Posts Tagged ‘ Barcelona Football Blog ’

Morbo Minute–Part 2 (Articles and Pods)

Here’s some stuff I came across during the last week or so.

Eduardo Alvarez went undercover to the Vicente Calderon to watch Atleti v Rayo, a game that saw Simeone’s razor sharp squad almost throw it away in the waning moments of the match.  Plus he commented on the trouble across town as Mourinho’s men slumped to defeat.

Speaking of Los Colchoneros, Tim Stannard examined how Falcao remained at Atleti despite setting La Liga and the Europa League alight last season.  He made the case that as an out and out striker, several teams would have to spend big time money to reinvent the squad in order to accommodate the Colombian.

Last week, I saw posts on twitter that Malaga and Atletico Madrid were not going to receive their prize money from UEFA due to outstanding debts.  I haven’t quite gotten to the bottom of that but several journos and the Swiss Ramble were trading tweets about that and other things, which made me realize I had not read his blog in a while.  Skimming recent posts, I came across his analysis of Atleti’s current finances.

For the last 15 months at least, La Liga fans have been made aware of the huge discrepancies between Real Madrid and FC Barcelona in terms of TV money.  Barca and Real each received 140 Euros in 2011/12 from TV, while Los Coloconeros only picked up 46 million Euros, which was fourth in the league but only 1/3 of what the Big Two picked up a piece and only 16% of the total amount they received.  Ouch.  Year after year of this creates a chasm that is now creating a player drain from the country as footballers look to other countries for better compensation.

European success has hidden the fact that Atleti are in trouble financially.  Not only can any improvement they make in media, match day revenue and sponsorship not compete with the big boys, but they are trying to overcome massive tax debt and several years of poor purchases.  Now that anyone still reading has fallen asleep, I will just say, read the Swiss Ramble for the details.  I don’t pretend to understand it all but I know enough to know that it is not a rosy picture.

SlickR was not happy with Valencia’s performance against Celta Vigo.  (2-1 win.)  The team was missing a couple of key players due to injury and the FIFA Virus, but Los Che allowed the visitors too much time and made the game harder than it needed to be.  Sounds like Feghuoli had a solid match.  Have never been impressed by him, but his early goal was quite nice.

I found the website Barca Central in my wanderings around the interwebs and Nic looked at the season after three rounds, focusing on how Tito has maintained the same tactics and shape as Pep (while making small tweaks); the signings of Song and Alba, who have added solid depth to the squad; and the form of Cesc, which has been a source of tension in the camp.

A recent post by NZM on Barcelona Football Blog is another I reason I enjoy the blog so much.  She broke down the Blaugrana’s activity in the recent transfer window and used it as a launching off point for how the club deals with young players and their progress from La Masia to the first team.  There is definitely a conflict between the club’s philosophy of promoting from within and the financial and squad realities.  The rubber hits the road when a thin squad is stretched as FCB were last spring in the Chelsea/Real Madrid/Chelsea sequence that asked too much of the players.  Great post and definitely food for thought.

Finally, have to mention the Inside Spanish Football pod.  Not only did it look back on the talking points of Round Four, but I made my podcast debut.  Many thanks to Ben for having me on, and to Jonathon and Michael for the insightful commentary.  Give it a listen!!

Morbo Minute–Part 1 (Game Summaries)

I spent the weekend watching as much La Liga as I could in preparation for an appearance on the Inside Spanish Football Podcast.  With 33 goals in ten matches there was plenty to see–two epic games (Espanyol 3 Athletic 3 and Atletico 4 Rayo 3) that I unfortunately missed; strength sapping heat in several games; and a truly unbelievable performance by Sevilla against the Champions at the Sanchez Pizjuan.

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Malaga 3  Levante 1

The match kicked off with the temperature at 30 degrees C (86 F).  The internet feeds broadcast the game from a wide angle, which gave a feel for shape and formation but hard to see player details, especially in the shaded channel.

Malaga, with some players rested or held out for the Champions League game midweek, played an entertaining first half.  Fluid and aggressive, they deserved their halftime lead.  I could never discern their formation, which is arbitrary to begin with.  Constant changing positions, with Eliseu anchoring the left hand channel and Saviola leading the line.  He scored the opener as he found a pocket of space, something he did for the entire half and was released by Isco.  The goal allowed Malaga to progress through the gears and they really should have added a second as they enjoyed 65% of possession.

Levante had a nice opening spell but resorted to the long ball as they came under more and more pressure, an approach that was not productive.  Felt that Bakero did not see enough of the ball and had a hard time picking out Diop during the match.

The second half started with a bolt from blue.  Malaga went right on the attack, with a player falling down on the by line, and after two seconds, Michel ran at hosts rear guard and slammed a shot past Willy from 25 yards out.  From there Los Granotes played with a little higher line, a little more pressure in the Malaga defensive third, and a little tighter between the lines.  Eventually Malaga regained the lead as Saviola found Joaquin who passed it home.  Both players had solid games, with Saviola scoring and setting up a goal in his home debut while Joaquin put in a good shift with very dynamic movement.

