The curious case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde

The playing form of the venerable Football Club Barcelona with the current crop of players follows the curious case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. One day the club plays the trademark ‘Barcelona’ football at an extremely fast pace, fighting for the ball, giving the opponent players very little time on the ball, forcing them to make mistakes and losing the ball. When the club plays this form of their natural game, they look like a team from some other planet, blitzing expensively assembled teams aside as if they were a bunch of flies. Other days the club plays a lethargic form of the game hoping for the sheer class of the players to carry through. Many times they win and some times they lose.

‘Pep’ Guardiola was able to motivate the team and able to make them play their trademark game day in and day out. Under all the other coaches, ever since Guardiola left, the team has been flitting in and out of games as if it has been sleep-walking. Take the case of Manchester City in the 2014 Champions League tie. The blitzy Barcelona motored into town and Manchester was flattened in no time. They never had the time to recover. Same again against Atletico Madrid in the La Liga a week ago. By the time Atletico realized they were playing a different team and could readjust, it was already half time and game over.

The big question is, can Luis Enrique, the current Barcelona coach do a ‘Simeone’ and motivate the team to play their ‘A’ game day in and day out? The recent snubbing of the Ballon D’Or seems to have given Messi another void to fill. Suarez and Neymar will be raring to prove that they are not necessarily second class citizens. Some midfield changes are essential to keep legs fresh and raring to go. Otherwise, everything is right for Luis to create a historic first season for himself. That will be something to watch.

A well half crossed!

There is only one manager who can grind out a tactical draw however boring the team may appear to look. And there is only one manager to whom the team will religiously cross all ‘t’s and dot all ‘i’s to grind out a tactical draw. A well half crossed! The return leg at the bridge is going to be another tactical match-up.

It was also interesting to see that Atletico didn’t get crazy with all the possession and overcommit. Two disciplined teams going about their business, albeit with a slightly different role with more than 65% possession for one!

The attrition at Chelsea looks alarming.

The Champions League semifinals match-up that nobody wanted

Chelsea and Atletico play an almost similar style of football. Both clubs have charismatic managers who are known to extract the maximum from their players, though I would say Mourinho has somewhat failed in this aspect since he is unable to get the maximum from his strikers. One striker failing may be a lack of form, but all three strikers failing spectacularly is something wrong with the approach to play. Although generally successful, the last seasons with Real Madrid has also exposed some of his critical managing deficiencies. The potential losing of Lukaku might be another chapter of his polarizing attitude and inability to accept a loss of face.

Atletico’s strategy is well known and generally they do not stray much from it. They strangle you of space in the midfield and try and play the ball high up and score on the rebound. As much as Atleti are credited for a water-tight defense and teamwork not much praise has been given for their ability to link up play in the midfield and in the final third of the pitch, especially when space is tight. Atletico has grown in leaps and bounds through this season and they are now a more resilient well-rounded team. Atletico’s strength in defense takes the attention away from how well rounded a team they really are. And all the key players are returning to duty (Turan included).

Chelsea pretty much do the same to defend but their attacking style is very different. They try to move the ball fast through the midfield using raging diagonal runs. For this to work, Chelsea need a wee bit more space in the final third of the pitch. It works spectacularly against slow defenses (think Arsenal). Key players are injured and some of them are cup-tied as well. Chelsea do not have a striker who can hold up long balls and create havoc. Expect this critical deficiency to be put to ridicule by Atletico’s water-tight defense.

Chelsea have been lucky to survive this far in the Champions League. Galatasaray was lucky to remain in the draw. PSG showed too much respect in Stamford Bridge and paid the price. Atletico are not pushovers and will not do this mistake. Expect Atletico to shrug off Chelsea. There will be lots of drama and unusual tactics from Mourinho, all in vain.

The case of Courtois vs. Chelsea

The hottest debate in the Champions League this season is if Thibaut Courtois should play against his parent club Chelsea or not? Courtois is a Chelsea player loaned to Atletico Madrid for the past three seasons. The most important detail this season is a clause in the deal that is believed to mean Atletico has to pay Chelsea $2.5 million for every game Courtois plays against Chelsea. For a sport, this is outrageous.

