Current troubles with Barcelona

After yesterday’s win, one of the lines thrown around casually is that Almeria is a team struggling at the relegation zone and Barcelona should have beaten them easily. Barcelona should have beaten them easily. Yes. But not with a second string team.
In today’s football, there are no small teams. Every team should be respected for playing in the league and disrespect is usually punished with a defeat. When a team goes to a game with an attitude that a win is already in the bag, calamity ensues. Especially against teams that are tottering in the relegation zone as they have no time to blink.
There is nothing wrong with Messi. Just that the urgency is missing from the maestro. He did show that during the display against Ajax in the last UCL meet; when he and his team are committed everything can be spectacular. All that is missing is the drive. The biggest challenge facing larger teams are usually not one of lack of options to beat a team. It is usually the challenge of keeping the key players motivated to give their best against the smaller teams. That is where Lucho gambled that playing up-and-coming players might bring some fire to the performance. One area where he made a mistake was the defense and defensive-midfield. Mourinho will rest and fiddle all he wants with his strikers and forwards, but his defense and the defensive midfield is usually unchanged. He made a mistake a week ago and had to be bailed out by his A-team.
If Lucho is going to spin the bin and pick players in random for every game, then expect the results to be as random as they come.

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Clasico – October 25, 2014.

The first Clasico was supposed to be one of the best matches of the season. It was, up until about 30 minutes lapsed. And then it all started to unravel in unspectacular fashion. One mistake after the other, things were getting worse. Injuries piled up. Stars faded. Substitutions seemed not to stop the bleeding. There was no fight to the final whistle. Is this the end of Barcelona as we know? At least for another season or two it looks like it. Factor-in the transfer freeze for two seasons it looks like the goose is cooked.
Losing a Clasico is not the end of the world. One team has to lose unless it is a well fought draw. The intensity is so much a result is almost always registered. Many times, it is easy to pick the exact mistake, a point of brilliance, or a lapse of concentration that led to the match-winning goal. Not this time. The gulf in performance was so large, there were flashes of November 2010, all in reverse. The 3-1 score line utterly flattered the control real Madrid had over Barcelona, at least in the second half.
Quite a few times this season we have seen Barcelona hold the ball and surround the opposition’s box in futile. There seems to be that final piece of penetration missing from this team. The only hope is that Luis Suárez provides that spark. In a way, he did. He had to be restrained by two defenders paying close attention every time he drifted into the box. The one time he unlocked the defense the referee harshly called a foul. The other unexpected problem was, there was no one else to capitalize on the advantage that Suárez created. So unusual of Barca. If Barca cannot lift itself against its eternal competitor Real Madrid, is there hope against smaller boring teams?
There seemed to be two matches being played by Barcelona in the second half. A direct game played by Neymar and a traditional possession-based game played by the rest of the team. Suárez seemed to be one of the players trying to actively engage Neymar in the game. When he was gone, so did the supply to Neymar. As the second half progressed, Neymar seemed to be more and more isolated, with plenty of space around him, but nobody passing the ball. The ball rarely moved through the left flank. When teams defend in numbers, Neymar is at a loss. He needs a little more space to swat around defenders as if they don’t exist. This game needed Messi at his best, at the very least, and he went missing, big time.
The first Clasico of 2014/15 season should be a stark reminder for Luis Enrique and the Barcelona faithful that the honeymoon is certainly over. It is back to the drawing board again. I have never seen Barcelona so low on morale. That should hurt the faithful.
A flash in the pan was Luis Suárez, who didn’t disappoint. He is one player who can shoulder the burden of a whole team, as he did last season. With fresh legs and missing a large chunk of the season, he should be more than hungry. And he is not known to choke on big occasions.
Until then, get your thrills when Atlético plays Real.

Atleti are favorites for the Champions League

Defeats can sometimes be very important in the evolution and transformation of a person or a team. No amount of strategizing in a classroom can equate to the emotional experience handed by defeat. Many times, defeat is an essential ingredient of greater success. The defeat at the hands of Real Madrid in the first leg of the Copa Del Rey semifinals was an important turning point in the making and evolution of this Atletico team this season. The lesson was not about losing points. Atletico has lost to many smaller teams in more disorganized ways. The lesson was about the reaction to an early goal and the ability to shrug off early setbacks that punish the style of play employed by Atletico. It was a costly lesson as the Copa Del Rey is emotionally an important tournament for the Atleti. It was the win over this same Real Madrid in this same tournament last year that boldly proclaimed the arrival of a third force in Spanish football, a league that has become a two horse race in recent years.