The heat caught up with both sides in the second half.  The hosts were not as sharp and lost the rhythm of the first half, with Levante not having enough to push on and equalize again.  Sergio Sanchez received a second yellow four minutes from time, which set up an anxious finish, but the third goal arrived from Malaga as Duda found Portillo after an exhausted Levante team was completely stretched.

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Getafe 1  FCB 4

Checking out the lineup pre-match, I admit I was a bit nervous—no Messi, Alves, Masch, or Villa.  They were all on the bench but Tito (also in the stands) went with Tello, Montoya, and Thiago in the starting lineup.  The first half went as expected, with Getafe compact and looking for the counter, while Barca dominated possession but had difficulty finding a way through.

The game seemed to be heading towards a nervy finish (you know the game where the Blaugrana dominate, don’t get the killer second goal, and then are undone at the end by a defensive miscue), until Messi entered.  Little more drive, little more tension in the Getafe defense.  Pedro earned a penalty, the Argentinean converted, then FCB kicked on.  With the hosts chasing, Messi added another before Villa scored yet another goal in a substitute appearance.  A deflected shot/own goal from substitute gave Getafe mere consolation.

Barcelona were definitely the better team, (when are they not?), but the Azulones might have made it interesting had the penalty not occurred.  Once they went two down, their organization was lost and the belief of another amazing result had gone.  One of the early background stories to this season has been the decline in fan attendance.  I was surprised that the stadium was pretty empty.  One of the great teams of this generation was in town after all.  Jonathan Cordingley commented on this during the podcast.  The Spanish economic troubles combined with much higher ticket prices for the visits by the Big Two has created an environment in which fans just simply won’t go to games.  Yet another issue with the Spanish game.

A couple of things I noticed:

  • Tello is too dependent on what ESPN’s Jack Edwards would refer to as the “speed move” (ie push the ball past and get on the other end).  Strong, smart defenders just block him and that’s that.
  • Cesc is definitely still trying to find his way in the Barca system.  Too often he stands next to Xavi or runs at the back four and stops his run, clogging the penalty area.
  • The first 45 minutes was one of the worst halves I have seen by Busquets.  Positioning was fine but his touches were awful and slowed the team down.
  • Colunga for Getafe was totally disconnected from the rest of the team, but I’m sure this was by design and it paid off with a run Pique that earned a yellow.

Kxevin’s post at BFB was simply phenomenal, comparing and contrasting the lineups and tactics and results of Barca’s last two games—home against Valencia and away to Getafe.  The team is evolving once again as Tito stamps his authority on the squad—more movement, little more conservative on defense, and implanting some sort of squad rotation (although some has been forced on him by injury).  Can the Blaugrana recapture their titles?  Time will tell but they are well on their way.

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Sevilla 1  Real Madrid 0

With FCB winning right before them, Real Madrid knew three points would be needed to stay within touching distance of their rivals, but Piotr Trochowski dented those hopes on 75 seconds, hammering home a corner kick for the hosts.  After that, I didn’t feel there was much from either side, with the game being pretty ugly to watch.  Sevilla fouled RMFC any time an attack started.  (My unscientific calculation was that if Los Blancos completed more than four passes, Sevilla committed a foul.)  On top of that, RMFC were definitely out of sorts, with CR7 barely touching the ball at the time and Ozil not influencing the game.  He was replaced at halftime.

The Real Madrid fan I watched the game with summed up the game with one word—shocked.  Have to agree.  I really thought Los Merengues would score the equalizer, and depending on when that came in match would determine whether they would they win or not.  Mourinho’s subs at the interval made sense, although I would have subbed Benzema for Higuain, who had a bad day.  The buildout up from back to front was fine enough but the interplay and incisiveness up top was lacking. Modric at least got a shot off, wonderfully saved by Palop.  Eventually, Khedira was shuffled out to right back as they chased an equalizer.

As for the winners, Negredo really should have added a second in the last 20 minutes as the visitors chased the game.  Thought Jesus Navas had a solid performance on the wing, while the entire Sevilla defense stayed to their task.  Real Madrid created a couple of chances, but there wasn’t the lack of concentration and the series of mistakes that marked the corresponding fixture last year.

RMFC is up against it, although last year they won 10 in a row before the first league El Clasico and 11 straight after the loss (and didn’t lose again the rest of the season) to create the winning margin.  Mourinho’s men will have to do something similar during this campaign to make up the ground, while slugging it out in a tough UCL group.

Both Madridista Mac from Real Madrid Football Blog and Ireland 26 at Managing Madrid commented on a perceived lack of focus and hunger from Los Blancos.  Goals conceded from set pieces; lack of interplay between key players; responding to overly physical challenges.  These are all contributing to their poor form, and I will be interested to see if the Champions League sharpens them as they try to win La Decima.  It may be that they write off the league and win the Big One as the teams of the last 90’s/early 2000’s did.

