as goals are shipped at the other end.  14 goals in 16 matches have seen them slip into the relegation zone, and Caparros has gone from a possible contract extension to the chopping block.  The islanders have a fight on their hands entering the New Year.

Looking ahead to the January transfer window, Francesc discussed Barca’s current strategy—promote from within—for ESPN FC.  Still feel they lack depth at center back unless they plan to play Bartra more in the second half of the season.  Further injuries to Pique and Puyol will put a possible dream season at risk.  Other than that, Xavi and Tello have signed until the 2016, which does two things: for Xavi, it keeps the midfield maestro part of the club to educate his successors; for Tello it gives the predators hovering around the player a number from which to negotiate.  The young forward is in a tough situation.  FCB will probably continue to play Sanchez because of the money spent, which reduces Tello’s chances for minutes.  Add to that the Villa factor and it’s hard to see how Tello gets on the field.  If Villa is unhappy, ship him off and get Tello on the field and by this time in 2013, FCB should make a decision.

MatchDay Memory–The Big Two Part 2 (Memories and Tactics)

As for my personal involvement in the rivalry, the first El Clasico I can remember is the game after Figo switched sides in the summer of 2000.  I had loved him at FCB and was sad to see him go over to the Evil Empire.  I definitely didn’t have the hatred that the Nou Camp supporters showed when he returned to the Nou Camp, and I vaguely remember the famous Pig’s Head game that followed.  Tom Adams looked back at those days for Soccernet.

I have to admit that Clasico viewings between those games and the Pep Era were hit and miss.  Once I heard that Ronaldinho was actually cheered by the Real Madrid fans, I had to find highlights, during which I saw an amazing performance by Ronny, in a season that ended with the League and European Cup double.  Then in March 2007, I read the match report about the 3-3 draw and found snippets of the game, including a sick hat trick from Messi, but it wasn’t enough to keep Beckham and Real Madrid from winning the title that season.

I haven’t missed a League Clasico since Pep took over.  Some of the matches have been duds (December 2008 and November 2009) in which Real Madrid used an overly physical approach to nullify a Barcelona team in the ascendancy, while others have been Blaugrana Epics (May 2009 and the manita of November 2010).  Of course there was the Clasico Apocalypse of 2011, which saw the rivals play four times in 20 days.  I watched both legs of the Champions League semi and the league encounter but missed most of the Copa del Rey final (stupid work), although I did see CR7’s winning goal.  The Spanish Super Cups have been hard to schedule as they come during a ginormous work function, but in all in all, the games recently have been amazing on every level—drama, tactics, and technical ability.

Speaking of tactics, there have been several developments for both clubs during the recent years.  With Pep’s hire, the Blaugrana maintained the 4-3-3, which is part of the club’s DNA, but the former Barca captain added a level of pressing and increased fitness.  Possession became a means to defend, as opponents rarely saw the ball and were under constant pressure, eventually breaking under constant bombardment.  Width from outside backs allowed attackers to come inside and combine in intricately, leading to amazing goals of skill and precision.  Now that almost every opponent parks the bus, the team is confronted with their next progression.

Messi was slowly moved from his right hand berth to a more central role, starting as false 9, which caused backlines all sorts of problems.  Do you follow Messi into midfield?  Do you focus on him and allow Pedro and Villa to drive at you from the wings?  These days Messi has moved to almost a false 10 position with Fabregas stretching the play and Messi able to pull the strings and occasionally dribble at defenses.  Kxevin at the Barcelona Football Blog commented on this recent phenomenon.

Another player that evolved is Sergio Busquets.  Pep arrived and made the youth player the fulcrum of the team.  Yaya Toure and Seydou Keita have moved on as Busi has become vital to the success of the team. Andreas Vou looked at the evolution of Sergio Busquets for Inside Spanish Football.  Busquets has moved from the pivot to the third center back to the sweeper and back again, which has allowed the Blaugrana to constantly tweak the formation and approach.  Jonathan Wilson called him the 3 and a half after the first league Clasico of 11/12.

From a Real Madrid perspective, Los Blancos have progressed from an entertaining side that was open and scored lots of goals (but gave up plenty as well) to a pragmatic side that is a lethal counterattacking unit.  In the 2000’s the club made the mistake of selling Geremi and Makelele, players who snuffed out attacks, gave the ball to the creative players and shielded an aging backline.  The team was exposed time and time again and tried to outscore the opposition, which was effective to varying degrees.  After Capello squeezed a couple of titles out of a decent squad, the club floundered until Perez reinstituted the Galacticos policy, bringing CR7, Pepe, Ozil, Alonso, Benzema and a host of others.

These players were overmatched by the FCB machine and it took the arrival of Mourinho and a couple seasons of his discipline to pay dividends.  Now the squad defends as a unit, wins the ball and launches lighting swift counters with CR7, Di Maria, Ozil and Higuain or Benzema.  Angel Di Maria was signed to give balance to the attack and switched from right midfield, his position at Benfica, to left mid.  Occasionally he and CR7 switch but Di Maria’s cutting inside encourages interplay between the lone striker (Higuain or Benzema) and attacking midfielder (Ozil) and also allows Marcelo to overlap.  As for Ozil his transfer provided a more dynamic option to Kaka.  The German, who basically plays the same position for Germany, drifts side to side and pulls the strings. His teammates react by alternating positions, and opposing defenses are forced to make decisions against an attack full of dynamism and energy.

In the back Sergio Ramos has moved from right back to center back.  Carvalho was a Mourinho signing to help him build his power base but injuries and lack of form saw him slip out of the team.  Arbeloa has been serviceable on the right hand side, which has allowed for the emergence of a Pepe/Ramos pairing, full of speed and aggressiveness.  Frustration at FCB’s dominance led to several cards but both have been under control lately.  It is breathtaking to watch and their current shape took them to a league championship and within a whisker of the Champions League Final.

We now enter a period when the two teams are considered the best in the world and will lock horns home and abroad in the search for glory.  Plus several subplots give texture to the battle between the clubs.  How long for Mourinho?  He has never led a team beyond three seasons.  Along with that, can Mou lead Los Blancos to La Decima?  Can Tito keep this cycle going or will he be at the wheel as the Blaugrana fade once more before rebuilding?  Will we see a Real Madrid/FC Barcelona Champions League Final, setting up the greatest confrontation between two biggest sports clubs/franchises/teams in the world?  I can’t wait to see what this season and the near future holds.

Morbo Minute–El Tigre Overshadowed by La Pulga

Only in La Liga can amazing efforts by CR7 and Falcao and Soldado and others be overshadowed.  Messi’s two goals against Betis saw him break Gerd Muller’s 40 year old record of 85 goals in a calendar year. After he almost broke twitter in midweek after going down against Benfica, the Argentinean recovered to start and play the entire 90 and boy did Barca need him.  A hungry and energetic opponent nearly took points off the Blaugrana but Messi’s goals were the difference.

Elsewhere, Bilbao gained three vital points and Malaga and Levante each put four past their opponents.  At the bottom, Espanyol threw away two more points after getting pegged back twice against Sevilla to stay in the relegation places with Granada and Depor.  Mallorca and Osasuna are just outside the drop zone as the battle to stay in La Primera begins to take shape.