Players are professionals and there should be no question of their commitment for the team they are playing for. No one should question that the own goal scored by David Luiz against PSG in the Champions League quarterfinals is borne out of his frustration against his coach Jose Mourinho for benching him often and the possibility that Luiz could be sold by the end of the season. A football player has the right to change clubs and his loyalty is to the club for which he plays at the moment. These commitments should be outside suspicion and if they are up for debate, football will cease to be a sport and football players will cease to be professionals.

The big argument forbidding players appearing against their parent club is the conflict of interest – that they would play poorly and miss key chances. Even though that situation is possible it has to be remembered that players live and play in the present. Players will take all their chances and win the Champions League this season rather than expect to win it with their parent club the next season. The parent club may not decide to promote them to the starting eleven. There is no guarantee that the parent club will win the championship next season. There is no guarantee that the player will not sustain an injury that may end his career.

Courtois himself has a precedent in this situation playing for Atletico against Chelsea in the SuperCup. He appeared in the match and Atletico beat Chelsea to win the cup. There was no question of Courtois’ commitment or conflict of interest at that time and as a professional player there is no issue about his commitment this time as well. In fact all questions should be asked about Chelsea’s intent as the club clearly doesn’t want Courtois to play against it but wants him to play against other competing clubs in the Champions League.

Questions should be asked about the validity of such a clause in the Chelsea-Atletico loan deal that discourages a specific player playing against a specific team by the provision of a monetary benefit. If Atletico are to rest Courtois, they are set to save $5 million over two games. This is not small change and is grossly disproportionate to the fee Atletico pays for the player appearing in other matches. This monetary benefit gives Chelsea a distinct advantage in those games and improves the odds of it going to the finals of the Champions League. If this is not unsporting behavior, then what is? In fact, UEFA should penalize Chelsea for inserting that clause by fining the club of the amount in debate in the clause; nothing less.

It all questions about the validity of the loan system and how it works. Arsene Wenger has been very vocal against the current EPL rules that prohibit loaned players playing against their parent clubs. Imagine a club under the EPL rules that has about 50 great players – due to its immense wealth – and loans two of them to every other club in the league. These players will be instrumental in demolishing every other club except their parent club. These players are ineligible to play against their parent club. The parent club will have a great year and has the potential to win all the games since all the games are fixed to its advantage. Arsene Wenger is right, there should be no provision prohibiting a player from appearing in a specific game against a specific club. It is unsporting behavior and handicaps every other team. The argument that the rule is the same for every team is flawed. This provision favors the rich teams and penalizes the poor ones.

The loan system is flawed because it is fundamentally unsporting unless the loan recipient has no scope of playing against the loan provider. Loaning players to a team that can potentially play against it at a competitive level is akin to match fixing. The ideal solution is to ban loaning of players to any team, failing which, there should be no restriction for the players to appear against any specific team.

Thibaut Courtois should appear for Atletico Madrid in the Champions League semifinals and Chelsea should not receive any monetary benefit for that. In fact, Chelsea should be fined for inserting that clause into the contract and trying to fix the outcome of a match and bringing the Champions League into disrepute.

Atleti are red hot!

The fate of Atletico Madrid and Barcelona seems to be completely entwined with each other this season. The more entwined they get, less and less separates them. They have met thrice this season before this Champions League quarterfinals fixture and all of the matches have ended in draws. So far, except for an away goal won by Barcelona, they both remain inseparable.

The Champions League Quarter Finals between Atletico and Barcelona was an unwanted tie for both the teams at this stage. They know each other so well and are both fierce competitors. Any game between these two teams is going to sap every ounce of energy from all the players. With just a single point separating the same two teams in La Liga, this match had more at stake. If there were any tactical vulnerabilities or uncertainties they do not want the other team to know at this stage, since the last match in La Liga will almost certainly be a title decider between these same two teams! You couldn’t write a more thrilling or potentially heartbreaking script than this.

