Posts Tagged ‘ Inside Spanish Football ’

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.

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Morbo Minute–Power Struggle

Due to traveling and family commitments, I missed Round 17, and there were goals aplenty with only one game having a solitary goal.  The rest were filled with goals aplenty, including a fantastic winner by Bentiez of Granada to secure three vital points, along with some shocking results.  Barcelona remain atop the table and Espanyol are unbeaten since Aguirre took over.  I caught up on the events by watching highlights and reading articles.  The league is now off until January 4th.

Valencia entered the Christmas break on a high note, with a 4-2 home win against Getafe.  SlickR of Club Valencia reported that Soldado got proceedings of to a great start with an early goal and Valencia controlled much of the first half, going into halftime with a 3-1 lead.  However missed chances and more pressure from the visitors saw the momentum change, and Getafe nearly came all the way back before succumbing to an injury time goal.  SlickR’s player ratings saw a mixed bag of performances as Los Che need to improve in the second half to improve their position in the league.

Lucas Navarrete lamented the lack of firepower and defensive solidity for Managing Madrid as Real Madrid slumped to a 3-2 defeat at the hands of Malaga.  Mourinho used his substitutes to try and turn and match around but the changes did not have the same effect as the Real Valladolid match.  In the background was the fact that Casillas was benched.  Still have not read a definitive reason but have seen squad rotation and possible outing of a mole thrown about.

Phil Ball focused on the long line of Real Madrid legends (indiscutible or unquestioned), as a way to frame the dropping of Casillas against Malaga.  Mourinho continues to test the limits of his power and this decision was another example.  He moved on to the victors of the match and their upcoming battle against UEFA to answer the federation’s charges.  Finally there was a little Champions League discussion before looking at the bottom of the table.

Levon strayed from the typical match report—key moments, storylines and tactics—for Barcelona Football Blog and instead looked at some of the critical moments thus far this season.  One of his recurring themes was that despite the amazing haul of points thus far, there is room for improvement throughout the team: forwards (besides Messi) could start scoring; the midfield could get some quality depth; and the defense could get healthy and organized.  The run-in for 2013 could see the crowing of another glorious side or the exposure of deficiencies in the squad.  Cannot wait for it to unfold.

Malaga had an unbelievable 2012: qualified for the Champions League; then had a meltdown in the summer and sold/lost some of their best players; regrouped for the Champions League and won the group; and finished up the year by beating Real Madrid.  Sid Lowe examined the last twelve months for Pellegrini’s men and looked ahead to 2013, including sanctions handed down by UEFA which could see Los Boqueneros banned from European competition in 2013/14.

Inside Spanish Football posted their five best goals from La Liga teams in 2012.  Tough to pick out and several great goals this season were left off (Messi’s against Real Madrid in the Spanish Super Cup for one).  Have to say that Benzema’s was quite nice, but would have to give it Falcao, as he destroyed Bilbao in the Europa League Final.

Finally, a couple of kit notes.  Real Sociedad recognized their loyal fan base by having the names of selected season ticket holders screened onto the front of their shirts for their game for their match against Sevilla.  Pretty cool.  Speaking of Los Rojiblancos, Sevilla’s kit will be manufactured by Warrior Sports next season, as the American company looked to increase their brand identity in Europe.  With Liverpool on the books and a possible deal with Roma ahead, the sports company is planning to make inroads into La Liga.  Hopefully their Spanish kits are better than their English ones, as the Liverpool second and third kits leaving something to be desired.

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Table

Barcelona 17 16 1 0 38 49
Atletico 17 13 1 3 20 40
Real Madrid 17 10 3 4 24 33
Malaga 17 9 4 4 16 31
Betis 17 9 1 7 -2 28
Levante 17 8 3 6 -3 27
R Sociedad 17 7 4 6 4 25
Rayo 17 8 1 8 -10 25
Valencia 17 7 3 7 -3 24
Getafe 17 7 3 7 -4 24
Valladolid 17 6 4 7 2 22
R Zaragoza 17 7 1 9 -4 22
Athletic 17 6 3 8 -13 21
Sevilla 17 5 4 8 -4 19
Granada 17 4 4 9 -12 16
Mallorca 17 4 4 9 -13 16
Celta Vigo 17 4 3 10 -6 15
Espanyol 17 3 6 8 -7 15
Osasuna 17 3 5 9 -5 14
Deportivo 17 2 6 9 -18 12

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–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–Contrast in Styles

Only one place to start this week.  I was overwhelmed by the coverage given to this game before and after.  Let’s just say I didn’t get to everything but here some notes on the game from people who actually know what they are talking about.