Zonal Marking analyzed the game in fine detail, looking at Sevilla’s approach to the game: (a) pressing heavily, (b) marking Alonso and (c) using an extra holding midfielder

which frustrated a below par opponent.  The early goal allowed Sevilla to battle and Real’s lack of sharpness kept them from getting anything from the match.

Finally, Sid Lowe hopes that Sevilla’s stirring victory is not another false dawn but a step back to competition in the Primera.  Many of the stars of the last six to seven years are gone, but Saturday night’s performance showed what this team and that atmosphere can do.  Time will tell.

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Osasuna 1  Real Mallorca 1

Sam Parker, writing for Inside Spanish Football, was concerned for Osasuna after three rounds.  No points and only one goal for did not bode well for Los Rojillos, but there was an energetic start to the match, with both teams playing at a high tempo.  Mallorca pressured the hosts which made for a choppy start, but Osasuna were positive despite not having any points this season.  The first half strategies could be summed up thusly: Osasuna were composed, making the extra pass, while Mallorca were very direct, feeding Nsue and Pereira on the flanks to create havoc.

The pace faded around the half hour mark and was followed by the major incident of the first half—a double red card.  On 33 minutes, the referee showed red cards to Osasuna forward Llorente, who had barely touched the ball, and Mallorca defender Nunes, who had commanded the defense.  Caparros immediately brought on Pedro Tunon Geromel for Alfaro to keep four at the back and go with one up top.

Osasuna went right back to work after the intermission, putting the visitors on the back foot.  Their pressure created turnovers and but they were not nearly sharp enough in the final third, with the final pass almost always lacking.  With just one target player, Mallorca tried to hold on to the ball and let Pereira and Nsue just run at the back four.  Not very successful

The substitutes raised the quality and intensity of the match.  Kike Solar got Mallorca’s attention, finding pockets of space and working hard with his efforts rewarded as he headed in from close range after great service from Lamah.  He also impressed as his long strides and strength gave the visitors fits on the left hand side.  Mallorca almost responded after a free kick went over everyone, skipped off the surface, and the GK deflected onto cross bar.  Joao Victor kept things lively upon his entrance to the game, driving the team forward and hitting the top of the crossbar with an audacious free kick.  The equalizer did come minutes after the opening goal as a corner zipped through the box and Hemed dove to meet it.  There were anxious moments for the visitors as Osasuna pushed for the winner, but the game ended in a stalemate.

Osasuna picked up their first point of the season but will need better quality in the final third to get themselves out of relegation.  As for Mallorca, they were third until Rayo’s game later in the day.

One note, the best player for me was Cejudo for Osasuna.  He got wide, smartly used the ball and combined well on the right hand side with Emiliano Armenteros and the overlapping full back.  Didn’t see much of him in the second half and he was subbed with five minutes to go.

Morbo Minute–Los Blancos Sing the Azulones

Another weekend of goals and intriguing results in La Liga, with the champions suffering against Getafe while Rayo continued their 100% record.  Valencia drew again and FCB is on the horizon for Los Che, with the Blaugrana making hard work of it against Osasuna.  In the final match of the round, Atleti crushed Bilbao 4-0 to put Los Leones rock bottom of the league.

Real Betis 1 Rayo Vallecano 2

Saturday night saw me try to expand my La Liga knowledge as I watched the replay of Real Betis against Rayo Vallecano.  Didn’t know the result and didn’t have a rooting interest for each side, so just watched the game to see what these two teams had to offer.

The first half saw a spellbinding opening 15 minutes:  two goals in the first four minutes, and then each team hit the woodwork with excellent strikes.  Real Betis came out in what looked like a 4-3-3 and pressured Rayo all over the field, with the visitors replying with some sort of 4-5-1 and composed possession.  The great start to the match eventually wore off and set the template for the rest of the match—moments of quality amongst a series of cynical and professional fouls.

The second half saw Betis on the front foot but a lack of urgency in front of goal saw nothing come of their dominance.  Rayo’s composure and interplay of the first half seemed to have disappeared and they were just hanging on to a draw, but everything changed on 62 minutes.  A Betis turnover in midfield allowed Leo to start the counter with a ball out wide left to Lass.  Leo supported his pass, maintained his balance and slotted the ball under the keeper, who probably should have done better.  It was a well deserved goal for his efforts, and I really enjoyed watching him, as he was full of running, decent going at people and his flicks and first time passing allowed Rayo to create several chances, including the opening goal.

Once Rayo went ahead, they were back on track, keeping the ball away from the hosts and letting time tick away.  The movement and crispness of the opening half returned and they looked quite good at time.  Los Verdiblancos reacted by driving forward with a lot of energy but little sharpness, almost trying to equalize by sheer force of will, which was not enough

A couple of other player notes:

  • Salvador: The Betis midfielder was like a Portuguese Theo Walcott: one direction one speed, very little finished product .
  • Benat:  Thought he had a good match, particularly in the first half with his passing and creativity giving the hosts some sort of direction.
  • Campbell:  Guess he is on loan from Arsenal.  Thought he gave Betis a little impetus upon his introduction.
  • Lass:  Critical sub as his pace really unbalanced Betis their right hand side.  Looking to see more of him.
  • Trashorras:  Just love his name.
  • Casado:  The left back for Rayo was sure on the ball, usually finding the right pass, but his defending left a little to be desired.

