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Beyond Barca

Occasionally I will write articles called Beyond Barca and as the name indicates, topics could range from anything (as long as it’s football related), except FC Barcelona.

1. Old Firm

I along with millions of others are excited by this prospect of a game and it is impossible to deny how much Scottish football has missed this game. During the administration process Rangers has faced and the ordeal of being relegated to the lowest tier of Scottish football, Celtic has won the Scottish Premiership title on each occasion. With Celtic leading the pack, Scottish football has become as one dimensional as its ever been. The Old Firm is definitely the equivalent of so many relationships between 2 bitter rivals, such as Real Madrid and Barca, as Florentino Perez says ‘if Barcelona didn’t exist, we’d have to invent them’ – I feel this too applies to Celtic and Rangers.

The fact that this match still has such emotive connotations attached even in a David v Goliath dimension, is amazing. I believe that fact that it’s a cup game and a one off as far as this season is concerned makes it even more exciting, who knows when revenge could next be on the cards for the losing side, especially as Rangers are not sweeping the Scottish Championship as most expected them to. Two years of tension has built up for this Old Firm derby making this unique in comparison to other fixtures between the two. Astonishingly, an U-17 Glasgow Cup final match between the two attracted 8,000 fans and the atmosphere was rife inside Celtic Park – this is merely child play to what Hampden Park will experience.

The tale of the tape would have you to expect Celtic to win by a fine margin, but in any cup competition, it’s not so simple. Lovenkrands says that “It’s a derby, so everything goes out the window. It is 50-50,” and as cliche as it sounds, its true. Alex McLeish said in a press conference, “The pressure is on Celtic” and Chris Sutton appropriately remarked that Celtic could win blindfolded, the incentives to win on Rangers side of the field certainly isn’t lacking. This extra pressure on Celtic may actually see them crumble, or on the other hand, it could result in what the majority are expecting. Either way, it’s a huge sigh of relief for both set of fans because even though Celtic fans claim they are playing in a new derby against Rangers Newco and have paid a Scottish newspaper to acknowledge this, they and the whole world knows exactly what this is – Celtic v Rangers. The Old Firm.

2. BaleSomeone's angry

Gareth Bale has been jeered again by Madrid fans after missing two clearcut chances and this will add fuel to the fire – the Daily Star seems to love creating transfer rumours between clubs and players, it’s almost as if they pick a random club and name out of a hat. Gareth Bale on the other hand, has stated that he couldn’t see himself at Manchester United which indicates van Gaal isn’t going to break the transfer fee record any time soon. Ancelotti praised his performance in the post match conference, after all, he assisted Benzema unselfishly. As well as this, he scored a vital penalty against Cordoba to secure 3 points after Cristiano Ronaldo had gotten himself sent off only a week ago. Real Madrid fans are very much inclined to the present, and Spanish fan culture isn’t quite the same as England where booing a home player is considered heretical behaviour, it is merely an act of disappointment, to let that particular player know they aren’t performing to their expected standard. 

I feel this is the burden he and the rest of us should expect, to come to the world’s richest club as reportedly the world’s most expensive signing to play in front of the most demanding fans week in and week out – is always, and will continue to always be a tough task. I find that Bale is improving different facets of his game, and although he isn’t hitting his highest gear as of yet, he has still made vital contributions to the team having scored 6 in his last 10 matches. His presence in the squad has divided the Madrid fans and his price tag was always going to lead to such a scenario. Yet, in my opinion this is merely an act of tough love, as Benzema stated, “All of the great players who have played for Madrid have been booed.” Cristiano Ronaldo, Zidane and Casillas have all been booed at the Bernabeu – they have 25 major trophies between them. This should surely resonate with Bale, because that certainly isn’t bad company to be involved with.

El Clasico V€ils

I took a short break after the World Cup but now we are approaching crunch time. Squads are finalised, there’s 1 more international break this calender year and the seasons starting to take shape.

After making comments that stated Real Madrid would suffer a defeat, the complete opposite happened on Saturday evening. This was a comprehensive Ancelotti win and the scoreline didn’t provide Madrid justice for their sheer dominance. The El Clasico took a swing on small margins – had Messi scored a simple tap in the results might’ve been quite different. Nonetheless Real Madrid had taken a 2-1 lead and there was never a sensibility that Barcelona could turn the tide.