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Real Betis 1  FC Barcelona 2

An entertaining first half came to a close with end to end action.  Real Betis set up with a similar approach to the Real Madrid game a couple of weeks ago, but rather than just conceding possession the visitors were more deliberate going forward.  The Verdiblancos created an early opportunity but eventually Messi stole the show, with two very classy goals.  On the top of box he went 1 v 3, froze two defenders as he drifted to the left and fired back across the goal.  Sanchez (in for Fabegras who left the game ten minutes in) made a nice run to create the space. Messi scored his second as the Blaugrana took advantage of Betis being a man down due to injury.  Winning the ball and charging upfield, Messi and Iniesta combined with the vampire flicking the ball back with bottom of his foot and Messi buried in the far right corner.

Watching the second goal again Canas did not really keep track of Messi after he passed to Iniesta, plus there were several defenders ball watching.  And that was the difference in the first half, as Barca were going through the motions against a Betis team not at the same intensity as the Real game.  Tom Conn put portions of Pepe Mel’s post-match press conference up on Inside Spanish Football.  The manager was disappointed with the start of his team, calling the squad unrecognizable, but praised their second half effort–”During the second half was the Betis I wanted, which tightens up and exposes opponents.”

Ruben Castro reduced the damages on 38’ with fine composure in front of goal to slot past VV.  Alba didn’t hold the line and allowed the striker in on goal after a great pass from Vadillo.  Then the second half started and things got crazy.  As @leeroden tweeted early in the half: Amid all of the euphoria Barca seem to have forgotten that there’s a game to win.  Betis haven’t.  After the interval the hosts put FCB under all sorts of pressure, using a high line and a physical approach.  Actually they looked very similar to how Bilbao approached their game at the Nou Camp last week but Los Verdiblancos were able to execute their plan where Los Leones failed.

Betis were all over Barca in a nerve shredding second half. They hit the post several times and had balls on the goal line but just couldn’t grab the equalizer.  Had that come, they might have won all three points.  Having said that, FCB had chances to finish the game off but Barca players took turns squandering the opportunities.  In the end, all credit to Betis. More efforts like this and they have every chance of securing a European place.

A couple of player notes:

  • Thought Benat had an influential second half after not seeing much of the ball in the first.
  • Several player injuries to both sides, with Fabregas out for a month and Puyol removed as a precaution.  Could be important come Sunday against Atleti.
  • I originally wrote for this post that Sanchez is awful and is simply not up to snuff.  Why? Can’t hold the ball; can’t go by defender without falling down; can’t score.  Yet does run about and his movement created the opening goal.  I don’t know.  I’m still ready for Tello to get more time and for Cuenca to recover from injury.

Adam at Forever Betis saw his team give Barca too much time and fall behind 0-2, but Reuben Castro’s goal and a change in formation from a 4-2-3-1 to a pressing 4-4-2 saw the visitors turn it around and only some bad breaks kept them sharing the spoils or taking all three points.  In the comments section, excitement was generated about Vadillo, who set up the goal.  Found this little tidbit: became Betis’s youngest ever player (at 16) when he made his debut in August 2011, picked up a cruciate knee ligament injury at the Bernabeu in October 2011, spent six months recovering and another six months getting his confidence back with Betis B, returned to the first team in the cup about two weeks ago.

As for Barca, Kxevin identified the three phases of the game as a way to break down the match for his Barcelona Football Post: Our dominance, which was as much Betis lying in wait as anything else, the pressing, in which we came undone in the face of a vigorous, concerted effort on behalf of an opponent, then the regaining of control, late in the second half as players who were struggling, suddenly got it right.  Barca survived a game that they might have drawn or even lost last year, but the team continues an incredible run of form led by Messi’s phenomenal year.  Next up is Atleti.  A win at the Nou Camp on Sunday and everything is set up for something beyond records—TROPHIES.

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Articles and Podcasts

Sid Lowe broke down Messi’s record but in the end commented on the Argentinean’s consistency: At times the consistency can serve to make it seem mundane, but it is exactly that consistency that makes it so extraordinary. Messi will probably set the bar pretty high this season, with a couple of league games to go and we just need to take a second and appreciate all of his goals (all 86 this season) and his assists and his combination play and everything.  Simply amazing.

Phil Ball couldn’t stay away from leading with Messi’s record breaking performance in his weekly column ESPN FC, but he quickly moved on to the Spanish Armada in the Premier League, who scored a ton of goals in the last round.  Most of his time was spent on the future of Real Madrid and Mourinho, as it looks as if the Special One has worn out his welcome.  What next for each party?  Tough to say.  I would like to see Low come to Madrid and fine tune what Mou has put in place.  And Mou to Manchester City could usher in the transfer of power in the city of Manchester and in the Premier League.  The elements are there (money, desire, talent, the current power on the wane); just needs the catalyst.

Tim Stannard marveled at Levante’s continued success in his latest Spanish Thing offering on Football365.  Hard to believe that this team was almost relegated in 2010.  Now Los Granotes are thriving—currently sixth, still alive in the Europa League and back in action Thursday against Zaragoza in the Copa del Rey after overturning a 1-0 deficit.  He mentioned the club’s ability to take cast off strikers on the cheap and sell them on for vital income: Caicedo, Kone and now Martins.  The Nigerian’s goals will be essential if the team is to continue to fight on three fronts.  The organization will be the there; the effort will be there; and the desire to make the opponent suffer will be there.  What’s the next chapter for Martinez’s men?

Graham Hunter saw the current San Mames say goodbye to European football for this season and forever, as the club was knocked out of the Europa League with a game remaining and will move to a new stadium in the coming months.  Hunter also discussed Llorente’s situation, which has deteriorated further (if that is possible).  The big forward is gone for sure now and the only question is where his next destination will be.  A transfer to Real Madrid is possible but I would imagine it would be down to the next coach, but who knows.  Maybe Perez will buy Llorente and then choose the manager based on having a target player as opposed to the current options: an active, lateral, combination forward in Benzema or a strong, instinctive, poacher like Higuain.

On the Forza Football pod Elisa and Ravi looked back on the performances of Spanish teams in Europe this season as six of the seven progressed to the next round.  Then they looked ahead to the next round of fixtures, focusing on the managerial changes at Espanyol and Valencia, asking the questions: Does Valverde have the players at Valencia to suit his style and Can Aguirre overcome the institutional problems at Espanyol?

SlickR touched on Valverde’s tough road ahead for Los Che at Club Valencia.  Under contract for six months, his task will be to improve the squad’s performances, which have been erratic this season.  Second in the Champions League Group, including fine endeavors against Bayern Munich, and victory against Atleti cannot mask abject matches in the league, losses to Real Sociedad and Malaga come to mind.  Currently in tenth place.  Valencia must start earning points, especially on the road, where they were without a victory since March.

Moving on the Osasuna/Valencia match, Chalk on the Boots broke down a game low on quality as both teams needed a win for different reasons.  Valverde made several changes in his first game, bringing Albelda and moving Guardado to left back.  Up front he played almost all of his attacking options form the start (Feghouli, Piatti, Tino Costa, Soldado and Banega).  One point he made was this:

What must concern Valverde, even this early, is the need to link the midfield and attack to prevent Soldado being isolated. Banega cannot play too high, he needs to be on the ball in the midfield area. Either Jonas must start, when he is not suspended, or the wingers must become more inverted and reach Soldado quicker to offer support.

