Posts Tagged ‘ Phil Ball ’

Morbo Minute–And Now for the Second Half of Our Show

The halfway point has Barca well out in front with a string of surprises behind them in the European spots.  Valencia seems to be slowly climbing out of the mire while their opponents from the weekend, Sevilla, slide farther and farther down.  Down at the bottom, it’s too close to call and viewers will probably in store for dramatic final day scenes around the country.

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Malaga 1  FC Barcelona 3

When I saw Roque Santa Cruz on the teamsheet for the hosts I feared for their chances.  I still don’t feel the Paraguayan offers them much, and thought Saviola would have been the much better option, as his movement and quickness would have troubled Barca.  The visitors started with a strong team, the only major change being Mascherano in for Puyol.

Malaga pressed in a variation of a 4-3-3 and made the Blaugrana struggle in the early going.  The surface was a problem for both sides as there was constant slipping and it appeared as if the players were on roller skates.  As the game progressed, Malaga goalkeeper Willy was luck to stay on the field as he touched the ball with his hands (barely) trying to clear the danger.

The opener came from Camacho’s horrible backpass that Messi intercepted and put home.  I jotted down in my notebook that he did a lot of dribbling in the first half which allowed Malaga to keep Barca at arm’s length as the ball was turned over instead of being circulated.

In the second half, an early goal from Fabregas put some daylight between the two teams and from there the Blaugrana took over, making Malaga look quite inept at times.  The hosts were made to chase shadow for the second 45 minutes and their strong early work was undone by two mistakes—the backpass and losing Fabregas for the second.

A third was added by substitute Thiago before Buonanotte sent in a free kick.  The teams now face each home and away in the Copa, with the winner probably getting Real Madrid.  Will be interested to see how Vilanova and Pellegrini rotate their squads to take the competition seriously while keeping an eye on the league.

I visited Total Barca this week to get their thoughts on the match.  Maria Ines saw the Blaugrana rise to the challenge presented by Malaga, who pressured Tito’s men all over the pitch.  Once the visitors found their rhythm, they produced a couple of quite breath taking sequences.  In the end Malaga gave a great effort but the gap between the two teams was revealed.  Will Tito’s changes for the Copa matches close the distance or not?

Manuel Traquete did the player ratings for the site, which I felt were quite high. Barca had a decent game, especially in the second half, but in the first half, several players were not at their best , which allowed Malaga’s pressure to keep the game tight.  Busquets was probably worth the 9, not sure about Messi.  Felt that Alves might be closer to his best.  Still needs to improve his crossing.

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Articles

I was able to catch parts of the second half of Friday’s game between Athletic and Rayo at San Mames.  The visitor’s opening goal caught Los Leones cold.  The second was a diabolical cock up from the referee and allowed Rayo some space.  Athletic fought back but could only pull one back.

Sid Lowe used his weekly Guardian column to explore two items: one, Rayo Vallecano’s fantastic first half of the season, and two, the crazy La Liga schedule, which sees games stretch from Friday from Monday.  Rayo are just outside the Champions League places, filled with players found on the cheap who will probably be gone next year, but they just keep winning and may yet make their second European appearance.  As for the La Liga schedule, it’s crazy, with game times released only two to three weeks before the game take place and an onslaught that starts Friday night and continues all the way to Monday night, games seemingly every hour on the hour.  Of course if I was unemployed and could watch every game, might get used to that.

Phil Ball gave his half-term report for ESPN FC, looking at the biggest surprises thus far.  Betis’ amazing first half topped the list as Los Beticos sit in fourth place, led by the goals of Castro and the all action talent of Benat.  Phil’s team by team breakdown gives a quick snapshot at the turn and is worth the read.

With a title of Why La Liga Looks Like Michael Flatley, I had to give Tim Stannard a read at Football365.  He also looked at the halfway point of the season, echoing Phil Ball’s praise of Real Betis’ and Sid’s glowing words regarding Rayo before moving on to Valencia and the fact that the title is over.  As for his Riverdance reference:

A footballing Michael Flatley if you will. Whilst there’s not an awful lot of movement from the neck upwards to watch, there’s quite the hullaballoo of activity taking place just below if you care to look.

Speaking of Valencia, SlickR summarized the 2-0 victory over Sevilla for Club Valencia, as Los Che have stopped the rot and climbed back up the table, currently sitting seventh.  Two goals from main man Soldado were enough to overcome a rather lackluster performance by the rest of the team based on his player ratings.  Can’t imagine how bad Sevilla were.

