Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Dream

Barcelona, Friday April 27.

I went to bed on Thursday night with the rumors of Pep Guardiola's imminent departure from the club very fresh in my mind. On Friday he was to give a lunch time press conference and share his plans. I laid down my head and had a dream.


I was in Spain, at the Camp Nou which was smaller, carved of stone blocks and placed next to the sea. People were assembled there to attend the press conference for Pep to discuss his future as coach. 

Pep walked through the stands, smiling and clapping hands as he approached the podium to deliver his thoughts. The feeling was that there was no way he would leave--the reception was so warm.

The team players were in the intimate stadium, whose stone exterior was still somehow visible through the people, and they beamed back at their coach.

Pep said he would stay at the club.

Immediately after, the locker room was full of players and press, as if they had just finished a game. They were celebrating. I stood by Eric Abidal, who saw worry on my face, and King Eric joked around with me and gave a playful hug around my shoulders.  

A small group of people were walking outside away from the stadium, Abidal among them. As we passed by the sea, walking on grey cobblestones under the overcast sky, we saw a strip of brick English council estates.

"This is where John Lennon grew up."

And we walked into the courtyard of John Lennon's boyhood home.


Monday, April 16, 2012

The Slide

Mascherano pulls ahead at Levante

This season is in a desperate last push for the final month of play.

All of the pressure that accompanies vying for such high stakes is shown on the face of Pep. With it already nearly the end of the season, he still has not re-signed for next year. The speculation is rife about him being wooed to Chelsea.

There is a kitchen-sink mentality to the play. The formations are stacked offensively in order to create movement and--when possible--get the ball to Messi. Play 1-2s that let them pass the ball to the back of the net.

But the 1-2s haven't been as precise, some games.

The final key touch, when it's fallen to Thiago or Cesc or Pedro, has been slightly off. Though Cesc has had his highest goal scoring season to date, he has had a lot more opportunities than before by being moved to the front.

It was thought that he was coming back to Barça to replace Xavi in the mid-field, but he has instead been played with Messi and either Iniesta, Pedro, Alexis, Cuenca... up front. The mid has been occupied by Busquets, Xavi, Thiago, Adriano (labeled a "back"), Keita...

In the back there has been less Pique than before, as he has been reported to have had some static with Pep over his boisterous social life. Mascherano, who was loved in Liverpool's midfield, has been a strong and key player with Puyol in determining the defense. Like Puyol is partially orchestrating Masche to dart to the places he is not quite able to break for. The captain just turned 34.

No Abidal, as he is recovering from having a liver transplant. Many thoughts are with him.

Ibrahim Afelay has finally been declared fit to play, though he has not been in a match in six months. Which brings us to this upcoming week's contests: A trip to London to play Chelsea on Wednesday, and then returning to the Camp Nou to play Madrid.

First things first--Chelsea.

This is a tough time to play Chelsea because they are getting visibly fired up at their successes since Andre Villas Boas was given the sack. They played today and scored 5 on Tottenham. It was a fairly sordid scene, too. The Chelsea mob wouldn't shut up during the moment of silence for the 1989 Hillsborough disaster where 96 Liverpool fans died at a FA cup game against Brian Clough's Nottingham Forest. That about sums up Chelsea fans: Vocal.

This lot...

In fact, its safe to say that the London fans will be as hostile to the Spanish champs as anyone they could meet. It was three years ago that Barcelona put their champions league run to sleep with Iniesta's wonder goal.

Of course, the psychology of the game is going to be destabilized with the trade whispers currently going between the two sides. Romeu has gone to Chelsea from Barça B, and we might want to get David Luiz soon coming back the other direction...But if Pep is potentially on his way there anyway, how can we plan ahead for trades as comparatively insignificant as that of defensive backs? After all, Chelsea don't have any svengalis freeing up in the transfer window, do they?

Pep looks completely stressed. When his team is ahead, he is freaking out that they will give up opportunities. When they are behind he is confirmed in his fearful judgement that winning the league is nearly "impossible." He screams and shoves his guys around for being the fat cats he'd warned them about. The satisfied winners that don't deserve to wear the crown anymore.

Though he pushes them like a rabid mule cart operator, part of the reason that nets any results at all is the fact that he himself was a club legend, and the idol of more than one of his current star players. With a team so largely home-grown, and he himself a product of the youth cantera system, the players perform in front of Pep like he was the guy up the block that dated their older sister, drove a bitchin' Camaro and gave them their first beer.

But if he was at another club, though his legend would still loom large, it would not be the same as the ingrained awe that he received from his team at Barcelona.

Right now, the team should be racing forward at full bore with all of the momentum they have accumulated through the year behind them. To win the league they must win every single contest and hope that Madrid also drops points along the way.