Analyzing the game Osasuna pressed Valencia in attempt to break up the rhythm of their visitors.  Not many chances were created and the both teams resorted to long balls and the hosts tried to attack an out of position Guardado.  Some of the best chances came from set pieces, but Oier had a great chance in the second half from the run of play. In the end, Valencia won on a scrappy goal by Soldado after Piatti’s chip/cross hit the far post.

Finally, Madridista Mac saw Real Madrid fall afoul of the “deadball disease” before overturning the deficit due to creative substitutions by Mourinho.  Manucho took advantage of poor defending on set pieces by Los Blancos in general and Sergio Ramos in particular to give the hosts the lead twice.  Ozil’s equalizer at 2-2 just before halftime gave the visitors the platform to go for the lead.  The Special One moved Callejon to LB/LM before shift Alonso to the back to accommodate Modric.  Once Ozil scored a wonderful free kick, the manager then brought in Varane to slot in at right back to get Real Madrid back to a more formation in order to see out the match.  Love the tactical nuances explained in the post and it shows how having a clever manager with tons of toys can pay dividends.

Morbo Minute–Atleti Show Their Stripes

Another round, another Barcelona victory.  That story line can be put to bed until March when we’ll see if fatigue or a push from Real Madrid or focus on European glory slows the Blaugrana juggernaut.  As for the rest of La Primera, the panel at Inside Spanish Football pod named Cristiano Ronaldo their Player of the Week, as he scored their Goal of the Week and was the only bright spot in another wise dour Madrid Derby.  They also touched on Valencia not treating their manager, a former player during a very successful time for the club, with respect before moving on Getafe’s third straight victory and other news and notes.  Don’t want to forget to mention Joel Campbell’s cracking goal for Betis as Los Verdiblancos built on their victory over Real Madrid and are now in fourth.  Plus Malaga’s third kit made an appearance in their loss to Getafe.  Electric lime might not be the proper identification, but whatever the color, not attractive.

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FC Barcelona 5  Athletic Bilbao 1

Los Leones came into the match after a rescheduled Europa League game in midweek so I was concerned about their energy levels, but the team started well and maintained a great deal of composure despite being without Muniain.  Unfortunately, once the visitors got over midfield, everything broke down, with Aduriz and Ander having very poor games, losing their footing and constantly turning the ball over.

In time, the hosts simply overwhelmed Athletic pushing players forward, interchanging positions and pressuring them all over the pitch.  Once FCB broke through, off a direct corner of all things, there was only one result.  The Blaugrana immediately scored another goal and created wonderful chances throughout the half, culminating in a simply stunning goal from Adriano with the last kick of the first period.

The second half saw Llorente come on for Aduriz but the big forward had even less of an impact on the game, as Athletic tired, leading to less pressure and organization and poor interplay from all players.  FCB took it down a gear but still scored twice.  Iniesta laid off a skillful pass for Fabregas; Ibai scored a fine consolation goal; and Messi added his second of the night to complete the scoring.

A couple of player notes.

  • Thought Iniesta started poorly but eventually was unplayable.  What he can do in tight spaces is beyond comprehension.
  • Ramalho was had a ‘mare at right back.  Chased shadows and lost possession for a majority of the game.
  • Adriano played on his opposite side.  Some debate on why he started instead of Montoya, but he made a great run for his goal and showed tremendous energy throughout the match. Definite glue guy for the team.

With Atleti’s loss, the Blaugrana are now six points clear at the top.  A result against Los Colchoneros just before the winter break and FCB can start looking at trying to retain their Copa del Rey title as well as regaining the Champions League.

Spoiled.  Simply put that is what Barca fans are at the moment says Kxevin from Barcelona Football Blog.  The Blaugrana are now on top of the league in record breaking fashion, a league that has decided to stop fearing FCB and tried to take the game to them.  Action, reaction.  Repeat.  In this case, Tito Vilanova has made the team more direct, less patient and focused on results.  One thing that Pep’s teams did not do in the last season or two was step on the throat.  This current squad rips the throat, dismembers the opponent and revels in the bloodbath.  A couple of nervy moments at the beginning of the season have given way to a run of form reminiscent of the amazing run of the 2010/11 campaign with win after win.  Yet Real Madrid still came back.  Tito’s real test will be rotating the squad to maintain the results and the awe inspiring play while keeping a little in reserve for the trophy with the big ears.  Let’s see where things in stand heading into March. Fans are still spoiled though.  And it won’t last forever.

(Tangent.  This goes for FCB and Manchester United.  Once Fergie goes at Old Trafford, United will begin the slow descent into mediocrity.  Gone will be Father Figure, the manager who strikes terror in everyone involved, the veteran hand who has seen everything, and the gaffer who can instill confidence and fear in equal measure in his players.  So with Barca.  The Golden Generations can’t last forever.  Time is almost up for Puyol and Xavi, with Villa and Iniesta to follow.  Then you have the Messi/Pique/Fabregas group.  The Argentinian will be the focus and that may be the problem.  Without a strong supporting cast his influence can be reduced.  Argentina National Team anyone?  Then you have Pedro, Montoya, Busquets and Thiago.  Can that group reach the heights of their predecessors?  Can they do it with the veterans to lead them? Can they do without heavy investment from the squad?  Barca has always hit a lull before remerging.  Van Gaal gave way to a barren period before Rijkaard led them to glory.  But the Dutchman failed to retain the titles of 2006 and eventually gave way to Pep and a simply historic period of success that we have not seen the end of.  But it will end.  Always has, always will be.  What is the next chapter?

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Real Madrid 2  Atletico Madrid 0

What a disappointment.  Atleti came into this match with their best chance in a long time of ending the hoodoo and Simeone sent out his troops with one thought—foul the shit of the Los Blancos.  I understand the approach, get into Real’s head, get them off their game and sneak in a goal, but Atleti did very little in the way of attacking.  With only four or five shots (that might be generous) the visitors focused on the physical attack, with Diego Costa leading the way.  If this had been an NBA game, he would have fouled out early, but at least he came to play, not backing down from the hosts and trying to drive forward.  Falcao channeled his inner Rivaldo after the Sergio Ramos love tap.  Nothing there.  You’re a big, strong lad.  Get on with it.

Mourinho put out a full strength eleven, and while Ozil was ok, maybe a little better than his 45 minutes against Real Betis, I felt that Di Maria had some nice individual moments but maybe he could have combined better. After minor flare ups from Pepe and Sergio Ramos due to Atleti’s robust style, the defenders were firmly in control.  The Special One stated that he didn’t know his team earlier in the season.  Yet he continues to roll out the same players. Seems like he should make changes to startle the underperformers into doing a little more.

Cristiano’s goal was spectacular.  I can’t remember the last time he scored one like that, but it reminded me of the goal he scored for United against Pompey, maybe 2008 or 2009.   Simply unstoppable.  Real Madrid found their rhythm in the second half, with nice interchanges in the final third, which kept the visitors pinned back.