Both teams went for it, which was enjoyable for the neutral, but the lack of quality in front of goal kept the game from really hitting the heights.  As the game wore on, the fouls and dark arts became prominent and the game eventually petered out with three points to the visitors.

Adam at Forever Betis found it hard to find the positives in the match, starting his post with Betis looked tentative, lightweight and rudderless right from the start and were deservedly beaten by a competent Rayo side.  He was especially critical of the keeper among other players as the home side were undone.

Osasuna 1 FC Barcelona 2

After church I headed into work so that I could get on the internet, find an illegal feed and join the match late.  Finding a feed and getting my computer to cooperate took much longer that I had anticipated, so I missed the first half.  I got caught up via highlights and analysis on Sky and sat down for the second half.  It was like watching the Chelsea Champions League semi all over again as the Blaugrana hit their head against a wall that would not crumble.  There was a lack of sharpness and drive combined with a team determined to hold on to their lead.  Eventually the substitutions of Pedro, Xavi and Villa tipped the balance and FCB ran out winners.  But let this not mask the fact that the team is not cohesive, especially in defense.  With Puyol out for a little while (maybe not), Masch will probably return to the side, so we’ll see if this changes things.  If I were a Spanish side I would sign Fellaini and let him terrorize the back line as he did against United on the opening weekend.

Kxevin at the Barcelona Football Blog recapped a match that was crazy in so many ways: crazy in the way Osasuna executed their game plan to near perfection; crazy in how so many Barca players were off the pace; crazy in the way subs can totally change a match.  FCB had a tricky fixture in between the Super Cup and survived.  With Real Madrid on Wednesday and Valencia next weekend, fans will see if Tito can continue to navigate a tough of fixtures.

 

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Articles and Pods

Phil Ball reviewed a busy four days in Spain, starting with an entertaining Super Cup first leg to Real’s shocking defeat against Getafe.  He picked out several players that caught his eye: Benat from Betis, Iago from Celta Vigo, Leo Baptistao from Rayo.

Graham Hunter was on Off the Ball last week (8/26) and discussed the situation at Athletic Bilbao, as the work done by Bielsa last season is unraveling.  Part of it is the club’s negotiations with Llorente and Martinez and part of it is the antics of the coach, but the club is in real trouble after a season of promise.

As for the Champions, Madridista Mac wondered if the alarm bells should be ringing as Real has started the season without a win.  With CR7 and Ozil not in top form, Los Merengues have suffered, losing the lead in all three matches and not having the answers at the end of matches.  Of course by this time next week, they could be Super Cup champions and on four points (with a home win over Granada), just behind FCB who could conceivably lose to Valencia.  But defeats in both . . .

Iain at El Centrocampista echoed concerns about Real Madrid’s start after the defeat, with Euro 2012, the US tour and player choices all listed as factors.  One thing that I did not consider was Albiol on for the injured Pepe.  Surely Mou won’t throw Varane into the fire on Wednesday but must consider using him on the weekend.

Finally, the Champions signed Luka Modric, ending a long saga that surely took too long and may not pay off for a while due to lack of games for the Croatian.  Sid Lowe took a look at Real Madrid’s newest signing for the Guardian, while Terry Gibson gave his thoughts on the transfer on La Liga Extra.

To wrap everything up, the panel at Inside Spanish Football commented on most of the weekend’s action from round 2, looking at key moments and players before moving on to their team of the week.

Morbo Minute–Kickoff 2012/13

The new season is upon us.  While the championship will go to one of the Big Two, there are several compelling storylines throughout the rest of the league.

  • Malaga:  one year on from the Project, the club seems to be in total disarray.
  • Athletic:  after a campaign in which they reached two cup finals and destroyed Manchester United, Los Leones may lose two of their best players and slide into the bottom half of the table.  (What an opener by the way!)
  • Levante:  can Los Granotes finish in the European places again?
  • Depor and Celta are back in the top flight.
  • Can Zaragoza survive both on and off the field?
  • Will Granada’s ownership structure help or hinder them?

But on to the games . . .

Real Madrid 1 Valencia 1

I’m surprised the LFP computer spit out this match to begin the season.  Surely there must be an algorithm to avoid this sort of thing (first and third last season), but the league campaign started with a game that was marked by several head collisions, spurts of entertainment and a solid performance by Valencia keeper Diego Alves.

I watched the game on the new beIN sport network (worst name ever) in glorious HD.  The pre game was on mute so I have no comments on that.  As for the game coverage, it was Phil and Ray, and I am glad it was on mute.  Valencia’s away kit was fantastic.  Loved the bats on the shoulders.  May have to pony up for one of those.