This leaves me with 3 condensed reasons as to why Barcelona lost:

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Suarez – Granted he provided an assist for a goal which was mostly Neymars’ individual effort: however it was clear Suarez was rusty due to the lack of real match time he’s been afforded and his poor performance was only amplified by his non-existent defensive shift.

 

His reaction says it all

His reaction says it all

 

Mathieu –  Now for example, when Belgium play centre backs as fullback it’s because they lack world class fullbacks such as… Jordi Alba. Mathieu struggled with this new-found role and he was constantly overrun on his flank and offensively he offered little though his long range effort was impressive.

Ancelotti – His squad were the better drilled team, they were efficient and organised which has covered their defensive deficiencies for most of their season. They overloaded Barca on counter attacks, their defensive transition into 2 banks of four was as impressive as ever and they stifled Barca.

Even after this win I’m asked why I continue to criticise this Madrid side. It’s because of their questionable antics in the transfer market. They’ve voluntarily digressed from last season by adding unnecessary pieces and selling the likes of Di Maria who’s excelled at Man Utd.

 

 

 

Atletico

Atletico Madrid displayed earlier this season how to beat Real Madrid, the reasons were obvious so it was quite comical when Madridistas used Casillas as a scapegoat. Undeniably the duo consisting of Modric and Kroos provides a lack of defensive cover on counter attacks, but the 4-4-2 formation as well as the brilliant squad has afforded Madrid a temporary veil.

It is for this reason I can guarantee Madrid will not retain the European Cup.

Barca on the other hand has a poor prospective and will continue declining. The front 3 of Neymar, Messi and Suarez is a sign of the coming times – the El Clasico summed up their approach, staying high up the pitch without pressing. The sheer brilliance of each individual player may drag them through on a domestic basis yet they have already been exposed by the only 2 world class teams they’ve played so far.

This Barcelona team is starting to resemble the Galatico era of Florentino Perez early reign over Real Madrid – huge spending with these elaborate unveiling’s. Initially fans are exhilarated with these stars, and then the trophy-less seasons will inevitably follow. Universally, Barcelona main fragility has been its defense, in the past 4 seasons they’ve spent £42.24 million on defenders – this season, Suarez was bought for £71.28 million.

Internacional Futebol

People now view international football as subordinate to the ever glamorous club game. Though the quality of club football far exceeds international football, it is still great in ways that are unmatched. Here’s a couple reasons as to why –

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Firstly the club game lacks anything close to resembling to brilliance that is the World Cup. It would be simply ridiculous to argue the Champions League comes close. Sure the Champions League has greater competition and players, especially in the knockout stages. Nonetheless, the vibrancy, excitement and anticipation the World Cup season provides is simply amazing. After the final you can’t help but count down the 4 years. It’s produced an array of famous moments etched into football history such as the Hand of God or the Zidane head butt on Materazzi. Even the most privileged youngsters will get 3-5 World Cups in their career! It truly is the blue ribbon event of football.

Along with this the fact these players are obliged to play for one nation in the senior team by Fifa is a stark contrast to the club game. With hugely inflated transfer fees such as the €100,000,000 for Gareth Bale or €50,000,000 for David Luiz as well as the constant movement of players, its great having some stability. Diego Costa can’t switch his allegiance from Spain now and must stick to it. Too many times we see players make regrettable moves in which they simply move again the following season. Also it’s great to see the players going back to the basis of the game – not playing for the wages, but for the fans and the love of the game. These players are playing for something bigger than themselves and their egos.

As well as this, it’s even more interesting for the fans as we witness the managers having to name their squads and constantly experiment. Club managers have the blessing of overseeing their squad and players almost every day, this naturally builds cohesion and rapport. Maradona tried accommodating individuals but it simply doesn’t work at this level.

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Managers must decide which players they must sacrifice in order to have greater cohesion because this is ultimately the most important thing in international football. For instance 7 Barcelona players’ features in Spain’s World Cup triumph against the Netherlands. Del Bosque is famous for bringing players who provide characters which leads to a more unified dressing room.