They will have to beat a resurgent Chelsea over two legs, and then save enough mojo to stomp the tall men in white.

They have to satisfy the desires of an unsettled shaman.

Is this the end?

What to do?

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Adversity Revisited

Eric Abidal: More trials.

This is the point of the season that tests teams.

Barcelona are currently involved in three competitions, the Copa del Rey (who's final--to be played against Bilbao--is all that remains), the Champions League of Europe, and finally, the quest to win la Liga.

That the schedule of "top" teams becomes multiplied to double that of lower ranked teams, means that the most competitive had better have a bench of back-up players that are ready to step in when things inevitably go pear-shaped.

Case in point, right now Eric Abidal has been marked out from play until lord knows when, seeing as he is due to have a liver transplant. Apparently, the issues that took him out for several months last year have resurfaced more gravely and now King Eric needs to undergo a full removal of the cancerous organ.

And who is there to pick up the slack? Fontas, or Adriano or Dani Alves--all three of whom were out through injury and suspension from this weekend's game in Mallorca. Pep was forced to field only three defenders on Saturday, but this is actually an exciting thing.

The 3-4-3 formation that Pep has resurrected this year from the old-school total football playbook has been something of a revelation. The keys to its success lies in the fact that Barça, even when they field the conventional 4-3-3, are basically playing a 3-4-3 since Alves or Adriano usually spend as much time darting upfield on the wing as they do "defending." The only difference is mostly one of declared intent.

In Saturday's game the team was laid out more in a 3-3-4 with so many central attacking midfielders on the pitch making themselves available in the final third. The old joke about Barcelona being a goalie + 10 midfielders is largely true.

And hopefully there will be another one returning to the field in a short while.

Afellay and Pep

Ibi Afellay has been out almost the entirety of the season, but may make it back on the field (unlike David Villa) before its end. Messi has picked up the slack for a somewhat under-performing Alexis Sanchez and a non-scoring Pedro, though there has also been an increased scoring presence from Xavi--plus a banner year for Cesc--you get the feeling that the attack could especially use the Dutch-born Moroccan's skill at sending crosses in from the wing.

Since he has been gone, there have been other resources to explore, namely the B team and Isaac Cuenca and Cristian Tello.

The Boys from Company B

The two have been plucked from the B team by Pep, who has given over 20 members of the B team their debut in the A team since his arrival at the helm. Both players are explosive attacking in the box (with Cuenca possessing a particularly accurate cross and knack for blowing by defenders with his gnarly trick-footwork), and they have certainly raised the profile for B side upstarts already boosted by the advance of Thiago early this season.

So while it seems that as long as Barça have la Masia educating young players in football and molecular gastronomy (or whatever else they get into...), they will not run out of talent to pull from at a bargain price, but they still angle for bigger signings to keep them in all three races they run through the course of a year.

The rumored trades for the summer look to be Gareth Bale from Spurs, and David Luiz--the Brazilian back for Chelsea that looks and plays like Animal from the muppets.

David Luiz

Personally, I think either one would be a great acquisition, Luiz in particular, as he has the kind of die-hard engagement in the game that suits the team, but the issue is also tempered by the need of the team to balance their books. Either way, the cold-war-arms-race-style spending it would take to procure Neymar would be a dumb-ass waste of money that would do more to characterize the team as another Galactico, rather than the largely home-grown club that it really is.

Barça are currently 6 points behind Madrid in la Liga, after Madrid drew two out of their last three games during the week. At this rate, the possibility of winning the league perseveres. It would only take Madrid losing one more game out of the remaining nine, as well as getting beaten by the Blaugrana at the Camp Nou.

On Wednesday, Barça will travel to Italy to face AC Milan again in the Champions league, this time not just in an irrelevant meeting at the group level, but in the Quarter Finals. The return of Ibra... the cracken stirs up from its grumbling deep.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Sweet and Sour

The Other Pep

After about two months of struggling to get into gear and falling behind further and further to Real Madrid in la Liga, Barcelona delivered one of the unstoppable performances that they were, until recently, turning on with the apparent ease of flipping a switch.

Having just played Valencia in the Copa del Rey, it was time to play them in la Liga at the Nou Camp, and after falling behind 0-1 in the ninth minute thanks to a fluke breakaway, they responded by scoring 5 unanswered goals before the final whistle blew.

Messi in particular was unstoppable, scoring four and serving up deft passes to Pedro, Alexis and Tello--though none of them converted on their opportunities. Alexis, for not scoring, was on fire. He cut back and forth with the ball and made Valencia's defense sweat bullets. I was skeptical about the little(r) man, but he is showing a work ethic that is beyond reproach right now.

You've got another thing coming...