Real Madrid started with Lass in midfield with Alonso and Ozil, which I found odd.  I wasn’t up on the injury report so I don’t know if Khedira was hurt or if Mou was saving him for the Super Cup.  Lass struggled and, with Ozil blowing hot and cold, the hub of the team struggled.  There was lots of passing but not much drive, with chances relegated to several long range shots.  However some clever interplay allowed Di Maria to set up Higuian, who finally scored on his third attempt from close range.  Towards end of first half, Real Madrid started moving through the gears and looked sharper.

For Valencia, I was interested to see a reshaped team with Gago and Guardado and Joao Pereria.  Looked like Pellegrino was using the Mexican and Mathieu in the same vain as the Alba/Mathieu pairing last year.  Not as dynamic but kept Di Maria and Arbeloa busy.  Soldado saw very little of the ball, and finally got a chance on 22’, but was too slow.  Jonas equalized minutes before halftime, meeting a free kick as Casillas and Pepe collided.  Put the blame for goal on Saint Iker because I’m not sure that he needed to go for that.

The second half saw Albiol in for Pepe.  After the clash that resulted in the goal, Pepe was all bloody but seemed ok, while Iker looked a little woozy.  It was a little more end to end to start the second stanza, with Soldado getting more touches. Di Maria missed a glorious chance eight minutes in as Ozil put him through.  Then it looked liked Soldado had the go ahead goal ten minutes into second half but the chance was ruled offside.  A short spell of pressure followed after the introduction of Benzema for Lass, and Alves had to be sharp as Higuain nearly made it 2-1 with Di Maria again the provider but the effort crashed off crossbar.

The champions threw bodies forward with any sort of formation breaking down, as Los Merengues really pinned the visitiors back and went for the winner.  With 10 minutes to go Nelson Valdez returned to La Liga.  His previous appearance was with Hercules a couple of years ago when they stunned FCB early in the season, and he made his presence felt, especially to Xabi Alonso with a midair conclusion and late slide tackle.

In the end Valencia held on for the draw.  They had to be happy with a point in which they were second best for most of the match.  Real Madrid could not capitalize on two periods of heavy pressure, with some credit to Diego Alves, who was well positioned and at the ready to stifle the attack.  I think Mourinho will use the result to great effect, getting the team up for the Super Cup and further league games.  A home draw is not acceptable and he will redouble his efforts with the squad.

Some comments on the game from around the web . . .

Madridista Mac watched Los Blancos stumble out of the gate.  He and I saw the game in much the same way, summarized by his statement: while the boys clearly lacked sharpness out there – their effort cannot be questioned.

SlickR at Club Valencia CF wrote a recap of the game and was thrilled with the point.  His player ratings called out a couple of players—Ruiz and Guardado—and provided an interesting look at the team from a fan’s perspective.  Los Che were poor but they were playing against the champions and still have a lot of potential.

Finally, John Pelini broke down the game for El Centrocampista, with my thoughts echoing his.  In the end Real will find their footing and Valencia will break down lesser opponents.

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Articles and Pods

Inside Spanish Football launched their weekly podcast with a season preview, looking at the top four and then hitting the rest of the teams in La Primera.

Another league preview was provided by Chalk on the Boots, which broke down the league into those chasing European spots, those trying to avoid relegation and those somewhere in between.  He commented on each team and the post was very informative.

Moving on to the weekend’s action . . .

Sid Lowe reflected on a weekend when football prevailed despite a league schedule that bordered on criminal (games over three days, some of which ended at 1am local time) and teams that are suffering internal crises: Athletic Bilbao and Malaga.  But the game shall overcome.  A fine performance by Barca, a 16 year old scoring for Los Boquerones and goals in almost every game.

Real Sociedad did not get the memo that the pre-season friendlies were over as they were annihilated by FCB, which Phil Ball was lucky enough to see in person.  He also touched on the crazy schedule and the trouble brewing at Bilbao.

Isaiah looked back on a game for Barcelona Football Blog in which FCB were not at their best and yet crushed their opponents, a similar story to the last couple of seasons.  Of course, time was given to Villa’s return, and if Ibi and Abi come back to full fitness and the young players emerge, FCB should have the depth to fight on all fronts.

Lee Roden looked at the troubling situation at Malaga and the entire league as the new season begins.  From the anticipation of their fourth place finish to the current fire sale and economic troubles, circumstances have changed over the last couple of months.  Plus all teams are finding it harder and harder to compete with FCB and Real Madrid, with quality players leaving La Primera at an alarming rate.  As with last season, the financial power of the Big Two versus the rest of the league continues to a big issue.

Finally, a shameless plug for my La Liga Kits page.  I have attempted to assemble all of the kits for the upcoming season into one place.  There are some real winners and several duds but it’s all subjective.

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Transfers

I found a pretty comprehensive transfer list of players joining and leaving each team of La Primera on Inside Spanish Football. Plan to use this as a guide early in the season to get me up to speed.

Javier Hernandez popped up on El Centrocampista to look at teams who have suffered during the transfer window, focusing on Malaga, Rayo, Levante, and Betis.  Athletic will be up against if it Llorente and Martinez end up leaving.  He then provided some fantasy advice at Inside Spanish Football for the upcoming season, giving insight to relatively unknown players and giving a heads up on possible players to avoid.