The match was reminiscent of the Barcelona and Real Madrid battles early in Pep’s reign, in which Real would just foul and foul and foul, hoping to stop FCB by brute force rather than by organization, anticipation and tactics.  In the same way, Atleti tried to outmuscle rather than out play Real.  Maybe if they had tried to play straight up, their reward might have been a Real Madrid Manita, but for all the hype and expectation, this match was a huge let down.

One last note, going back through the lineups, I saw Carvalho was on the bench.  I didn’t even know he was still on the squad.

Managing Madrid saw Ronaldo open the scoring which forced Atleti out of their shell and from there Ozil took full advantage.  These two players have had recent success against their crosstown rivals and again they rose to the occasion.

Martin Rosenow reviewed the damage for Atleti Fans.  Ronaldo’s goal took the wind of Los Colcheneros and with Luis Felipe out due to late injury, the team never got going. Nine straight derby losses.  Ouch.  However, still firmly in second and well above the chasing pack for third.  If Atleti can hold on to Falcao, they will have a small window to replace Valencia as the best of the rest.  However if the Colombian goes, I fear they will fall away again.  We’ll see.

Atleti is one of many clubs in La Liga struggling to find a shirt sponsor.  Their last set sponsor was Kia, which cut ties in 2011, so I was surprised to see something across the chests of the red and white jerseys.  Based on a post at Atleti Fans, the club signed an agreement with the Republic of Azerbaijan. Not sure what Land of Fire on but if the club is getting money, then more power to them.

Finally, Chalk on the Boots analyzed the game, correctly stating that the match was “instantly forgettable” with 42 fouls and very little in terms of attacking fluency.  He identified a couple of key factors to the match: Ozil’s lack of space against a compact Atleti side (until the game opened up in the second half); Cata Diaz, usually a centerback, played at left back, which sacrificed an element of attack; and a lack of wide service for Falcao and Costa.

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Articles

Sid Lowe focused on Pellegrino’s dismissal in his weekly column.  After standing by several coaches in the past, President Manolo Llorente fired his manager as the fans have begun to turn on him.  Backed by the players, there are elements of fear and lack of long term planning in this decision and now it is up to Valverde to improve their league position while contending in the Copa and the Champions League.

La Liga Loca also discussed Pellegrino’s termination on Football365.  As everyone said at the end of last season when Emery was let go, be careful what you wish far.  Despite relative success, Emery was let go, and, after the club failed to get AVB, Llorente turned to Pellegrino.  The Argentinean didn’t last long and now the club is faced with financial and managerial instability.

Phil Ball wondered how the seemingly laid back Tito Vilanova gets the Blaugrana to press and attack and bamboozle opponents.  Their record start has been inspired by a historic individual performance and an indefatigable team effort.  He then moved to the Madrid Derby, where Simeone showed a possible lack of tactical nous.  Phil also touched on the cult of Mourinho as his window of influence and abrasiveness is closing.  He concluded with Pellegrino’s firing and the reemergence of Javier Aguirre at Espanyol.

Listened to an old Off the Ball pod (11/21) with Graham Hunter, in which he discussed CR7’s future at Real Madrid.  The winger’s contract is running out and this prompted a conversation about whether the club should sell the Portuguese player (could go to City or PSG) and possibly buy Neymar.  The players are not like for like in terms of footballing ability but there is something to be said in terms of star power.

Staying with CR7, Jonathan Wilson made the argument in the Guardian that Ronaldo is the reason that Real Madrid won’t win La Decima.  While he concedes the former Manchester United’s great physical skills, he notes some glaring weaknesses in his game that could keep him from being part of a great team.  Isolated as defensive laxity, Wilson notes that full backs create disadvantages for the rest of Ronaldo’s teammates causing undue pressure and goals. On Off the Ball last week Wilson went as far to say that Ronaldo would not be in his starting eleven because “he doesn’t know how to play football.”  His premise is that systems and groups win rather than one player who demands the ball, demands the players and demands the accolades.  Definitely a provocative argument, especially in a world that sees the current landscape as Messi v Ronaldo.

Finally, My Golden Great is a series that Football Espana is developing, where the site looks back into the history of the league to identify wonderful players of years past.  Recently Sam Marsden picked out Rivaldo’s year just before the end of the millennium.  Right in my wheelhouse, as this was the time when I started following FCB and La Liga with some regularity.  I remembered his amazing performances against United in the 1998/99 Champions League Group Stage and some phenomenal goals in the following campaign, both home and abroad.  The Brazilian ended up winning the 1999 Ballon d’Or award after a great year for club and country.  I was able to find his Barca goals from in and around that season.  As Tim Vickery always says, Rivaldo might be involved 50 times in a match.  48 times he’ll drive you crazy but the other two are simply amazing.

Morbo Minute-And Then There Were Two

Round 13 saw FCB and Atleti win again, Real Madrid fall out of the title chase, Malaga consolidate their credentials for fourth and Sevilla crash back to earth; while at the bottom, all three teams lost.

Saturday I crammed in a lot of La Liga action.  I have given beIN Sport a lot of grief for their crappy internet site, crazy programming schedule and highlights hosts, but I will give them credit for two things: an amazing HD picture and their 90 in 30 show.  I was able to catch the end of Rayo Vallecano/Mallorca show before watching the condensed version of Real Valladolid against Granada.  All of this was in preparation for the Real Betis/Real Madrid and Malaga/Valencia double header.

Leo Bapistao had a fantastic last five minutes for Rayo.  He scored the opening goal with a fine finish from the corner of the area and absolutely skinned the Mallorca defender before setting up Delibasic for the second.  In the other game, Valladolid put plenty of pressure on Granada before the visitors rebounded.  Unfortunately Granada were blunt in attack throughout the game, and a powerful goal from Manucho for the hosts settled the proceedings.

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Malaga 4  Valencia 0

Despite my best efforts, I knew the score of the match before the TV replay kicked off.  As I didn’t know the details, I anticipated Los Boquerneros putting the visitors to the sword with slick passing and crisp finishes, but the longer game went, I wondered when the goals would happen.  It was 1-0 (8th minute goal from Portillo) for over 70 minutes before the hosts put three past Diego Alves in the last quarter of an hour.

Couple of initial thoughts as the match kicked off.  Why didn’t Soldado start for Los Che?  (Per Club Valencia, Ruiz and Soldado were suspended; Pererira, Mathieuand Canales were all injured.)  Valdez is a totally different proposition, and not a good one.  Another thing that I (and everyone else) notice was that the pitch at La Rosaleda was in horrible condition.  Too many games?  Weather related?  Groundskeeper asleep at the wheel?  Finally, Valencia wore their new third kit, which looked pretty sharp, sort of a Valencian twist on the Ajax kit, with a black top accented by a horizontal orange stripe, orange shorts and black socks.

For the match itself, neither team was particularly sharp going forward or energetic around the pitch.  Both squads had tough Champions League matched midweek, so that wasn’t really too much of a surprise.  Valencia were just disappointing as a whole.  Guardado continues to underwhelm.  Maybe he’s having an off day every time I watch but this isn’t the same player I see for Mexico or watched for Depor a couple of years ago.  Malaga had the upper hand for the most the match and should have ended it much earlier.  Playing more of a 4-4-2 than I had seen previously, they constantly pinned back the visitors and deserved the three points.  Didn’t feel Isco was not up to his usual high standards this season (others disagreed), but his goal was well struck.