Atletico deploy the most organized defence in modern football. Today, it is the most comfortable team able to confidently defend a single goal advantage. The counterattacking nature of scoring doesn’t promise a rain of goals and so every goal is extremely precious. Setbacks in the form of early goals usually snuff-out the Atletico threat and make the team work harder than ever, sometimes pushing it beyond its ability leading to larger defeats. The ability to shrug off the setback and grow resilient was the lesson learned from the defeat in the hands of Real Madrid in the Copa Del Rey semifinals. A deflected goal pushed that game beyond redemption. But the lesson was learned, which was put to display when Atletico met Real Madrid again in the league. There was a repeat of an early setback, but there was no capitulation. In fact, by the time that match ended, Real Madrid was the one on the ropes and was more than happy to escape with a single point.

The progression of this season has also improved how the Atletico midfield plays together. The team is now more confident defending and so has started creating better chances in the opposition’s box. The progress has been so fast that it created three hits on the post and a goal in the opening 20 minutes against Barcelona in the return leg of the Champions League quarterfinals. This is in a match where Barcelona clearly had a mission to score, to nullify the away goal advantage held by Atletico. By the time it ended, we didn’t see the usual tired and panting Atletico praying for the 90 minutes to end. It was in fact Barcelona that looked tired and panting praying for the match to end to stop prolonging the beating being handed out. All this without the two most visible stars in Diego Costa and Arda Turan for Atletico, who were both sidelined with injuries.

The match itself was so one-sided that a detailed writeup is like prolonging the agony of a really painful surgery. Messi was nowhere to be found, his usual flair missing in front of the goal and having to drop deeper to spruce up the defence. It appeared as if the Argentine genius had his mind somewhere else, far away from the Calderon. The Neymar show had the usual brilliance in the wings flattering to fail when it counted, tightly marked out in the box. Iniesta was far more dangerous but lacked support. The new thinking in Barcelona seems to favour connecting Iniesta with Neymar, who seemed to be the more dangerous pair than anyone else on the pitch. The match had a strange feeling that it had all been destined even before the starting whistle had sounded. Barcelona looked so jaded and out of sorts reminding the Champions League semifinals last season.

Come this weekend, Atletico would again labour to a grinding win against another mid-table team in the league. That would be more a reflection of bordeom rather than inability. Diego Simeone’s biggest challenge in the league will be to keep his players motivated in the smaller, but equally important, matches. He might do well to rotate the players giving the usually benched ones an opportunity to have a go and add some spirit to the games.

If this Atletico is not a favorite to win the Champions League, then who is? Many write about the mighty Bayern, but I feel Bayern Munich is yet to see a real team. Atletico is no more afraid of other teams on this planet. It is now the other way around.

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.

Tipping point for ‘total football’?

Football has changed in the last five years. What used to be called a ‘full court press’ in basketball, usually adopted by smaller teams against bigger teams, is now the new norm in football. Barcelona, Dortmund, Munich all play this high octane style. Even Real Madrid runs like a scalded cat these days when they lose the ball. Rinus Michels’ ‘total football’ has just reached a tipping point.

To play this style you need a team of players who are comfortable dribbling and generally playing the ball, physically able and willing to put a hard shift, track back and defend vigorously when the ball is lost, disciplined not to play out of position, and ultimately trusting each other. It is more systematic football.

English Premier League may be the most competitive league in the world with more tight matches and any team able to beat any other team on its day, but except for a few clubs all others are still caught up playing football from the last century. Arsenal has been a beacon of hope for almost two decades but has failed to consistently unlock the true potential of its style, falling from the heights reached circa. 2003. European football has left English football in its dust.

The recent trail seems to run from Barcelona to Dortmund and finally to Munich. Real Madrid is trying a blend of total football with stars. This style has a short lifespan for players as it is extremely taxing and fatigue/injury prone. We can see players peaking early and fading pretty soon. The day they cannot run past an offender will be the day they have to hang up their shoes. Look at Barcelona today.

The fact that smaller teams are playing more systematic football can be seen when bigger teams enjoy (?!) disastrous results when losing focus, even momentarily. Napoli, Barcelona, Atletico have all seen such results in the last few weeks.

Thinking of some of the mighty clubs in the EPL, it is a pity that Manchester United will not be one of those clubs adopting modern football. MU seems to be having a hangover with last century’s ‘scrappy football’ that was plaguing Germany for decades. It will give you reasonable success, but when you meet the might of modern day Bayern or Barcelona, forget it!

The next decade is going to see some of the best football played on earth. There are lots of good players coming through and the managers seem to be doing better all the time. One of the most exciting English teams to have latched on to this journey is Swansea City. They are the most exciting newly resurgent team on the block.