Morbo Minute–Pep’s Boys

One thing I added to my footy repertoire this season was the Copa del Rey.  I tried to predict the entire tournament from the Round of 16 on, with mixed results.  The Round of 16 went well, but once FCB beat Real Madrid in the quarters, I was toast.  I did predict Athletic Bilbao making the final, so I’ve got that going for me.

I made an effort to watch as many games as I could, reading results and keeping track of the competition.  I was rewarded with a fantastic tournament, highlighted by Espnayol’s late surge against Cordoba; Malaga’s choke job against Real Madrid; Mirandes’ stunning run to the semis, including an amazing comeback against Espanyol and the story of the banker/player, before losing to Bilbao; and a tense El Clasico quarter final that saw a sumptuous goal from Abidal and Madrid almost overturn Barcelona at the Nou Camp in the second leg.

Before the tournament got going, I looked at Pep’s record in the cup, which was quite formidable.  Pep was 15W 4D 3L going in to the 2011/12 edition and he went from strength to strength, winning six and drawing two, to put his record at 21W 6D and 3L.  The Final was his swansong with the Blaugrana as he will step aside to figure out his next challenge.

The Final this year matched the two most successful clubs in the competition—FCB with 25 trophies and Athletic with 23.  Barca were looking for a fitting send off for Pep while Bilbao aimed to salvage something from a season of eye catching football without the payoff: 10th in La Liga and Runners-Up in the Europa League.

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Copa del Rey Final     FC Barcelona 3  Athletic Bilbao 0

After a month and a half of intense build up, fans and players had to wait three months before the final.  That seems odd.  Add to that the confusion over the date and the location, plus the fact that Euro 2012 preparations have already started, and you got a weird mix.  But the fans were epic, with lots of noise and flags and banners.  In that aspect, the final was epic.

As for me, I missed the game live.  I couldn’t get away from work and then our family went to a minor league baseball game that night, so I had to wait almost 24 hours to watch the replay of the match. . . in Spanish.

What a start for Barcelona.  Alves and Puyol were hurt and Abidal was recovering from surgery so their back line was patched together, but the front six were top choice and after it right from the beginning.  Messi almost scored in the opening 30 seconds and Pedro had a shot deflected 90 seconds later before converting the resulting corner kick scramble.

Despite the fast start, there was still some rust on the Blaugrana machine, especially from Sanchez, but Athletic Bilbao were in quicksand.  Slow, plodding, Muniain not getting any touches; this was a different team than in either league game.  After 20 minutes, FCB doubled the trouble as Iniesta split open the defense and Messi blasted home from a sharp angle.  Then Pedro grabbed his second of the night minutes later when Xavi laid off for him to curl in with his left foot.  3-0 inside half an hour.

Los Leones immediately responded, forcing Pinto into a save and then it appeared as if Pique hauled down Llorente in the box.  If the second goal didn’t break Athletic then the third goal did as they were all over the place for the rest of the half.  To be honest, I didn’t really pay much attention to the second half. The result was beyond Los Leones (despite my attempted media blackout I saw the score), so I was off to the bar to watch the US National Team againstScotland.

Phil Ball’s final Soccernet column of the season set the political background (regional autonomy, booing the national anthem, a far right demonstration) for the Cup Final before moving on to the game itself, a match in which Bilbao just could not match Pep’s squad in intensity and depth.

Sid Lowe commented on the completion of the Pep cycle—the fourteenth trophy he won was the same as his first.  And now the next chapter begins.

Chalk on the Boots provided a tactical analysis of the game for El Centrocampista.  He focused on the pressing of each team, the midfield battle (won by FCB), and another poor performance by Amorebieta.  The Blaugrana were fresh, sharp and hungry, which contributed to their domination and easy victory.

Finally, Kxevin of Barcelona Football Blog wrapped up the season and Pep’s time in charge basking in a glorious performance from a glorious team.  Players rested with no challenge around the corner were able to fully hit heights, especially in frantic opening half hour to win yet another cup for the club.

Morbo Minute–Season Review

I have been getting deeper and deeper into La Liga over the last couple of years.  This season I dedicated myself to following the league and writing a weekly recap, which I posted at this blog.  Also, El Centrocampista graciously allowed me to publish my thoughts at their site on occasion.  So I thought I would take a couple of minutes and run through some of the story lines that appealed to me from the recently completed season.

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It’s cliché to start with the Big Two but I have to.  What a season for Real Madrid.  Going into the season I felt that Los Merengues would win the league as a combination of Mourinho, drive from the players, and fatigue in the FCB camp would allow Los Blancos to reclaim the title.  I was proven right (for once) as Mourinho’s men had two minor wobbles in rolling to the title, but smashed the league goals record and gained vital points on the road which had been their shortcoming in the past.  As for the Blaugrana, they gave everything, but after almost five years of constant competition for club and country, when it came to find the extra gear, they were found wanting.  Pep has exited, handing the reigns over Tito Vilanova, and this off season will be crucial—preparation, adjustment to new manager, and possible signings—if FCB want to get back to the top.