Michael Cox returned from his Winter Break to analyze the game for Zonal Marking.  He noted that Valencia “enjoyed dominance of both possession and territory” and that the game lacked the quality and energy one would associate with this fixture over the years.  He picked out a couple of individual battles and noted that Reyes offered Navarro very little defensive cover, but did not have the harsh words for Banega that SlickR had.  In the end set pieces decided the match, which saw the losers fire Michel and bring Unai Emery back into the La Liga fold.

Chalk on the Boots examined Real Madrid’s poor performance at Osasuna.  Los Merengues were constantly caught offside, using a direct style orchestrated by Modric, who he noted has a better passing range that Ozil but does not have the lateral movement.  Time will tell if the Croatian will remain in the capital.  As for the hosts, their high line caused the champions problems but their lack of cutting edge cost them more points in this match and will probably cost them their Primera place.  14 goals in 19 matches will not keep them up.

Ireland 26 of Managing Madrid saw Real Madrid drop points as they travelled to Estadio Reyno de Navarra with a make shift lineup.  Without CR7 and Ozil, the team failed to trouble the hosts enough.  Di Maria did not have good game in his opinion but was glad to see Higuain pick up minutes, even if he didn’t pick up any goals.  With three consecutive games against Valencia due to the Copa, Mourinho’s men will need to pick up the pace before the epic confrontation with United in a month’s time.

Back to Doctor Sid, who commented on the extraordinary results of the Ballon D’Or, which saw the Best XI all named from teams in Spain.  While this might seem like a good thing, Sid pointed to a couple of troubling points: 1, no player from either Champions League Final team was on the dais; 2, no Spanish player has won since 1960, even more troubling as Spain have won the last three major competitions; and 3, of the eleven players, 10 came from the Big Two, which emphasizes the gulf between them and the rest of the league.

CBS’ 60 Minutes did a profile of FC Barcelona.  While there were some great shots of the crowd and inner levels of the Camp Nou, the piece seemed superficial.  Anyway, give it a watch and let me know what you think.

Finally, Connor Andrews updated readers on Villarreal’s plight in Segunda for El Centrocampista, as the Yellow Submarine struggle to return to the Primera.  Gone are Valero, Rossi, Nilmar and Diego Lopez and the team sits off the playoff places.  Can they return to the top flight?  Better yet, can they afford not to?

Table

Barcelona 19 18 1 0 44 55
Atletico 19 14 2 3 22 44
Real Madrid 19 11 4 4 25 37
Betis 19 11 1 7 1 34
Malaga 19 9 4 6 13 31
Rayo 19 10 1 8 -7 31
Valencia 19 9 3 7 0 30
Levante 19 9 3 7 -3 30
R Sociedad 19 7 5 7 3 26
Valladolid 19 7 4 8 2 25
Getafe 19 7 4 8 -6 25
Sevilla 19 6 4 9 -5 22
R Zaragoza 19 7 1 11 -7 22
Athletic 19 6 3 10 -16 21
Celta Vigo 19 5 3 11 -5 18
Espanyol 19 4 6 9 -10 18
Granada 19 4 5 10 -13 17
Mallorca 19 4 5 10 -15 17
Deportivo 19 3 7 9 -17 16
Osasuna 19 3 6 10 -6 15

Morbo Minute–Back to Work

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

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

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FC Barcelona 4  Espanyol 0

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

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

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

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

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

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Podcast, Articles, and Kits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Couple of kit related items:

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

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

Morbo Minute–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

Morbo Minute–Who’s Finishing Second?

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

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

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Sevilla 0  Malaga 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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FC Barcelona 4  Atletico Madrid 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Articles

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

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

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

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

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

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

MatchDay Memory–The Big Two Part 1 (History)

In my ongoing quest to learn more about La Liga, I spent some time before and after the last Clasico researching the two biggest teams in Spain.  This is not going to be a post on the battles between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid through the years or a dissection of the political and social ramifications of the matches, rather a summation of their accomplishments and trends and story lines and how I have interacted with these clashes.

Of the two clubs, I follow FC Barcelona (watch games, try to stay on top of transfer rumors, keep track of player news, follow club politics to a certain extent, etc.), but I don’t live and die with every result. Over time my fandom of all sports and teams has been tempered by a realization that these are just games and should have no influence on how I feel about myself, how I treat others or how it impacts my day.

So FCB’s eternal rivals are Real Madrid and logically I should hate Los Merengues, but I don’t.  What? I respect the club but don’t hate the club. I respect their heritage and talent and I’m not going to spit on them.  I really enjoyed Phil Ball’s book White Storm, which summarized the history of the club quite well.  Had I started following Real Madrid during the first Galactico era (Figo, Zidane, Becks, El Fenómeno, etc), the Evil Empire (a loving tribute) may have been my preferred Spanish team. Instead I started watching the Blaugrana during the days of Rivaldo, Figo, Luis Enrique, and the Dutch contingent, and loved to watch their brand of football.  I say all this to explain why I have the 2003/04 Real Madrid Home and Away kits in addition to all of the FCB jerseys in my collection.