Cesc and Alexis seemed to be the two players that had the most opportunities denied by Diego Alves. The Brazilian keeper for Valencia played a great game--which shows how on-fire Barça's offense was--in spite of allowing five to pass him to the net, the score could have been double that.

Cesc had a brilliant near goal bounce off the inside of the bar. The greatest goal that never was for him. As he was subbed out around the 75th minute for Thiago, Pep hugged him professionally and they exchanged a few words. Apparently Pep did not like what he heard from Cesc and he grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and threw him towards the bench.

It was the moment of the game for me.

Because Pep is the star at the center of their galaxy (not Messi or Xavi, as some might believe) to see him display moments of candor and honesty are some of the most exciting and worth-while events in a game. Though his philosophy is articulated as something that is nearly mystical in it's belief in "Barça" as a concept beyond a club, the physical manifestations of the game's pressure--the frustration, ecstacies and rage--those are the times when we get to see the actual stakes involved in the adherence to an ethos.

As the team and circumstances do not align with the just logic of a theory, the failure of the game in practice is as bitter as ashes.

Pep, when he is enraged, is scary. They are winning 3-1, 5-0, or whatever, but if the underlying logic is not executed correctly, then he is violently frustrated. This is because it's not all about winning. People always say "If you play beautifully and don't win, it's worthless." This is the motivation behind a large majority of football teams. They don't want to play pretty at the expense of winning. Totally understandable.

However, if you win and don't elevate the game to art then you might as well be playing rugby.

Athletes just want to win; poets want something more.

Josep Guardiola articulates his vision

Monday, February 13, 2012

The Deuce

It is a tough time in Europe.

In England, Andre Villas Boas is dealing with the fallout from his rocky first few months at Chelsea. At the time of his signing and arrival for the club there was a great excitement at the prospect of another young Portuguese upstart coming to helm the london giants.

Roman Abramovic and AVB: Like Godfather 2

Since the departure of Mourinho under tempestuous circumstances, the club has had a few managers, most notably and recently Carlo Ancelotti--a Bond-villain if ever there was one--but Chelsea had not performed well in the Champions league. Billionaire owner--and also Bond-villain--Roman Abramovic spends big (£64m in four years on managers since Mourinho left), but knows no satisfaction without Champions league titles.

Hence, the arrival of AVB from Porto, where his side was undefeated and won the Europa league. Having worked previously in the Mourinho regime at Chelsea, the 34 year old Vilas Boas was hoped to bring a thundering return of energy.

After some direct antagonism in the media, AVB has seen pundits criticize him relentlessly as unprepared and immature. His side is currently in fifth place in the Premier league, but still in Champions league contention unlike current Premier league leaders Man City and Man U.

The billionaire boss has been having meetings with the team to see about the need for wins and potentially, no doubt, changes.

In Barcelona, the Blaugrana is currently 10 points off first and the outlook for winning la Liga looks grim. Their three-peat in the league may come to a close due to their sub-par away-form. They have drawn six times and lost twice, while R. Madrid have lost the same but drawn only once.

The Qatar foundation. A new #9. The monkey paw.

This year's team has had a different attack than last year. They have played a little closer to how they did with Ibra in 2010. Though last year, David Villa got caught off-sides all the time, the previous year it looked like Ibra lived there.

I am Ibra. I live offside.

Now, with speedy Alexis Sanchez, the team are playing the ball more out of the back to try and maximize his ability to outrun defenders. There is less development in the midfield, and though Cesc was thought to be joining the club as an alternative to Xavi, he has played more as an alternative striker as Pedro and David Villa have diminished.

Messi is showing fatigue. Heavy weighs the crown. He's a great play-maker and absolutely integral, but his shots are feeling slightly frazzled.

On the contrary, the team has felt the steely presence of Carles Puyol more than ever. The captain is back after a tough spell of injury and he is every bit the war hero. But his goal scoring through headers and set pieces shows the increased italian-style attack they have employed since the Supercopa victories over Madrid.


The next Champions league games come on Valentines Day in Germany against Bayer Leverkusen, and the Kings Cup will be played for in Madrid against Bilbao.

It looks perhaps like 2010, this could be a two title year. Zubi, the team's sporting director, puts it tactfully: “If we consider that we’re in the final of the Cup, and if we win the Champions League, plus the three titles we’ve already won ... the season would be extraordinary. In any case, we cannot give up on the league.”

Friday, January 20, 2012

Mighty Healthy

King Eric shows love

The Clasico in Madrid--the first of two that will in all likelihood decide the winner of the Copa del Rey--was played on Wednesday at the Santiago Bernabeu. Again, Madrid struck early and lead the game by one in the first ten minutes, and again, Barça came back and won the game with deft team play in the second half.