Moreover, as stated before international football represents something pure – football before the focus was on finance etc. Rivalries too can be more intense in international football and some date back to before the inception of football itself. The back stories behind these tend to be far less shallow and fickle as far are many club rivalries are concerned. These rivalries bring the best out of their respective players and fans that will do anything to not see their nation lose. A Croatia v Serbia, Germany v Netherlands or Russia v one of the former Soviet nations always produces tense matches; animosity between them goes far beyond merely football so there is far more at stake.

Lastly, there’s nothing better than seeing a whole nation unite and fans put aside club differences to support their nation’s players even if it is only for 90 minutes. Others might complain, but I love it when casual fans bite their nails and nervously sway in their seat simply because that’s what football is all about. So with that, I’ll leave you with Brazil before the 2013 Confederation Cup final. Ah yes, the World Cup is near again!!!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c40RuKc73Yg

 

Yin and Yang

Recently reactive football has triumphed over the more proactive style as seen under both Madrid sides. Confusing really when you consider the Spanish game less physical, more technically sound and similar to the national team style.

Whether it is stubborn to stick to a philosophy such as tiki taka varies amongst us in opinion. Nonetheless I believe Pep Guardiola is admirable for sticking to something he so strongly believes in, yet almost suicidal in today’s world. On the other hand, Real Madrid simply emulated what Bayern they themselves did against Barca last year.

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That is perhaps why Bayern fans are fuming because Jupp Heynckes did what coaches are supposed to do – get the best out of their disposal. Bayern Munichs team has great depth and their campaign in Europe last season showed adaptability to different situations. It was a change to Louis van Gaals stale possession game. No surprise then that they won the treble that season.

Tiki taka is apparently outdated, yet I believe the pure form is still just as effective as any other style of football as long as it is employed in a method it works. The question though is whether teams have the fitness to press so heavily and close spaces with intensity all season. So adaptability is hugely important to success in all forms.

Barca defense looked so bad against Bayern because of the amount of space given to Bayern to attack in when the initial press was bypassed. This space afforded was also obvious in Bayerns encounter against Real Madrid who was forced to push for a goal after lacking an away goal. The addition of Bale also meant Pep’s men were playing right into Ancelotti’s hand. Nonetheless Bayerns performance resembled what Barca are now, a team that lacked penetration and had excessive possession which at full time counted for absolutely nothing.

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That is why Diego Simeone is being sought after having Atletico Madrid overachieved way above anyone’s expectations. He has taken the physicality and counter attacking ability of his team and made them a force to be reckoned with. The ability to unite a team and get the best out of them is something all fans want.

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Ancelotti and del Bosque though underrated are also highly respected by the elite clubs for being able to do exactly this, getting the best out of a team and unifying them.

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In a world where everything is short sighted and fickle, football fans want instant results. Nowadays in football a win is a win. Mourinho was heavily criticised for his ‘anti football’ in the 1st leg against Atletico, yet had he won the 2nd leg no doubt the media would have praised him for nullifying Atletico Madrid and called it a tactical masterclass.

Though Pep may seem as if he’s trying too hard to put an imprint into what is basically a Jupp Heynckes team, I still believe that we need managers of his kind to bring a refreshing breeze in the world of football. By this, I mean managers who have a vision and stick to it.

I applaud the Brendan Rodgers and Arsene Wengers and their respective boards for giving them time and patience. In a football world where fans simply demand wins you need teams that take the initiative and play the way they deem fit. Because if we didn’t have these types of managers – football would lack the villains that are those reactive managers that do what Mourinho does.

 

Barca – the April Fools’

Champions League is the tournament where the best clubs get to measure the extent of their capabilities and this would define Barcelona in every sense. What I saw was a team which lacked cohesiveness that was once world renowned for and one that simply couldn’t cope with the physicality of Atletico Madrid.

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It’s easy to put the blame on one figure and perhaps Messi would be the perfect figurehead. He was pushed to the right for the most part of the game by Tata Martino which puzzled me and probably Messi too. He was distant, quiet and not overly involved in the build up of Barcelona’s play which he is usually pivotal towards. Still though, it does concern me why he hadn’t run as much as he usually does but it would be wrong to simply use him as a distraction for the real issues.