Chalk on the Boots produced an extensive and informative breakdown of the match.  Both teams started nominally in a 4-4-2 with a support striker (Joaquin for Malaga and Banega for Valencia).  While the Spaniard moved wide and allowed others to fill the space, the Argentinean dropped off into midfield which isolated an ineffective Valdez.  Moving on, Malaga were organized all over the field and only poor finishing kept Los Che in the game.  This was contrasted by Valencia’s lack of cohesion throughout the pitch.  Other points were addressed but I wanted to make one final note.  He mentioned that Valencia had not won an away league match since March 2012.  I double checked and confirmed that.  Ouch.

Zonal Marking praised Isco’s performance, noting his position of “central winger”, which allowed him to combine and overlap the defenders of Valencia.  He disagreed with Pellegrino’s choice of Banega instead of Jonas to support Valdez and the visitors never got in rhythm.  He also stated that the game should have been over as a contest in the first half, but the end result reflected the difference in the two teams.

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Real Betis 1  Real Madrid 0

Once again, the champions went to Seville and lost 1-0.  Earlier this season, an early goal and a valiant performance from Sevilla saw Los Merengues fall.  This round, Benat fizzed in a shot on 16’ and the visitors could not find the equalizer.

The match was not easy on the eye.  I’m sure the fans were looking for a response after last week’s 5-1 loss in the derby, and Pepe Mel and his squad provided one.  The Verdiblancos were organized in defense and deliberate in attack and were able to take all three points from the Evil Empire.  Benat and Canas shielded the back four, who were able to keep Real Madrid offside all evening.  Going forward, the hosts settled for the long diagonal ball to Salvador Agra and Juan Carlos.  Although this resulted in turnover after turnover, it kept the ball from central areas were the Madrid center mids could get on the ball.  The front three rarely got involved and the goal came from a poor clearance from Di Maria after a throw in.  He lumped the ball into the middle, Benat glided past Khedira and found the back of the net.

As for Los Blancos, one word poor.  The visitors had problems moving through the gears, a combination of Betis’ efforts and a lack of urgency from the Real Madrid.  Ozil got off to a great start, moving laterally to open space for other players, in particular for Khedira, who made late runs to unbalance the Betis defense, but after that Ozil was off the pace and was replaced at halftime.  In the second half Kaka and Modric were introduced, as well as Callejon for Di Maria.  Eventually Mourinho went with three in the back, moving Sergio Ramos up front, and their strategy devolved into Coentrao launching balls from the left center back spot into the penalty area.  The champions started with a full strength eleven, and maybe it was post Champions League fatigue, but maybe Mourinho should have freshened things up to match the energy of the hosts.

Pepe Mel did not turn away from the fan disappointment throughout the week, saying that he and players needed to “endure the downpour” from the fans, which Olly Dawes talked about for Football Espana.  A brilliant, if fortunate, result will hopefully get the fans back onside as Betis pushes on for a European place.

Adam of Forever Betis dismissed the vocal minority who were displeased heading in to the game and complimented Pepe Mel for getting his team to produce an effort that was praised by Mourhino.  He was also glad to see the goalkeeper Adrian bounce back after a poor performance last week.  Finally he acknowledged the efforts of the make shift center back paring of Amaya and Dorado, who gave their all in keeping a clean sheet for the hosts.

Tim Stannard wanted the Real Betis fans to get some perspective.  Yes the team played poorly against Sevilla but look at their standing in the league.  Far from the expected relegation battle (only promoted last season), the Verdiblancos are challenging for Europe and play some attractive stuff.  He wonders if the same fans who verbally abused the players last week will cheer them after the brave victory against the champions.  Doubt it.

Madridista Mac took some time to decompress after Real’s poor performance at the Benito Villamarín before posting on the Real Madrid Football Blog.  He had many of the same comments as I did about the team’s performance in general (lackluster, not good enough) and some of the players specifically (Ozil and Di Maria).  He also addressed Mourinho’s comments but felt that the manager was merely speaking the truth.  Should be an interesting derby.

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Articles

Sid Lowe made an interesting point about how opponents set up against Real Madrid in his weekly column for the Guardian. As teams do against FCB, Real Betis gave the Evil Empire possession and did not allow them to counter.  Their Formula One football (credit Real Madrid Football Blog) can be frustrated against banks of defenders and attackers who are very conservative.  Doctor Sid also talked about the huge task ahead of the champions if they want to overhaul the Blaugrana as well as Malaga’s fine performance against Valencia and Falcao amongst the goals again.

Phil Ball discussed La Liga’s recent TV schedule wrinkle as Round 13 kicked off with Real Sociedad hosting Osasuna on Friday night.  This led into a response to Mourinho’s comments for the fixture list for this round, with Real Madrid having to play Wednesday/Sunday while FCB played Tuesday/Sunday. Finally he praised Isco’s performance against Valencia and wonders where the midfielder will be playing next year.

Gareth Nunn laid out some interesting thoughts for Forza Futbol concerning the presentation of the La Liga product.  The scattergun TV schedule (Friday through Monday); late kickoffs (9,10, 11pm); and the state of the playing surfaces are all factors contributing to fans staying away and TV viewers being less than impressed.

Barcelona Football Blog’s review was provided by Levon who saw Levante hang on for a half before conceding to a Blaugrana onslaught.  FCB, fielding a team of all La Masia products, put four past the hosts and kept their three point lead over Atleti while increasing the gap to eleven over Real Madrid.  Iniesta was the star of the match, scoring once and providing three more.  Levon also acknowledged the influence of Cruyff over the years, with his arrival in 1973 paving the way for future glory and Sunday’s historic teamsheet.

Graham Hunter took things one step further.  In his wonderful post for ESPN FC, he used the results from the Barcelona and Real Madrid games and wove a compelling argument that a single philosophy is the way forward for sporting institutions.  Using FCB’s playing style as his paradigm, he briefly traced the steps from Cruyff to Van Gaal to Vilanova.  Reminding readers that Van Gaal promoted some of the core group despite results, the club has now reached a point where they can play eleven former students from La Masia and win.  Then he holds the mirror up to Real Madrid.  Mourinho, on staff at Barca under Van Gaal, has a system but that system isn’t working this year.  (Tangent: it could be argued that Mourinho is fixer rather than a philosopher.  His time at Chelsea and Inter as well as his time at the Bernabeu inidicate that he can come, forge a fighting spirit, but eventually he wears out his welcome with the club, players and fans and moves on.)  Los Blancos have regressed lately and have had differing approaches to team building over the years.  Hunter challenges the club to reevaluate their operations and look at instituted a unifying system that will pay off in the long run.  Fascinating article and well worth the read.

Finally, Mauricio Pochettino was the first manager to be fired this season.  Mando made the case at the Ball is Flat that although the club has had troubles both on and off the field, the manager was also responsible for the team’s performance and finally had to go.  He’s a big Espanyol fan so it was interesting to get his take.