FC Barcelona 2  Real Madrid 2

There was plenty of pre-match coverage of the big match.  I tried to get as much of as I could, but in the end, I just wanted to see how the game would unfold.  A couple of posts that caught my eye.

Andreas Vou looked at the evolution of Sergio Busquets for Barcelona for Inside Spanish Football.  Busquets made his 201st appearance for Barca in El Clasico and has moved from the pivot to the third center back to the sweeper and back again, which has allowed the Blaugrana to constant tweak the formation and approach.  The quotes from players and coaches at the end are high praise indeed.

I’m sure Graham Hunter was a busy man in days before the game as he gave out his thoughts ahead of the match.  For Soccernet, he commented that the speed of Madrid is beginning to trouble Barcelona. Plus, As a unit the Spanish champions are more confident about their identity, their play and what to do if they fall behind against any rival.  He also posted some interesting tidbits for Paddy Power:

This first Clasico is weeks earlier than normal (more than two months earlier than last season) to allow the second league meeting to take place before the crucial moment in April. Then, both clubs want to be competing in the UEFA Champions League semi-finals but don’t want to be left looking like the cast of Dad’s Army (something which cost each of them dearly against Chelsea and Bayern Munich six months ago). 

That, in itself, tells you something about the degree to which the vast economic attraction of success in Europe is beginning to edge ahead of the absolute need for domestic supremacy.

For my thoughts on the game, you can read them here.  As for what was talked about after the game. . .

Albert Ferrer was on talkSPORT with Richard Keys and Andy Gray to talk about El Clasico and his time with FCB and Chelsea.  He was asked why Busquets did not play at center back and he flat out said that Busquets is too important to the way Barca play to put him back there.  Very interesting take.  He also mentioned that Real Madrid have caught the Blaugrana and can now attack FCB rather than just sit back.  He wrapped up his time recounting his rise through the club before his eventual move to the Blues of Chelsea.

Everyone at the bar was wondering what in the hell was cut into CR7’s hair.  Well Dirty Tackle presented this info:

According to Marca, Cristiano went to hairstylist brothers Jose and Miguel Siero Leal the day before the match and asked for “something different and groundbreaking.” This is how the brothers explain the hair doodle:

“He told us, as he had on many other occasions that he was looking for something different. We know him well and we had the idea of shaving a symbol that represents both peace and the calm a warrior experiences after battle. He agreed”, they said.

Yikes.

Sid Lowe waded through the political elements surrounding the game to get to several interesting points:

  • The match also disguised the fact that Barcelona have not reached their level, for a side that builds its moves with patience and precision it is striking that one goal came from a mistake by Pepe and the other from a 25-yard free-kick. Real constructed both their goals, Barcelona did not.  Hadn’t really thought about it that way but he’s absolutely right.
  • “They used to be here,” Mourinho said, gesturing with his hands. “And we were down here. Now, they’re still up here but so are we.”  So true.  Mourinho really has rebuilt this team that can stand toe to toe with Barca.
  • And of course Messi and Ronaldo, continuing their epic duel for supremacy in the league, on the continent and in the world.

Phil Ball was able to cram in comments on almost every single match of the round besides commenting on El Clasico.  Well played.  He’s not sold on Betis but may be drinking the Atleti Kool-Aid.  Good stuff as always.

Kxevin of Barcelona Football Blog felt that the heart of a champion was unveiled Sunday night as Barca overcame a determined opponent and injuries to secure at least a point.  Praising Busquets in particular, he saw a team find their rhythm and almost snag all three points in the biggest game in the world.  He tried to get into the minutiae of the game but kept coming back to the emotions that this game generated.