I’m not a Spanish football historian, but in my reading and research—which is merely a hobby that takes time from other things I could and should be doing—it is clear that cycles exist between the two clubs, with one typically in the ascendency pushing the other to the fringes.  However, recently both teams are leading the way at home and on the continent as the two clubs push each other for honors and their place in sporting history. Always has been, always will be.

After World War II, Barca’s Golden Age from 1947/48 to 1959/60 was overshadowed by Real Madrid’s rise to domestic and European dominance.  The Blaugrana won six titles, had three second place finishes and won five Spanish Cups, but Los Blancos reigned supreme starting with the 1953/54 season.  During an amazing 16 year period, Real won twelve league titles, never finishing lower than third, and added six European Cups.

While the team from the capital ruled at home and abroad, FCB never fell out of the top six from 1960 until 1973 but failed to win the league, finishing second six times.  They did add three Spanish Cups to the trophy cabinet, yet the league title eluded them until the arrival of Johan Cruyff in the 73/74 season.  Another barren period in the league commenced, and the club only won the Primera once until 1990.  This was in 84/85 season, which came after an interval of Basque dominance.  There was success in the Spanish Cup (four titles), leading to three Cup Winners Cup wins.  Real Madrid started another cycle in the 1971/72 season, which saw them claim six titles in nine years, while adding three Spanish Cups, but success did not come on the European Stage this time.

Cruyff’s Dream Team of the early 90’s was preceded by Madrid’s La Quinta del Buitre, a squad that won five league titles in a row.  In addition Los Blancos won the 1985/86 UEFA Cup and one Copa del Rey and made the semi-finals of the European Cup three years running.  But it was the Blaugrana who would return Europe’s biggest prize to Spain, with a historic win at Wembley in 1992 before the cycle ended at the hands of Milan in the 1994 European Cup Final.

The rest of the 90’s saw Real take over briefly before a Barca team led by van Gaal reclaimed the throne, with Atleti’s double in 1996 breaking up the dominance.  The first decade of the new century saw the emergence of other clubs in the Primera—Depor and Valencia in particular—who temporarily broke up the stranglehold of the Big Two.  Barca faded in all competitions, not winning a trophy for five years. A transfer of presidency, lack of stability in the manager position, and the transition in the squad were contributing factors.  On the other hand, Real finally got their hands on the trophy with the big ears, winning it in 1998, 2000 and 2002, adding two league titles in the years they did not win in Europe.

Frank Rijkaard came on to the scene for FC Barcelona in 2003 and set the stage for Barca’s Second Golden Age.  (Tangent: I am working on an argument that FCB are currently in epoch that began in 1990.  Starting with Cruyff’s hire and first title, the club has been a dominant force but home and abroad, similar to the winning cycle of AC Milan from 1986 (purchase by Berlusconi) to the 2007 Champions League win.  I hope to put something together in the near future.) A league title win in 04/05 sent the Blaugrana on their way, winning the European Double the following season.  Capello was able to stop the run as the Barca players, led by an irresistible Ronaldinho on the field and a disco loving Ronny off it, lost the plot, eventually losing their grip on their titles and sending the Dutch coach packing.

Enter Pep Guardiola.  The former Dream Teamer oversaw a run of dominance that challenged the great teams of of FCB, Real Madrid and European football.  The Treble of 08/09, which led to the calendar year sextuple of 2009, two more league titles, and another European Final win in 2011. During his tenure, the Blaugrana participated in 19 competitions and won 14 of them, probably the closest to all conquering as we may ever see. Manchester United, Shaktar Donetsk, Estudiantes, Porto and Santos were just some of the clubs who fell to Pep’s juggernaut.  Their rivals responded by bringing in the Special One, who started slowly (reference the manita of November 2010) but eventually formed a team able to stand up to Pep’s team, winning the 2011 Copa del Rey and wresting the title away from Barca with a stunning win at the Nou Camp in the spring of 2012.

Tomorrow’s comments will look at my memories of recent El Clasicos and tactical innovations presented by the last couple of managers.

Morbo Minute–El Tigre Overshadowed by La Pulga

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

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

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Real Betis 1  FC Barcelona 2

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

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

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

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

A couple of player notes:

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

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

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

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Articles and Podcasts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Morbo Minute–Atleti Show Their Stripes

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

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FC Barcelona 5  Athletic Bilbao 1

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

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

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

A couple of player notes.

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

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

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

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

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Real Madrid 2  Atletico Madrid 0

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Articles

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

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

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

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

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

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