Morbo Minute–Round 12

Round 12 saw the top three all win, with Atletico struggling against Granada before picking up the three points.  Levante is back in the top four after a win against Depor, while Malaga is in fifth but has only picked up two points in their last four league games.  Down at the bottom there is a group from 15th on down with only three points separating them.

Saturday I watched Barca win comfortably against Zaragoza.  I couldn’t tell if the Blaugrana were conserving their energy or just tired, with Messi   not at his best yet still scoring two goals.  Felt that Tito might have gotten the defense wrong playing an unfit central pairing of Pique and Puyol, but the hosts got away with it winning 3-1.  Montoya struggled which does not help him in his case to replace Alves.  Another three points as FCB continue to win despite leaking goals.

Following that game Real Madrid and Athletic Bilbao kicked off.  Los Leones were poor, conceding two goals in side of 24’ and that was that.  Ibai was the lone bright spot for the visitors.  Call me fickle or lazy or drunk, I left minutes into the second half to move on with my day.

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Articles

Lev recapped the Barca game for the Barcelona Football Blog.

Dermot Corrigan for ESPN FC on the state of Athletic Bilbao after a thrashing by Real Madrid.

Phil Ball shared his view on Benzema as a player and his importance to Real Madrid.

Sid Lowe discussed Reyes’ return to Sevilla and his performance in the Seville Derby, which Sevilla won 5-1.

Graham Hunter reminds readers that no matter how many goals Messi scores this calendar year, the real goal remains to win trophies.  Plus he pipes in Valencia’s president Manual Llorente.

Mina Rzouki examined Susaeta’s inclusion in the Spain squad last week for Football Espana, which she felt was deserved after a fantastic 2011/12 campaign fostered by his relationship with manager Bielsa.

Morbo Minute–Round 11

Another great week of La Liga action with plenty of goals and talking points.  Not much changed at the top of the table but things are getting very nervy at the bottom with Galician sides perilously close to dropping back down.

Malaga 1  Real Sociedad 2

Malaga, who qualified for the knockout stage of the Champions League midweek, began the match with a strong lineup. Real Sociedad were without Griezmann but stacked the team with players ready to put in a shift.  The first half was full of energy but lacking in quality.  Carlos Vela gave the visitors a dream start and then the team defended with men behind the ball in central positions.  They appeared to concede the width which frustrated the hosts in two ways: key players could not get on the ball in the congestion and attackers converged on top of the box and could not connect the final pass to create an opportunity.  But an equalizer did not come as the Real Sociedad did not clear a corner and Saviola danced through and smashed the ball home.

Xavi Prieto put the visitors back in front 15 minutes into the second half as the ball deflected into his path off of Onyewu (making his first start in La Liga and trying to get his career back on track) and the captain dribbled around Willy to score.  Santa Cruz came on for Portillo as Malaga looked to get back in the game.  However Malaga were lucky to have 11 players on the field as Iturra could have received several yellows in a short period but escaped with only one booking.  At this point the visitors were playing with almost six at the back and Los Boquerones were not able to ask the right questions.  If anything they regressed and did not create enough opportunities to trouble them, with Isco’s attempt the only one I can remember.

Real Sociedad climbed out of the bottom to twelfth while Malaga remained in fifth as the Betis defeat kept them within touching distance of fourth place.

On a side note, I loved the kits in this game.  Real Sociedad looked very Dutch with their bright orange tops and socks with black shorts while Malaga mimicked Argentina with the light blue and white vertical stripes.

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Articles and Podcasts

Last season it seemed as every other article was about the financial chasm growing between the Big Two and the rest of the league.  Tim Stannard compared the so called problems of FCB and Real Madrid with the real financial and sporting crises faced by Depor and Osasuna.  Both of these teams have had moderate success in the recent past but money talks and these clubs are getting more and more quiet.

As for this season, there have been two stories: Atleti’s fantastic start fueled by Falcao’s exploits and the Real Madrid cantera crisis.  Sid Lowe touched on the latter after giving the literal blow by blow account of soggy, physical, dramatic Levante/Real Madrid encounter.

Phil Ball showcased some of the players at the twilight of their careers a couple of weeks ago.  This week he looked at some future stars and how things have turned out for them—Canales and Krkic (not well); Isco and Ander (going from strength to strength); Muniain and Ruben Pardo (jury still out).  Part of the conundrum is how to bring them through.  Too early, burnout and injury; too late, career stalls or develops too late.  For every Messi and Raul, dozens never quite make it.

Javier Hernandez identified some of the best players in La Liga thus far based on statistics for El Centrocampista.  Outside the top three (Messi, Cristiano and El Tigre) there were some surprises.  Malaga had two players in the list—goalkeeper Willy and defender Demichelis.  Javier also mentioned Leo from Rayo (no real surprise) as well as Joaquin and Pizzi, with being very influential in creating goal scoring opportunities.  One player that he mentioned was Oscar Gonzalez of Valladolid.  Honestly I don’t think I’ve seen a Valladolid game yet this season so I need to get on that.  Anyway, check it out and see if you agree.

Ravi and Elisa of Forza Futbol reviewed a week of ups and downs for Spanish teams in Europe.  For FCB, they wondered if the weakness of the league is catching up to them.  I don’t think so.  If anything, most teams have prepared the Blaugrana for the defensive wall they faced in Scotland but few teams were as organized in both defense and attack as Celtic.  Plus it is hard to hit the heights so often as last year made painfully obvious.  Los Blancos ran into a tough match up in Borussia Dortmund, as the Germans speed, technical ability and youth combined with Real’s injuries has led to the dropped points.  As for Valencia, DDay is next week against Bayern Munich at the Mestalla, and Malaga are through after getting a draw at San Siro.  In the Europa League, two of the three teams have a real shot at progressing with Athletic all but out.  However that’s probably for the best.

I love the Barcelona Football Blog.  Their posts are consistently passionate, insightful and wonderful to read.  A recent post on the state of the Blaugrana defense was fantastic.  The moderators examined why Barca have been giving up so many goals this season and their reasoning looks at all factors: injuries (especially to Abidal), lack of height, the approach of other teams, and a lack of complementing players. I really enjoy writing like this, writing that digs down into an issue as opposed to the crisis/record/glory of the day.

Madridista Mac saw EPL veterans Essian, Alonso and Ronaldo lead Los Merengues over Levante in a game worthy of lower division English football.  Additional praise was given to Callejon, given a rare start due to the injuries, and Mac didn’t pull any punches when it came to Albiol and Di Maria.  Of course most of the coverage went to Morata who scored the winner.  This led to Mac’s breakdown of Mourinho’s comments on the cantera and what it means for the club.  This will probably die down in a couple of weeks but it does make you wonder if the club are re-examining their youth policy.