Passes flew, players flew, and for much of the time, both sets of players were so intent on playing the beautiful game as it was meant to be played, that they forgot to do all of the silly stuff, the flopping, the exaggeration and whining that have come to define the Classíc. Both sides played so quickly, attacked so savagely, moved the ball with such alacrity that it was a joy to watch, even as my heart was threatening to leap from my chest, such was the adrenaline. They are good. Make no mistake about it.

Madridista Mac of Real Madrid Football Blog is no longer afraid.  He is no longer afraid of the giant that is Barcelona because the team that he supports has a coach who has transformed the players into a fellow giant who can look their opponent in their eye and say, Let’s do this. He made some interesting points, namely that CR7 has become the man for the big occasion and that FCB may too Messi-reliant, especially in these big games.  Again, a post that doesn’t dwell just on tactics but on the ramifications both on and off the field for these two teams

For a couple of tactical breakdowns . . .

Chalk on the Boots wondered if the two sides were too conservative in his match recap.  For me, Barca yes, Real Madrid, no.  Mourinho has fashioned a team that absorbs and counters, regardless of opposition.  Against their biggest rivals, this provides a contrast in styles, which results in different permutations each time depending on other circumstances (injuries, cards, lineups, etc).  As for Barca, Tito was handcuffed by injuries. The FCB heat map crystallized what I was screaming at the TV during the match—no one in the box.  For all their possession and pressure on Madrid, there was rarely anyone attacking crosses or distracting Casillas.

Michael Cox of Zonal Marking focused on the position of Iniesta and Barca’s lack of penetration for his post match comments.  With Iniesta drifting centrally, it added a body to an already crowded area and if Alba is not able to overlap, then that side is lost from an attacking perspective.  Michael also echoed the sentiment that Barca is allowed to play in front of Real Madrid as opposed to driving at them.  It will be interesting to see if Villa being at close to full fitness in the spring changes the dynamics of this match.

More praise for Busquets . . .

Lee Roden echoed Andreas’ comments regarding Busquets in his post-match contribution to talkSPORT.  Calling the Spaniard a “rivet” for the Blaugrana, Lee looked at several English teams that could do with this sort of player.  Despite his play acting and occasional loose pass, I hope he retires at the Nou Camp.

And of course there was the political context to the proceedings. . .

Jimmy Burns examined the political overtones of the match, including the mosaic at 17:14.  He identified some of the key players in the desire for independence as the club and the region try to determine their future.  Again, I don’t pretend to understand it all but it is fascinating to watch from afar.

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Articles and Podcasts

The all consuming fire of the El Clasico blinded people to another key game on the weekend—Atletico Madrid v Malaga.  Falcao scored again as Atleti won 2-1 to keep pace with the Blaugrana and give themselves some breathing room from the chasing pack. At the bottom, Espanyol remain winless and Osasuna crashed back to earth and have only four points thus far.

Martin at Atleti Fans looked at the standings and saw Los Colchoneros joint top of the table with Barcelona after a last minute win against Malaga.  He wonders if they can keep up for the entire season but the performance of the squad, Emre and Luis Filipe in particular, was encouraging.

Liam profiled Abdel Barrada of Getafe for Forza Futbol, with the Moroccan generating interest both at home and abroad, namely in England.  I have only seen glimpses of him and look forward to seeing more of him throughout the season.  (Of course he was sent off last week in the win against Real Zaragoza.)

Phil Ball was on the Forza Futbol pod ahead of El Clasico to look at the big game as well as some other story lines in La Liga thus far, including the two Basque teams, Atleti’s title challenge and the problems at Espanyol.

To wrap everything up, the panel at Inside Spanish Football looked at El Clasico as well as some of the key matches of the round.  They felt it wasn’t the best El Clasico but at least everyone is talking about the game for a chance.  There was some discussion about whether Montoya should replace Alves, which could be a storyline for the rest of the season.  Of course there was the Ozil v Modric conversation.  The guys moved on to the other big game between Atleti and Malaga.  Michael Bell, the resident Malaga expert, felt that Los Boquerones can challenge for third.  As for Atletico, Simeone has the team doing well and time will tell if they can replace Valencia as the best of the rest.  Speaking of Valencia, Los Che are in real trouble, with Soldado a shadow of himself from last year.  Finally the panel spent some chatting about Athletic Bilbao.  The vibe is not good and there is some confusion and concern about why Llorente is only making substitute appearances.