Madrid tried a different tack this time (their Barça playbook is getting well weathered at this point with frustrated strategies...). Last month in Madrid they pressed hard and wore themselves out, this time they stayed back and didn't chase but waited for their opportunities on the counter.

Same result.

The only difference was the return of some of the more egregious fouls and nasty play that we'd seen last year in the Supercopa. They get pissed off like Yosemite Sam and start fouling like assholes (the worst coming from Pepe [as usual] who went so far as to stomp on Messi's fingers as he was on the ground from a hit by Callejon). This kind of behavior comes from the top down and as Mourinho gets relentlessly shut down the only strategy that is left to him is brute force and intimidation.

Fuel for the fire

Though Ronaldo scored against Pinto in a strike that would more likely been stopped by Victor Valdes, the game was won for Barça on the strength of two goals scored by defensive backs: Captain Carles Puyol and Eric Abidal.

By opening up the entire squad to the goal and keeping a versatility in roles and relationships, Barça have had five different scorers for their last five goals against los merengues. Continued Voltron shit.

But even in his traditional role as defensive cleaner, Abidal was brilliant. His performance, in the wake of his re-upping his contract with the team, was jubilant. Let's look back at the last year for King Eric: Get diagnosed with cancer, kick cancer's ass, return to the team and score the winner in Copa del Rey qualifiers against Bilbao, play in the Champion's league final and lift the European Cup, re-sign with the Blaugrana, go to Madrid and score the game winner on Wednesday.


The Copa del Rey is not really the priority championship that the teams play for. It is less weighted than Champions League and the League itself, but it was all that Madrid could console themselves with in the last three years (though they dropped it under their team bus while celebrating).

These early months in the calendar year are usually where Barça find themselves in a tricky position, just before they get all cylinders blasting again for the end of the season symphony. Behind by five points in the league, it's time for the superheroes to take charge.

How to foil the evil Professor Frinkle? It's simple really but quite clever.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Curse of the Monkey Paw

It has been a mixed bag for the club in the last few weeks, though most of it has been good.

Barça played Santos in the FIFA World Club Cup final in Yokohama to win the curious title of best club team on Earth. FIFA sets this up by pitting the continental champions from all over the world against each other. It was pitted as a match-up between Leo and the mercurial young upstart, Neymar.

...a couple of Silver Spoons

Before the game, as the two sides were lined up in preparation to take the field, it was something to see how the two stars reacted to each other: Neymar nervously looking towards Messi, trying to not look too hard and retain some semblance of cool, while Leo kept his head largely down in an inscrutable passivity.

But then they started playing and there was no trace of passivity. Barça shut down Santos 4-0. The first goal was a deft piece of play set in motion by Messi, as he doubled back away from the goal, only to turn around and dart up field setting up a triangle give-and-go with Cesc and Xavi back for his charge to the goal.

So the cup went back to Catalunya, but David Villa caught a bad one and sustained a nasty injury that will keep him out of play for some six months. Broken bone in the lower leg. Afelay is still mending from his early autumn surgery. The revolving door of injured players keeps spinning...

After the holiday break the team went on to play for the Copa del Rey against Osasuna, and handedly beat them, but then came the Catalan derby with Espanyol.

Espanyol, the Barcelona city neighbors, have a reputation for a fan base that is decidedly less diplomatic than their celebrated big brothers. Racism looms large in their stadium, as their own black keeper was subject to monkey chants for years. Their own goalie...It shouldn't be unexpected, then, that they gave monkey chants to Dani Alves every time he touched the ball.

The game was very tight and hard-wrought. Most teams tend to bring their most competitive spirit to the pitch against Barça, after all, the teams are then being seem by a global audience that quadruples (on average) from their usual broadcast draw. It was in the last few minutes of the game that Espanyol tied up at 1 and that was how the scoreline stood when the last whistle blew.

Are you fuckin' kidding me?

The result put Barcelona five points behind Madrid for first. This is a tough spot for the team, forcing them to not drop any more points for the entirety of the season, and beat Madrid, and hope that Madrid drops points as well.

It can happen, but it is not going to be easy and what's worse, it won't entirely be in their own hands.

On a better note for the team, Monday night saw them receive yet more accolades, as Messi was named FIFA world player of the year, and Pep named as the coach of the year. During his acceptance speech Pep thanked the thousands of people to have been involved in the club's history and dedicated it to his right hand, Tito Vilanova.

Tito underwent surgery to remove cancer from the salivary gland this year only a short while after getting his eye gouged by Mourinho in the Supercopa. He is clearly the supreme confidant of Pep at the club. That he was acknowledged as such was pure class. Though the league may not be in our own hands entirely anymore, either way that dignity will sustain us.

Tito and Pep