This game lived up to every cent of its billing and ended in a well deserved 1-1 draw with Atletico having a slight advantage on away goals. The game demonstrated the well-established contrasts in style with Barcelona attacking with all-round possession and Atletico parrying every advance with inch-perfect defense. The fact that Atletico didn’t blow it in their own third by getting a red card or penalty with many close encounters is proof that Atleti have the meanest defense in football right now. The organization and confidence displayed by Atletico in defense is probably the best in world football today. I do not expect to see any team able to break down this team this season. The suffering in the hands of Real Madrid, after an early goal shellshocked them in the Copa Del Rey semifinal first leg, is now history. Atletico proved their improved resilience against the same Real Madrid side when they met in the league and drew, a match arguably Atletico should have won. Atletico are no more dark horses. Only injuries can stop this Atletico team.

Many expected Atletico to just wither away as the season comes to the tail end of business and the usual suspects, Barcelona and Real Madrid, to share the spoils. Diego Simeone, the Atletico coach, seems to have completely missed the draft. Except for visible tiring at the end of the second half, his squad seems to be capable of pulling it off against any team in the world.

Iniesta and Messi seemed to have exchanged T-shirts before the game! That should have been the cunning plan of Tata Martino. Iniesta connected well with everyone and was supremely mobile and able to find space easily. He was far more dangerous than the Argentine genius throughout the game. He was trying to cut in with every possible opportunity and was clearly not holding back his position in the midfield as he usually does. Messi played a more allround game creating chances and sometimes defending deep. And of course, he did have his shot at goal as well.

Iniesta was out and out the best player on the pitch, matched only by Thibaut Courtois, the brilliant Atletico goalkeeper. If Courtois, on loan from Chelsea, leaves Atletico at the end of the season, it will be a greater loss than the rumored departure of Diego Costa, their talismanic striker. Iniesta identified and created the pinpoint pass to Neymar and the Brazilian forward had no difficulty in finding the back of the net. There only existed a nanosecond of a gap before the onrushing Godin (or was it Juanfran?) would have closed the door. And there was just a single degree of angle within which Courtois would have palmed the ball away. For all the complaints about Tata Martino picking Neymar when his form has been questionable, this one moment of brilliance redeemed it. Neymar can be utterly tongue-tied in front of the goal as demonstrated so many times this season.

The Atleti defense, as usual, got the job done with little drama. There was no panicking. In fact, for the last 15 minutes of the game, Atletico were just throwing the ball back into Barcelona’s hands, more than willing to defend. The Diego goal from 30 feet was a moment of brilliance that he himself will be unable to repeat. No goalkeeper could have anticipated and stopped that screamer of a goal. If Atletico have one blemish in their armour, it would be their increasing reliance on long-range efforts against quality opposition. No matter how good their defense, a single goal in 90 minutes should be a distinct possibility for any world class team! That is what Barcelona will be hoping for in 8 days’ time. Atleti have to find the back of the net with minimal involvement of the midfield to keep their game flowing and intact. The injury of Diego Costa, who has been performing this near impossible task with aplomb, could be the single deciding factor if Atletico lose it from here.

Despite all the pressing and running, the Barcelona squad looked more spirited at the end of the match and was creating chances by the minute. This was not helped in any way by Arda Turan, the Atletico midfielder who played one of his best games the last time these two teams met, having an indifferent day. Barcelona supporters too clearly played their role in the match getting behind their team for the whole 90 minutes.

There is now a clear respect for Atletico, which shows that the team has been accepted as belonging to the top echelon of Spanish football. Not that Diego Simeone needs acceptance! He is a man who commands respect by letting his team talk on the pitch. But even Simeone seems to have gathered a newfound swagger and a smile. His mission to take Atleti to the top, in a season when they lost one of their eternal mentor in Louis Aragones, is at last within touching distance. This could be the greatest footballing story of our life, signified by the presence of Messi and Cristiano who gave their all to stop this juggernaut called Atletico.

El Clasico. March, 2014.

If you say that the whole of the football world was looking forward to this tie, aptly called ‘El Clasico’, you wouldn’t be mistaken. This is the pinnacle of football played twice a year and it doesn’t disappoint. The annual Champions League finals may be a contender but definitely lacks the rivalry of this tie, not to mention the sheer intensity. ‘El Clasico’ is more than just a football match. It is war. The intensity displayed by the players, and the fans alike, is unlike anything else.