Morbo Minute–Listen all y’all, it’s a sabotage

Went up to the pub on Saturday for Real Betis/Espanyol and FC Barcelona/Granada.  The first match was dire, with not many chances and it rarely held my attention.  The FCB match was fascinating as the Blaugrana could not break down the visitors until El Capitan made the breakthrough minutes from time

Real Betis 1  Espanyol 0

Real Betis started strong and deserved their halftime lead after spurning several chances early, with Paulao breaking the deadlock on 18’ after great service from Benat.  Juan Carlos had a fantastic first half, troubling the Espanyol RB time and time again.  I was not impressed by Ruben Castro of Real Betis.  He lacked vision and didn’t finish a couple of quality chances.

Los Pericos were very poor going forward, with very little interchange and relying on an overly physical approach without the ball.  I did a double take when I saw Simao on the teamsheet for Espanyol.  Long gone are the days when he was threatening for teams.  They showed a little more endeavor in the second half, as their subs made an impact and Betis began to tire.  Wakaso received his marching orders on 66’ and instead of killing off the game, the hosts allowed their opponents to hang around, with several half chances going begging before the referee blew full time.

With the three points Betis moved into the European places and play their match in hand against Atleti on Wednesday.  Espanyol are off to a rough start, with only one point and need to start getting points on the board.

After Saturday’s result, Adam of Forever Betis wondered if the club’s start could be sustained.  The defensive frailties may be exposed eventually, but the team’s counter attacking style has made them enjoyable to watch for him.  Plus there are a couple of young players on the rise.  Regardless of their result against Atleti they are in the top six but must improve their team shape and fitness if the Verdiblancos want to achieve success this season.

FC Barcelona 2  Granada CF 0

Last week saw an experimental lineup, highlighted by Messi on the bench, while this week Tito put out a side with Xavi and Pedro on the bench and no natural centerbacks in the lineup due to injuries.  The longer the first half went on, the more I thought, screw the FIFA virus, what about the Champions League virus?

All credit to Granada in the first half (and for the entire match for that matter, as they played a very narrow 4-4-2 forcing Barca wide and clogging the midfield.  Alves was picking the passes, especially early, and nearly undid the strategy several times.  Additionally, the visitors threw themselves in front of every Barca shot, denying Messi on at least two opportunities.

Halftime came with no score and the second half saw more of the same.  I wanted to see more of Torje from Granada, but with a philosophy of defend and counter, there were not many chances.  Tito added on Xavi and Pedro on 52’ and their introduction brought about the desired change, although not without a couple of scares.

FCB continued to search the opening goal but Granada sensed opportunity and began to counter with real verve.  With six minutes to go, my greatest fear was almost realized as GCF countered and should have won but VV was strong on the breakaway.  Cue El Capitan.  On the resulting move, he received the ball and unleashed a wicked shot that crashed off the underside of the crossbar.

Again, I can’t give enough plaudits to Granada for their effort during this match.  Just as Sevilla stuck to their game plan last week against the Real Madrid, so did El Grana against the hosts.  Unfortunately, defeat leaves them on two points after five rounds and more is required than moral victories.  The points were important for the Blaugrana as they continue to take care of business.  The Evil Empire cannot be thrown any life lines before El Clasico in two weeks.

One thing came to mind watching the game.  During Phil Jackson’s tenure with Bulls, he would purposefully not call timeouts so that his team would have to solve problems on the court. Tito should do same with FCB. Force them to figure out a way to win games without Xavi.  Time is ticking and for this team to move on in the coming years, they either need to find a direct replacement or adapt their way of playing.  Something to consider moving forward.

Heath Chesters heaped praise on Tono and the entire Granada team for their efforts during the match in his Player of the Week post for Inside Spanish Football.  Only a very special effort beat the goalkeeper, with his fine performance reminiscent of Varas for Sevilla last year.