Finally, Sid Lowe was on Beyond the Pitch to discuss La Liga.  The Doctor started with FCB.  This team doesn’t quite have the control of the Pep teams.  He used the word negligence and this negligence concedes corners and free kicks that they don’t deal with all that well. The importance of Busquets was also touched on, as was the signing of Song, which didn’t really address the issue the Barca are facing.  As for Real Madrid, the winning for club and country has possibly taken the edge off and a lack of concentration may be responsible for many of the goals.  Plus there may be a tacit prioritization of the Champions League over La Liga this season.  Sid mentioned that bridging the gap between defense and attack could be Los Blancos’ biggest tactical shortcoming this season. They moved on to discuss Malaga’s amazing run thus far lead by Pellegrini.  Of course Atleti’s great start was mentioned spearheaded by the goals of Falcao and the focus of Simeone.  Sid and Anto wrapped up by looking at the situations at Athletic Bilbao and Real Oviedo.

Morbo Minute–Bleeding Tiger, Fortunate Lions

Ten games in and the La Liga table is beginning to take shape.  Real Betis are the surprise package, sitting up in fourth behind the Big Two and Atleti.  Down at the bottom, Osasuna, who finished seventh last year, are rock bottom.  They are joined by Granada and Espanyol, with promoted Galician sides and Real Sociedad just above them.

Graham Hunter made some observations on the opening quarter of the season for ESPN FC.  He opened with concerns over the lack of hunger from Real Madrid and Athletic Bilbao, two teams that had success last year.  The Champions are back on track while the Copa finalists are struggling as the demands of Bielsa wear on them.  He then moved on to Barca, off to a great start despite the amounts of goals they are conceded.  If they tighten that up, Tito may match the success of Pep in his first season.  He wrapped up the column praising Pepe Mel’s leadership at Betis, Falcao’s scoring exploits for Atleti and Soldado’s efforts for Valencia.  Solid stuff and a nice wrap up of the storylines thus far.

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Valencia 2  Atletico Madrid 0

The Mestalla was not even full as Los Che welcomed Falcao and company, and Atleti suffered their first defeat of the season in a stop/start game with lots of niggly fouls.  Soldado opened the scoring with a goal reminiscent of Claudio Lopez in the Champions League all those years ago as he fired in a volley after a great ball from Rami.  Falcao proved to be a handful for the Valencian center backs with Rami having to resort to the dark arts on several occasions.  The Colombian barged into Ricardo Costa and no foul was given, at which point Pellegrino went absolutely nuts and was sent to the changing rooms after tossing a water bottle and berating the fourth official.

In the second half the fouls continued, the game seemingly a series of aerial challenges ranging from legal to borderline assault.  Ricardo Costa was sent off for a soft second yellow card, but Los Che saw out the match with substitute Nelson Valdez grabbing another goal.  Not sure that Valencia were worth the two goal advantage, and it was hard to even put a finger on a man of the match but there you are.

Couple of player notes:

For Valencia, Gago did not have a great match.  Poor challenges and too many turnovers for my liking.  Joao Pereira is a little baby.  He cried and went to ground if anyone was ever near him.  Very disappointed in his attitude.  As I tweeted during the match, unless Diego Alves has knee issues, he should not be wearing leggings.  He was another player who constantly faked injury.

For Atleti, Arda is fat.  Between him and Anderson of Manchester United, I’m not sure who is getting more calories.  Still clever but seems to lack burst.  He moved to central midfield when Emre left and Cristian Rodriguez came on.  Speaking of Emre, was he even on the field?  I guess he was as the Turk was subbed on 56’. Completely anonymous.  Adrian was fantastic.  Up for the match, he continually went one v one and had some delightful touches throughout the match.

SlickR at Club Valencia CF Blog felt the match was exciting (disagree with him there) and his player ratings were much more positive than I would have been.

Martin Rosenow reviewed the match for Atleti Fans, commenting on the referee’s decisions in a very physical match.  The team is still in a good position and Simeone was proud of them after the match.

Granada 1  Athletic Bilbao 2

After an energetic start, Granada fell behind after a weird call in the box (did the defender karate chop Arduriz’s throat?), which resulted in a yellow card for Diakhate and a PK conversion from the fouled party.  The summer transfer from Valencia scored again on 27’ after shrugging off a defender outside the penalty area and firing it into the far post.  Muniain was in offside position (standing right in front of goalkeeper) and not sure how he wasn’t called for that.  Despite not being that dangerous, the visitors, looking pretty sharp in their all black kits, went into halftime up 2-0.

The second half, which started with Bilbao goalkeeper Iraizoz running onto the field as play kicked off, saw pouring rain and a much sharper home side.  Unfortunately they were not wearing their finishing boots as two early chances went begging from El Arabi  and Brahimi.  Eventually El Arabi curled a grass cutter in from 20 yard, although the keeper should have done better.  For a long portion of the half Los Leones were totally pinned back, but Aduriz nearly extended the lead again on 58’ but his header crashed against the post.  This saw a spell in which Athletic was able to put the pressure back on the hosts and the game opened up.

Los Leones were not sharp in possession, especially in getting ball wide, and the team resorted to trying to find Aduriz up top.  Muniain had a hard time getting into the match and only became an influence as the match opened up.  The vertical ball was not working for Granada, and they did much better in quick combinations.  Torje had a fantastic match, giving the visitors problems, and had at least one and maybe two penalty shouts.  Fortunate three points for the visitors but Granada only have themselves to blame.  Lack of cutting edge in first half and lack of finishing in the second prevented them from getting anything from the match.  Now in real trouble at the bottom of the table.

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Round 10

Phil Ball dove into the numbers of La Liga, which led into a discussion about the youth policy of Real Madrid and the reserve team policy of the league as a whole.  He was on hand as Espanyol defeated Real Sociedad at the Anoeta (first away win in 11 months), and he also wondered if Malaga players will continue to perform without being paid, definitely an important figure.

Sid Lowe observed some of the weird happenings in Spanish football (Messi, CR7 and Falcao all not scoring; Essien scoring; and Rayo and Malaga winning away from home), before moving on to look at Valencia’s win over Atleti.  “A proper battle that got nasty without ever really getting nasty, where there were clashes but few confrontations.” Los Colcheneros lost for the first time since April.  Is this a bump in the road or their descent into a third place finish 20+ points behind the big two?

Madridista Mac recapped Madrid’s 4-0 win against Zaragoza for Real Madrid Football Blog, which featured Modric and Essien standing in for Alonso and Khedira respectively.  The midfield had a slight different look, with Modric more selfish and direct, but the results were the same.  Mac was concerned that the team switched off and knows that Dortmund will punish that lack of concentration.  As he commented last week, their participation gives Mourinho plenty of options moving forward.

Staying with Los Blancos, Tim Stannard asked the question for Football365: Why Won’t Mourinho Give Youth a Chance?  The club continues to splash the cash (Modric and Coentrao as recent examples) rather than building from within (read: FCB), and he lists several players playing at home and abroad who left the capital for more playing time.  The simple fact is that the club does not have a youth policy mentality, which is coupled with a manager who stays for a short time to get maximum results.  Mourinho is not in for the long haul, so that’s why Essien plays out of position at left back instead of a natural Castilla player.  The Special One wants trophies and a legacy, and with the club executives and fans urging him on, there is no need for blooding young players.  Furthermore, if they did hire a manager who focused on promoting Castilla players and results did not follow, guess what happens to that unfortunate soul?  The axe.