Past performances and recent form has no real meaning in this tie. The players just have to ‘get’ the idea of the tie and then it is generally man to man. You don’t become a Real Madrid player or a Barcelona player unless you perform in this tie. The first leg of the 2013-14 season is already history, played at Camp Nou where a Messi-less Barcelona outplayed Real Madrid. At that point both the teams were adjusting to play under new managers and the match was won by a fabulous chip by Barca’s Sanchez. On an aside, Neymar scored his first Clasico goal as part of his induction process into the Barcelona team.

Real Madrid has really gelled well and grown in confidence under coach Carlo Ancelotti between the first Clasico and now. Old players have adapted to new roles – especially Angel Di Maria – and new players have been carefully integrated. In fact Madrid has been on a blistering run of 31 matches, unbeaten (they came close to losing against Atletico Madrid but were rescued by Cristiano). The other setback for Madrid is the season-ending injury to Jese Rodriguez. His blistering pace and great touch has baffled defenders, especially on the death when used as a substitute to inject life in times of crisis. He will be sorely missed.

Barcelona’s form has been a roller-coaster ride this season. After starting the season brightly despite an injured Messi, the form of the team off late has been unpredictable. The bright spot has been Messi’s seeming return to form with his hunger evident in the last Champions League tie against Manchester City (return leg).

The second leg of the Clasico is also important in that Barcelona has dropped points to mid-tier teams and are now playing catch up to Real Madrid & Atletico Madrid. This tie is a do or die in the League for Barcelona. Atletico has also been watching this tie with intent ever since they lost points to lesser teams and want to get their League fate back under control. A Barcelona win will put Atletico’s fate back into their own hands. Win, and Barcelona still have to pray for results to go against Real Madrid and beat Atletico on the final day of play. If there is one club that can do it, it would be Barcelona.

The match itself started in a measured way. No first minute theatrics to take the opposition by surprise. But after a few minutes of cagey display, the tie took off. Detailed, minute-by-minute, account would run to multiple volumes. Such was the intensity of the match. Di Maria and Benzema were the standout performers for Madrid. They combined well and were the creative and finishing force for Madrid.

Cristiano was another story. He wore a brand new pair of ‘lighter than ever’ studs with fly-wire technology (whatever it means) and carbon fiber plates. Despite this high-flying kit and two Ballons to show back home, his feet somehow seemed to be leaden and burdened, flopping at every significant tackle near the danger area and collapsing in a heap. When you expect him to be in his potent best, in a night when Madrid expected him to put Barcelona to bed, he somehow seemed to be going limp at the slightest touch. Did he forget the pill?

Messi and Iniesta were the standout performers of the night. What you missed to see due to the brilliance of these two magicians was that Xavi and Busquets managed to control the midfield while it was not on loan to Di Maria. Except for Pique, the lesser said about the Barcelona back four and Victor Valdes the better. They had a forgettable night but still managed to end up on the winning side, thanks to some scuffed options by Benzema and the mesmeric brilliance of Messi and Iniesta.

Barcelona won 4-3 but the main talking point of an otherwise fairly balanced contest was the refereeing. The referee, Alberto Undiano, actually had a good night keeping the game under control considering the mitigating circumstances. You would be deluded if you think a Clasico can be kept under control. Anything goes and it was a pleasant change to see Sergio Ramos failing to plant his studs on someone’s thighs ‘by accident’ or crash his elbow ‘strategically’ on someone’s face on the descent of a jump. Ramos was generally brilliant except for touching Neymar at the wrong time in the wrong place. Result: A career 19th red card. His itchy hands seemed to get ahead of him, leaving Madrid in the wake facing a Messi penalty.

The foul against Cristiano was clearly outside the penalty area and at the speed at which things were proceeding the referee made a mistake awarding a penalty, which Cristiano easily converted to put Madrid ahead. But the foul on Iniesta was blatant. Xabi Alonso clearly went for his thighs. It was absolutely intentional and I guess he failed to remember in the heat of the moment that the referee was just behind him. Another penalty for Barcelona! The contention was if the ball was too far for Iniesta to reach. These are all minor issues when Messi was standout the exceptional performer having a hand in every turn of the tide for Barcelona.

Was it exciting? Yes, every minute of it. Wait, which Clasico in the last 10 years hasn’t been exciting?

Is Messi back? Absolutely!