Kxevin covered a lot of ground in this week’s post for Barcelona Football Blog.  He made some excellent points, discussing the current tactics of the Blaugrana and their opponents; the roles and performances of Song and Fabregas; and the fact that 2009 is in the past.  The last point struck a chord with me as last year I found the team boring to watch until after the New Year when it was too stressful.  This team is very good but not great, so they will have to earn every thing, which makes the games more entertaining (and still stressful) as FCB fights for silverware.

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Articles and Pods

Sid Lowe gave his thoughts on a strange night in Vallecas as he and a number of journalists wandered around a half lit stadium while fans waited outside, staff tried to solve the problem of damaged floodlights inside and Real Madrid anxiously waited.  Word around the campfire is that disgruntled fans cut power to Rayo’s stadium, postponing the match against Real Madrid.  That’s kicking it up a notch, sending a message that extra fees for games already paid for is not a sound marketing strategy.  Real ended up winning the game on Monday 2-0 and look to get their season back on track.

Bassam posted his thoughts on the Real Madrid Football Blog after the match.  Despite the three points and fine games from Essien and Alonso, he is concerned with the midfield possession, which may put undue pressure on the backline over time, and a drop in quality against lesser teams.

Phil Ball focused his attention this week on dressing room dynamics in light of the supposed Messi/Villa spat.  How can players who have trained and played and sacrificed their entire lives not demand more of each other?  Phil mentioned his son’s attempt to climb the footballing ladder before moving on to scenes between Rayo Vallecano and Real Madrid.  Never a dull moment.

I came across several articles this week from a Spanish economist preaching doom and gloom for La Liga.  Jose Maria Gay de Liebana, Spain’s most prominent football economist, is positing that league’s TV deal is a large source of the blame, focusing on the Chinese markets instead of the US and Japan.  Also, he suggested an Iberian league to bring glamour and relevance back to the region.  At first glance, I like the idea but don’t see the big clubs (FCB, RMFC, Porto, Sporting and Benfica) giving up their power bases.

Chalk on the Boots analyzed the scoreless Athletic v Malaga game, which saw one team exhausted from their Champions League efforts and the other just exhausted.  The pace and frenzy of Los Leones is gone from last season and with key injuries, they are a shadow of last year’s side.  This was touched on as well as Malaga’s organization, especially away from home after their first proper Champions League match.  Los Boquerones find themselves third early in the season, if they keep their defense watertight, future success awaits.  As for Bilbao, they are just outside the relegation zone and now have to deal with re-integrating Llorente back into the squad.

Elisa and Ravi had Phil Schoen on the Forza Futbol pod to discuss his switch from Gol TV to BeIN sports as well as news from around La Liga.  While I don’t always enjoy his commentary, he did have some decent insights into the early days of this campaign, including Match Day One of the Champions League.

The panel at Inside Spanish Football reviewed the latest round of games, looking at Granada’s impressive performance (especially goalkeeper Tono) against Barca; Valencia’s stumble against surprising Mallorca; and possible relegation candidates Osasuna, Getafe and Espanyol.

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Current Table

Barcelona 5 5 0 0 11 15
Mallorca 5 3 2 0 4 11
Málaga 5 3 2 0 4 11
Sevilla 5 3 2 0 4 11
Atlético 4 3 1 0 6 10
Betis 4 3 0 1 3 9
Real Madrid 5 2 1 2 3 7
Rayo 5 2 1 2 -1 7
Levante 5 2 1 2 -2 7
Deportivo 5 1 3 1 0 6
Celta Vigo 5 2 0 3 0 6
R Zaragoza 5 2 0 3 -1 6
Valladolid 5 2 0 3 -1 6
R Sociedad 5 2 0 3 -3 6
Valencia 5 1 2 2 -2 5
Athletic 5 1 2 2 -4 5
Getafe 5 1 1 3 -4 4
Granada 5 0 2 3 -6 2
Espanyol 5 0 1 4 -4 1
Osasuna 5 0 1 4 -7 1

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!!