One of my most ill advised posts was one I wrote about being Bored with Barcelona.  In late September, things were humming along as it looked like FCB was cruising towards another sextuple.  Having high entertainment standards and a low attention span caused me to write comments that were worthless the moment they hit the screen.  I have been properly chastised and look forward to next season’s challenge on all fronts, regardless of results.

Next, Valencia were a mixed bag.  Clearly first of the rest for the opening half of the season, 2012 proved a different proposition all together.  Poor league form saw them overhauled by the chasing pack before they righted themselves to finish third again despite another summer of player sales and financial constraints.  They also had a decent Europa League run, making the semis before being disposed of by Atleti.  In the end Emery left and now Pellegrino will have a go at trying to keep the club at its current level.

Malaga kept everyone guessing, as a poor start saw them well off the European places, but eventually Pellegrini got Los Boquerones firing on all cylinders.  They rose up to the table to get all the way to third before a couple of stumbles at the end caused them to finish fourth.  The squad still needs improvement, especially at the forward position but they have a solid core that will allow them to compete next year.

What can you say about Levante?  Los Granotes were probably THE story of 2011/12, a plucky side with the oldest back five ever in La Liga, a forward who couldn’t score for Sevilla but couldn’t stop finishing for his new team, and a team spirit that kept them fighting all the way to the end.  They eventually finished sixth and will participate in the Europa League next season.

Falcao was one of the best players outside the Big Two, with his goals firing Atleti to Europa League glory and keeping Los Rojiblancos alive in the race for Europe next season as they finished fifth, two points behind Malaga.  Who knows if he will be playing for Simeone next year as the third party that owns his registration may try to cash in on a phenomenal season.

Los Leones were another great story of the last season, with Bielsa creating a team that played scintillating football at times.  Their game against Barcelona at San Mames was one of the matches of the season and their destruction of Manchester United in the Europa League opened the eyes of the English media.  They had two great runs in the cup, making the finals of both the Europa League and the Copa del Rey, but success on multiple fronts exposed a thinness of squad that lead to poor form in La Liga, finishing tenth.

Osasuna don’t get a lot of pub, but their Jekyll and Hyde performances have to get a mention.  The finished with 54 points (13W 15D 10L), not too shabby, but their goal differential was -17.  Only five teams in the Primera were worse.  Their defense was water tight except when it wasn’t.  In five matches, they gave up 30 of their 61 goals against.  In the other 33 matches, they gave up less than a goal a game.  Sort that out.

Finally there was the battle at the bottom.  For most the season, Zaragoza and Gijonwere nailed on relegation candidates, having no chance at survival.  And then something happened, as both teams starting amassing points putting pressure on the teams ahead of them.  Racing became the new whipping boys and were resigned to Segunda football early in the summer.

Going in to the final day, five teams were involved in the relegation battle.  Villarreal had been sucked in to the relegation zone early in the season after selling Cazorla, a shaky defense and injuries to Rossi and Nilmar.  I kept waiting for them to go a run and pull themselves clear, but instead the Yellow Submarine remained within touching distance of the bottom three, eventually going down on the last day as they lost to Atleti and Rayo scored a last gasp goal against Granada to survive.  These were my thoughts on the dramatic last day of the La Liga season.

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During the season, here were the best games I saw:

*Valencia v FCB

Los Che gave the Champions all they could handle, taking advantage of a shaky defense to put the Blaugrana on the rack.  The Alba/Mathieu pairing was fantastic.

*Athletic Bilbao v FCB

In a rain soaked San Mames, a game of rare intensity, quality and grit occurred.  Los Leones twice led but were eventually pegged back in the waning moments.  A preview of the season for both sides.

*Valencia v Real Madrid

Here is where Real showed their title credentials.  Los Blancos traveled to the Mestalla, played an incredible match, equaled by the hosts and held on to for the victory after Los Che made it 2-3 and threw everything at them.

*Athletic Bilbao v Espanyol

A back and forth match that featured a fierce hit by Romaric and a couple of nice free kicks before a late, late equalizer by Albin for Espanyol.

*FCB v Real Madrid

The end.  For now.  Cristiano’s goal was of such quality that all anyone can do is stand and clap.  Mourinho’s broke the hoodoo in the finest way possible—winning at their opponent’s home, matching them in technical and physical terms, and staying away from the unsavory elements that had come before.

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To wrap up, I wanted to share  thoughts from some of the other writers and sites that I follow:

Sonja (@sopra1988) summed up the season for Inside Spanish Football, touching on the high notes: Messi’s goals, Real Madrid’s record breaking points and goals scored, Bilbao’s brave effort, Mallorca’s surprise finish, the departure of Kanoute from Sevilla, and the tense last moments in the relegation zone on the last day of season, to name a few.

Tim Stannard picked out five for the future in his Spanish Thing column for Football365.com: Courtois, de Marcos, Isco, Iñigo Martínez, and Varane.  I saw a lot of de Marcos and Isco this season so totally concur.