Speaking of youth, Oriol Romeu’s future was the subject of Richard Thorburn’s post for El Centrocampista.  The young Spaniard “has gone from being tipped for the top to being nothing more than a fringe player in a mere six months.”  Time will tell if he can recover and force his way into a crowded Chelsea midfield or whether he will have to move on to earn his trade.

Total Barca saw Celta Vigo go for it at the Nou Camp, and while the visitors left without any points, their efforts were much better than Rayo Vallecano (playing at home) the previous week.  Tito started with a very unusual lineup, going with Adriano, Mascherano, Busquets, and Alba in the back and Cesc in midfield, which meant there was no “traditional anchor”.  Maybe the coach is saving Song for midweek?  The attack created plenty of chances, with the first two goals of the real quality.  The third goal was offside but Alba took it well.  FCB are now clear at the top of the table heading to Scotland on Wednesday and Mallorca on the weekend.

Lev wrote a highly descriptive post for Barcelona Football Blog, weaving threads of emotion, match reporting and poetry together.  Praising the team’s heart, what the Blaugrana lack in defense they more than make up in attack, creating chance after chance after chance.  Celta came to play but in the end the quality of FCB was too much.

John Pelini broke down the last match on Sunday for El Centrocampista.  Sevilla hosted Levante in a scoreless draw as the visitors packed the center of pitch.  The hosts could not deliver crosses to trouble the strong center backs of Levante and were not able to move the ball quick enough laterally to trouble an organized side.  John did make mention of Sevilla substitute Diawarra who was able to add a spark for the Rojiblancos.

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Table

Barcelona 10 9 1 0 20 28
Atlético 10 8 1 1 11 25
Real Madrid 10 6 2 2 18 20
Betis 10 6 1 3 2 19
Málaga 10 5 3 2 7 18
Levante 10 5 2 3 -2 17
Sevilla 10 4 3 3 1 15
Valladolid 10 4 2 4 4 14
Valencia 10 4 2 4 1 14
Getafe 10 4 1 5 -4 13
Rayo 10 4 1 5 -10 13
R Zaragoza 10 4 0 6 -6 12
Mallorca 10 3 2 5 -5 11
Athletic 10 3 2 5 -6 11
Celta Vigo 10 3 1 6 -3 10
Deportivo 10 2 4 4 -5 10
R Sociedad 10 3 1 6 -5 10
Espanyol 10 2 3 5 -3 9
Granada 10 2 2 6 -8 8
Osasuna 10 1 2 7 -7 5

Morbo Minute–Manitas All Around

Looking back at La Liga teams in Europe last week. . .

The gang at Forza Futbol pod reviewed an incredible MatchDay 3 for Spanish teams in both competitions.  In the Champions League, FCB snagged all three points at the end; Soldado scored a hat trick for Valencia; Malaga have a 100% record and no goals against; and Real Madrid fell to Borussia Dortmund.  Over in the Europa League, Atletico kept cruising while Levante got three vital points in their campaign.  Poor Athletic lost and only has one point thus far.

Sam Thompson analyzed the Malaga/Milan game for his site TTT Football.  The Spanish side started in a 4-2-3-1 with Joaquin behind Saviola and Isco and Portillo coming inside for combinations and allowing the fullbacks to overlap and provide width.  Milan played an unusual 3-4-3, which defended as a 5-2-3 before becoming 5-4-1 towards the end of the match.  Watching the game, the Italians were constantly pinned back and looked blunt coming forward, with the Spaniards living if lacking the final ball.  Joaquin secured all three points with a difficult effort, having missed a penalty in the first half.

Continuing with Malaga, Graham Hunter wrote a wonderful piece on Los Boquerones as they dismissed Milan and look set to qualify for the knockout stages.  After a summer of disorder and scrambling, the team has stuck together and is reaping the dividends—top of the group and fourth in the league.  How far can they go?

Zonal Marking examined the clash of the Spanish and German champions and called the match more of a “German” game, based around pressing and quick transitions, than a “Spanish” game, which tends to be focused upon ball retention.  And what a match it was.  I told several people after watching it that I felt it was a like a game of FIFA on fast speed.  Eventually Dortmund was able to overwhelm Essien who isn’t a LB by nature, plus he wasn’t assisted by CR7.  A big three points for the Germans which should enable them to qualify for the knockout stages.

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Round Nine

I watched Rayo Vallecano v FCB on Saturday afternoon.  David Villa opened the scoring for the visitors and after a tightly contest affair of about an hour, the Blaugrana took absolute control, eventually winning 5-0.  The hosts went down and responded by pushing forward which left them more and more exposed.  Have to admire the fact that they did go for it but it was all for naught.  Leo Baptistao was starved of service and I didn’t see much in the attack.  As for FCB, I am really starting to wonder about Song and Sanchez.  Song was moved into central midfield to support Cesc and Xavi and seemed to be well placed but I don’t know.  Something is still missing.  As for Sanchez, he is channeling his inner Bojan and trying so hard and not getting the results.  On as a sub to grab an easy goal or two and build his confidence, he went the other direction, making things worse, constantly straying offside and usually picking the wrong pass or not delivering the correct one.  Aggravating to watch.

Kxevin of Barcelona Football Blog is seeing a different squad emerging this season: Those days (tiki taka and endless possession) are gone, replaced by a different kind of match control, in which brilliant players crawl through a sliver that someone leaves, and put the knife in.  He focused on Fabregas, noting his passing, runs and energy but is reserving judgment to see if he can do it the whole season.   In the end, Rayo ran out of steam and were put to the sword.  It happens.

What happened to Los Leones?  Sid Lowe asked that question for his weekly column in the Guardian.  He correctly states that There is little of the intensity, the sense of mission, that there was last season.  In its place a soap opera:

First there was the fight. Then came the failed escape bid, Martínez going to Germany, Fernando Llorente failing to go to Italy. Then the break in. And then the worst part of all: the secret recordings.

Athletic could be following the Yellow Submarine into the Segunda.  Sitting just above the relegation zone, everyone keeps waiting for the run that will take them to safety so the club can rebuild for next season.  It never came for Villarreal. It may not come for Athletic.

Kieran Canning, writing for Football Espana, brought me up to speed on Levante.  After a slow start in the league Los Granotes have won five in a row and have climbed up to sixth, plus they have six points in the Europa League.  Obafemi Martins is scoring for fun right now and maybe the Nigerian has finally found a home.

Madridista Mac examined a possible plan B for Real Madrid.  With a rash of injuries in the defense combined with the loss of Khedira, Mourinho rolled out a variation of the formation he has built in this time there.  Problem: Madrid’s injury problem at fullback created a two-fold problem: less dynamism on attack in the flanks and lack of depth in the midfield muscle department. Solution: put CR7 and Di Maria on their natural sides and put creative, technical players in the middle.  With the wingers stretching the play wide rather drifting centrally, the dynamic players had time and space in the middle to exploit.  As Mac rightly says, The true test will be if we can play such a system successfully against a team with a very good #10 or with the meanest, baddest, nastiest combo of physical midfield destroyers.

Finally, Phil Ball paid homage to the grizzly old veterans bringing their experience to teams around La Liga.  I remember Juanfran and Valeron from my early days watching the league and here they are still getting a game.  Great column for its personal insight and brief history lesson.