What I saw today was the complete antithesis to Barcelona. A team which is managed by a strong person who continues to mentally invigorate his players – contrasted by Tata Martino who has left Barcelona in the gloom regarding his future. Then you had a team wherein each individual had a role and they were well aware of what they had to do. Unlike Barcelona: Atletico Madrid looked like a team. The opening minutes summed up the way Atletico were going to approach this game, their press suffocated Barcelona and Barca looked unstable. It’s not surprising the first goal came in the first few minutes.

Their physicality also went unchallenged because Barca simply could not match it. Now I do believe their philosophy on preferring technically gifted players works because of their style of play. However every team needs an enforcer, for instance Bayern shelled out 40,000,000 to purchase Javi Martinez. Barcelona a couple seasons ago had a rock in Eric Abidal and even Seydou Keita who Pep could push up high when he needed to.  Barca’s bench severely lacked this and this is the least physically imposing Barcelona side I have seen in many years. That is an issue which must be resolved.

Then Tata Martino finally took off Cesc Fabregas and played a more familiar 4-3-3 yet we saw a story we’ve seen Barca succumb to before. Foremost, you have to applaud Atletico Madrid for being so organised. When Atletico lost the ball they sat deep and went into a narrow and compact shape which amplified the fact Barcelona lacked ideas. They suddenly started fruitlessly crossing the ball which would make sense if Barcelona had a plan B… which they don’t. They had no tall forward to get these balls into and it made things even easier for Atletico.

ImageIn fact Atletico had many occasions where they could have ended the tie but a bit of poor luck and poor decision making meant the score line flattered Barca. Nonetheless do not underestimate what they have achieved. They beat this Barca side without Diego Costa or the elusive Arda Turan. It certainly didn’t provide Atletico excuses as they simply went on with their job and Adrian performed his role perfectly and even provided the assist for the only goal.

This season the disappointment has come from Barcelona looking like individuals told to win. This was unmasked by Atletico Madrid which Barca had no answer for. They could not penetrate Atleticos defence nor did they have a plan B to fall back to. A poor excuse was held for not coming in for a new centre back by Tata Martino which has greatly backfired due to the transfer ban. Valdes injury meant Barca could not play out from the back as much.

Atletico Madrid simply outclassed Barcelona and this is a scary thought for the nearing battle between these two at the Camp Nou for the final game of the season. Barcelona has yet to overcome Atletico this season and really don’t look like they can. If they do I can guarantee it will be down to individual brilliance.

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Lastly, a crucial El Clasico loss in the Copa del Rey final denied Barca their only real chance at winning a trophy. I would speak about this match however Real Madrid simply replicated the Atletico formula. They played in two banks of four, sat deep, played out well to start counter attacks and generally had the better chances. Barca has serious issues and will have to try their best to have the transfer ban overturned or else another trophyless season is looming.

 

 

Catalan Woes

It’s interesting this topic has barely been covered in national news in Britain considering the topic of Scottish independence becomes prominent as the referendum draws nears. Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, has blocked off the chance for Catalonia to hold a referendum to decide whether it wants statehood or more independence.

To some it is amazing that this is even happening. Imagine if David Cameron completely vetoed the referendum and had it halted. To me it is undemocratic as polls clearly show there is a strong sentiment towards wanting greater freedom. Nonetheless Britain has an uncodified constitution whilst Spain doesn’t. Apparently Spain is one entity and so whether a region wants independence, the whole of Spain must decide on this matter as well.

This is unfortunate though lawful, so there is not much Catalans can do regarding this. Perhaps a problem with constitutions is that it’s extremely rigid in its outlook and such. This problem for instance regarding gun ownership in America and the second amendment has caused waves in the media. I digress – a constitution is a constitution so unless the centre right Prime Minister of Spain wants to amend it – this referendum is not going to happen.

It’s a shame really when the urge for a greater independent Catalonia emerges and more people want it to happen. Unfortunately all these faux referendums and campaigning was done in vain and will only rile up the Catalans and anger them more. If Mariano Rajoy didn’t think the threat of Catalonia becoming independent was a real one; no doubt he would have let the referendum become a reality.