Andy May and Sid Lowe, along with several guest contributors, looked back at the 2011/12 La Liga season for Sky Sports La Liga Weekly.  The beginning of the pod focused on the Big Two—Barcelona’s failure to win in Spain or in Europe, Pep leaving and the future of the club and trying to put the team into context, as well as evaluating Real Madrid, who seem to be going from strength to strength and could start a cycle of their own.  They also discussed Atleti’s prospects for next season, whether they will kick on or go back as usual, before moving onto Athletic Bilbao, who were an attractive side, gaining supporters around Europe, but wondering if the can they hold on to players.  Finally there was a brief mention of the teams that battled it out at the bottom, with Sid reiterating that Lotina, who went down with the Yellow Submarine as he went down with Depor, had too negative of an approach to survive.

Finally, Heath Chesters shared his personal journey finding and following Granada up through the divisions of Spanish football.  He makes the case for teams like Granada, well run, financially stable and having strong away support as the model for the league rather than the overspending and snobbish super teams.  Great stuff.

Just wanted to thank a couple of sites that I followed all season:

A Different Liga

Inside Spanish Football

SpanishFootball.info

Atletico Fans

Villarreal USA

Athletic Bilbao Offside

Barcelona Football Blog

Total Barca

Real Madrid Football Blog

And I thoroughly enjoyed reading Sid Lowe, Graham Hunter and Phil Ball all season.

Plus, many thanks to Elisa at Forza Futbol for great content and retweets and conversations, and the guys at El Centrocampista for allowing me to have a bit part at their great site and engaging me on social media.

Morbo Minute–Down to the Wire

The drama continues to build in Spain as the fight for European places and relegation spots will go down to the final day.

Graham Hunter praised Real Madrid as they clinched the La Liga title at San Mames, focusing on how Mourinho has shaped a team that has reclaimed the title from FC Barcelona.  Despite players not being first choice or completely buying in, the Special One evoked performances of the highest order both at home and on the road (where they slipped numerous times last year) to claim the championship.  The foundations are there for another magical cycle a la Inter of 2010 as Los Merengues look to stamp their authority both in Spain and in Europe.

Reading Kxevin’s review of the Barcelona game, which he described as “an extraordinary series of events that elevated a maudlin, sad event into something celebratory and memorable“,I felt disappointed that I had not found time to watch the match.  Watching the highlights and post game celebrations did not do the game or Kxevin’s post or the moment justice.  The Pep era is almost over and the players made his final game at the Nou Camp an evening of appreciation for everyone.

Chalk on the Boots was slightly more muted in his analysis of the game, reporting that both teams pressured each other but did not take advantage of some of the weaknesses (the visitors did not press high enough when Pinto had the ball at his feet and FCB exploit the width that Espanyol’s narrow formation provided).  In the end Messi was the difference as he converted the opportunities provided to give Barcelona a home win.

The one match I wanted to watch from Round 37 was Atletico Madrid against Malaga.  Life got in the way and I missed it, so I visited AtleticoFans.com for Derek’s round up of the match.  Looks like the visitors could have put the game away in the first half and were punished as Los Rojiblancos recovered to win 2-1, a victory gives them an outside shot at Champions League football next season.  Martin also wrapped up a week that sees Los Colchoneros with a chance for everything and nothing.

Eduardo Alvarez quickly moved past the top three places to look at how the “invisible hand” has shaped a truly heart-stopping relegation battle, with five teams looking to secure top flight football on the final day of the season.

Momentum is with the two teams currently in the relegation zone: Real Zaragoza and Sporting Gijon, while fortune is not favoring Rayo Vallecano or Granada.

Sid Lowe tried to come to grips with the crazy scenes following the final whistle of Granada and Real Madrid, with players and staff attacking the officiating crew, leading to the suspension of at least three players. Granada’s loss sees them well and truly sucked into the relegation battle and they play fellow struggles Rayo on the final day.  Doctor Sid gave a quick summary of the relegation possibilities:

Granada 42; Villarreal 41; Rayo 40; Zaragoza 40; Sporting 37.

• Rayo and Granada face each other, Villarreal go to Champions League-chasing Atlético, Zaragoza travel to nothing-to play-for Getafe and Sporting go to Malaga, who are also chasing a Champions League.

• If Sporting, Rayo andZaragozaall end on 40 points, Sporting survive. If Rayo, Zaragoza and Villarreal end on 41 points. Rayo go down. If Rayo and Villarreal end on 41 points, Rayo go down. If Villarreal and Zaragoza both end on 41 points, Villarreal go down. If Rayo and Zaragoza both end on 41 points, Zaragoza go down. If there is tie on 42 points between Granada and Villarreal,Granada go down.

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Pods

On Sky’s La Liga Weekly, Andy and Sid looked back at Pep’s final home match at FCB before moving on to the relegation possibilities.  Finally Sid related the poor behavior and conspiracy theories that came out of the Granada/Real Madrid match.

At Forza Futbol, Elisa and Ravi looked back at Real’s 32nd championship.  They also talked about the all Spanish Europa League Final and wrapped up with the relegation scrap and fight for Europe.