Is Cristiano the best? Absolutely, against 98% of the teams! The poor 2% are Barcelona and Atletico (that is in La Liga…).

Are Neymar and Bale worth the ~100 million dollar tag? To say that they are the world’s most expensive players is not fair. Messi and Cristiano have not been traded recently and so their market value is unknown. Rest assured, they would easily command 150-200 million dollars today and no sane club would want to sell them. So the price paid for Bale and Neymar only shows that the player transfer market has heated up. Please get used to skyrocketing prices for all and sundry this summer.

The best football match of this year

If you take only the Classicos and the Madrid Derbies as the title decider in the La Liga then Real Madrid will be third best in Spain. So far, they have lost two and drawn one. There are just two more matches yet to be played in this private competition between the three best clubs in Spain at the moment. These are the matches in which the three teams – Atletico Madrid, Barcelona, and Real Madrid – give their all. They play for pride and that is one thing these clubs cannot lose. More so in the last few years since the arrival of Diego Simeone as Atletico’s coach, which elevated the club as equals with the other two. Atletico also had a wounded pride after the Copa Del Rey mauling received at the hands of Real Madrid only weeks ago.

Once the first goal went in, courtesy of a set-piece from Real Madrid’s Benzema, you would have expected a capitulation from Atletico. Memories of the Copa Del Rey semifinals this year would have flooded past many viewer’s eyes. Atletico play a tight high-tempo defensive game and early goals by their opposition usually take the wind out of their performance. And when it is Real Madrid, that’s enough for the day. Not in this game. Atletico found another extra gear in their juggernaut and overran Real Madrid like never before. If not for defensively slipping up a bit due to fatigue in the second half and some refereeing horror, Atletico would have the pride of beating their more illustrious neighbors. Deservedly.

So much is expected of this Billion-dollar Real Madrid team that any failure is considered a catastrophe. El Cheapo Atletico has been a particularly prickly thorn in the last few seasons. Cristiano couldn’t impose himself into the game until the moment the equalizer came in dying minutes, when fatigued Atletico were having a mini defensive collapse. Bale was significant only in his complete absence and for poorly controlling the ball that luckily led to the equalizer. High marks for poor control. Watching Bale was like watching a kid in a candy store – all eyes wide and completely overcome by the occasion. Di Maria was running all over the pitch like a headless chicken. He should have been really happy when he was substituted. Every time Modric seemed to have a great moment, he was snuffed out, once brutally. Better not to mention about Arbeloa and Coentrao. When the big guns are firing, small arms must keep quiet, which in their case is almost always.

Atletico were at their very best, considering how they play, bullying Real all over the pitch by converting the game to a test of endurance. Arda Turan had another of his great days. He plays a sub plot in the game. He is best when he slows down the game to his own calculated self, to a different beat probably from the streets of Istanbul. He brilliantly set up the first goal and delivery of the ball to Koke could not have been more dramatic. It had the aura of a dancer’s performance in a Turkish palace. If there is one blot in Atletico’s performance, it was Diego Costa’s finishing. The usually clinical striker was always in two minds, whether to dive and force a penalty or stay up and go for the goal. His performance was stunning in winding up the Real defense and keeping it volatile. But he had a few open chances that should have settled the game in Atletico’s favor. And of course that refereeing horror. If a referee misses a penalty when the tackle happens in front of his eyes, he should be made to sit out three games.

One cannot think of what more Real Madrid could have done. One day they demolish continental rivals Schalke in the Champions League and the next day they are nearly snuffed out back in their own League. Real has been improving tremendously under Carlo Ancelotti and the next match-up with Atletico, probably in the Champions League, couldn’t be any less exciting. It so, it will be a meeting with more at stake. And Simeone’s Atletico will be waiting.

Beautiful, tight, less brutal, and engrossing football can be played. You would have to watch a re-run of Manchester City playing Bayern Munich in the Champions League second leg for that. In Spain, it is more rustic.

Today, the Spanish League (La Liga) is the best league in the world. If someone tries to tell you that the Premier League is the best, ask them to watch the Madrid Derby held at the Vicente Calderón yesterday. And also ask them if they can come up with a better match from the Premier League this season. Further, ask them to watch all the matches between Atletico, Barcelona, and Real Madrid.