See Catalonia provides Spain with almost 20% of its GDP so therefore it’s a crucial part of Spain no matter how you want to look at it. It is then is obvious why Spain will do anything it can to keep Catalonia within it. The reason other regions such as Andalucia love Spain is because they get a huge slice of the money Catalonia makes, and this further makes Catalans believe they are being hard done by. Along with the governments investment for Catalonia has also reduced by the large margin of 25%. In layman’s terms, they are putting in far more than they are receiving.

Image(General Franco handing Real Madrid the European Cup at the Santiago Bernabeu)

This injustice feels amplified when you consider the oppression the Catalans faced under the dictator General Franco whose favourite team happened to be Real Madrid. The language of the Catalans was oppressed and anyone even caught speaking in it would have been punished. Imagine that. Imagine not being able to speak Gaelic because a foreign English dictator wanted you to speak English only. That is a simple analogy but a reasonable one, because Catalonia is not Spain. They merely share borders.

Image(It was kind of a big deal)

As Catalonia continues to get ignored by the government the sentiment of independence will only grow. Perhaps Mariano Rajoy should have at least allowed a referendum to happen to see what the Catalan opinion was. By completely destroying it, to me it feels undemocratic and a way to flex ones muscles. This is especially true when you consider 1.5 million Catalans (Catalonia population is roughly 7 million) rallied in the name of Catalonia becoming a European State. Unfortunately they would also require the vote of all EU states to be admitted into it – would they get Spain’s vote? No chance.

So this is it, a clear dead end for Catalonia. Nonetheless do not expect this issue to die down as the younger generations become more radical and enamoured to the idea of an independent state.

“Decline”

It’s an exciting time in mid-February when the ultimate club competition, the Champions League comes about again and gives football fans across the globe something to get excited about. The penultimate tie this round of 16 is the Manchester City v Barcelona game. Two heavyweight titans going at it in a two legged round.

Its amusing football fans are so inclined into thinking Man City will dominate, citing the Bayern semi-final demolishing as a reference point. Even worse they may even bring up the fact Barcelona are going through a so called decline, with them not being favourites for this tournament for the first time since 2004.

Astonishing we bring up a decline when the Barca squad is practically the same as it was a few years ago. Sure a few veterans such as the lion heart captain Puyol and Xavi are playing more sporadically. This is in no form a decline. Barca is only a few acquisitions away from being favourites all over again. Furthermore do not undermine the fact Messi, Neymar and Busquets etc. are yet to even reach their peak.

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Ter Stegen is heavily linked so Valdes departure won’t be too significant. Barca definitely does need a centre back but Pique is as solid as ever. A Thiago Silva is needed, that would become the best centre back duo. Jordi Alba provides much needed width, especially as Neymar enjoys cutting inside. Plus we’ve yet to mention the brilliant youngsters coming through the Barca ranks such as Deulofeu, Sergio Roberto and Christian Tello.

Perhaps this might even be a positive thing. Against Bayern Munich, the game was grossly ill defined prior to the match with Jupp Heynckes deciding to play a counter attacking style and pressing aggressively on Barcas centre backs. Against Man City things will be much clearer, Barca will have to create space when Man City play narrow and counter attack.

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Nonetheless this isn’t a war of words against Man City. I do believe they have the right tools to beat Barca, with strength and pace all over the field. I’m particularly worried about the likes of Yaya Toure and David Silva who are the perfect vices to break tackles and start counter attacks. Barca will have to be cautious about pace too. But with no element of surprise, Tata is surely in a better position to deal with this.

Also with Tatas style of football I do believe there’s an essence of unpredictability about Barca too. Valdes is more willing to hit it long balls up to the flanks, and the midfielders more willing to knock diagonals into Neymars path and with his pace and all round threat, he will certainly cause problems. Messi too, is always a problem, and with a few games under his belt – he is looking more and more like his old self.

So do not think a Bayern Munich type massacre will occur this Tuesday. Expect a cagey and tight game. Moreover even if Man City does triumph, it is certainly not the end of Barcas season as they lead the pack in a tight La Liga title race and have an El Clasico Copa del Rey final. That is certainly not a decline in my eyes.