Monday, December 12, 2011

El Classic

Stakes were very high going into this game. For FC Barcelona, this was a must win game.The first twenty-three seconds were horrible, and my initial thought was that Madrid were about to run rampant over us, netting a score of goals. Thankfully, after that incredibly opportunistic start, Madrid's fragile psyche was exposed.
The miss by Ronaldo, through on goal with about twenty minutes of the game gone, followed closely by Xabi Alonso's yellow card for a hack on Messi, constituted a turning point in the game. About ten minutes later, Messi dribbled by four players, and threaded his pass to Sanchez for the equalizer. Barca's confidence grew, and well, you know what happened next. 
It wasn't as definitive or impressive as la manita last year, but this was a fantastic and necessary win for FCB.
Visca el Barca!

On an unrelated note, this blogger is moving to Barcelona in February of 2012. I hope to get to as many games in person as possible. I'll keep you posted!

Friday, October 28, 2011

Peak Foliage -- Mid-Autumn Observations on FCB Reaching Peak Performance and Team Unity

Pep Guardiola once explained that he trained his players so that they would achieve peak performance twice per year: once in late November, then again in April. He has a month to get to his first benchmark and it is clear that his players have some work to do.

In the article Pep referred to players peaking in terms of physical fitness. He did not attempt to argue that team unity or cohesiveness and understanding would peak around the same time.

As Barca (and presumably other teams aiming for the same objective) reach this first physical fitness peak they must also reach a state of mental/psychological peace. To do so, players must either A) figure out how to best work with what they have (their own skills and those of their teammates) or B) push to improve the way they work and the way those around them work so that the team can work well together. The Rub: In the delicate world of superstar athlete egos, achieving that sort of harmony requires so much self sacrifice it is nearly impossible to obtain.

If anyone can do it, however, it is this Barcelona team.

A great indicator of this is Barca's team leadership. Messi, Xavi, Iniesta and, increasingly, Abidal, have been poster children for self sacrifice. Never egoistic in interviews, they, along with Pep, set the tone for stability, humility and squad cohesiveness in games. Now if only they can bring both physicality and such unity to peak.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Spain vs. Scotland; Klinsman Stumbles

Spain pulled out all the stops against Scotland, at least for the first 60 minutes of the game.  With Puyol back and Valdes finally getting a start for la Furia Roja, Spain again had a sharpness not really seen since Euro 2008 and, to a somewhat lesser extent, at the 2010 WC .

Granted, Scotland are not a big fish team. It is still worth recognizing that several of the Scottish players play for top sides throughout Europe, and, in theory, they should be pretty decent. Against Spain, however, they looked more like a disorganized junior varsity high school team from the midwest. They could hardly string five passes together.

I don't think the penalty that Scotland scored should have been allowed.  Yes, it was a penalty kick offense. Valdes was slow to claim a ball into the box and clumsily crashed into the Scottish forward. Goodwillie's run up to the penalty looked to me to be a violation of the no-feinting at the point of the shot rule. It's a shame because Valdes is not a bad penalty stopper, and it would have been nice to see the result of a fair fight. Because of that concession, his track record will be forever blemished. Bad luck, Victor.


On this side of the pond, Jurgen Klinsman's side lost 1-0 to Ecuador. I agree with this blogger. He's said it best.

Predictions (hopes) for the weekend:
Betis will draw Madrid in the Bernabeu. Ramos will get a yellow card.
Racing de Santander will go down by one or two goals to Barcelona.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

David v. Goliath: Racing and Valencia Hold Real Madrid and Barcelona

Si, hay liga indeed. Maybe.
I watched the Madrid game yesterday, and caught most of the Barca game through a combination of Radio Barca and Gol TV courtesy of the Druid in Inman Square. Both teams drew in fixtures to Racing de Santander and Valencia respectively, in what was probably the best set of results for La Liga's PR officers. However, it is very apparent that the top two teams are breaking away in terms of attracting and contracting talent, and there appears to be no end in sight.

For fans of different teams in La Liga the situation looks frustrating and difficult to reconcile.  I am a fan of one of the big teams, Barcelona, but I cannot stand the fact that our spending power and that of our rivals Madrid has reduced the others in the league to mere also-rans. Points differences between the second place finisher (either Barca or Madrid each of the past three years, with the big points jump at the 2009-2010 season) and the third place finisher tell a depressing story.

2010-2011  21 pts between Madrid (2) and Valencia (3)
2009-2010* 25 pts between Madrid (2) and Valencia (3)
2008-2009   8 pts between Madrid (2) and Sevilla (3)  
2007-2008  (Villareal finished above Barca; Madrid won the title)
2006-2007   5 pts between Barca (2) and Sevilla (3)
2005-2006   1 pt between Madrid (2) and Valencia

*In 2009, both Barca and Real Madrid brought in some remarkable players, and a few, in Barca's system at least, seemed to come in to their own at just the right time. Madrid's 2009 shopping spree included Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaka, Benzema, Albiol, Lassana Diarra, Arbeloa, Xabi Alonso, Esteban Granero, and a goalkeeper called Adan. Ay Caramba!

I like to think that there is hope, but that means some hard decisions need to be made, specifically something on the order of salary caps and/or some sort of redistribution of wealth. Fine to say, nearly impossible to implement. It would require the leaders from Barca and Madrid to pony up to the table and offer to sacrifice a significant percentage of their earnings to create a more balanced league. As things now stand, the big two will continue to bring in the most talented and most expensive ball players, leaving the others to the remaining scraps. While football is a funny game, and one can regularly see examples of Davids beating (or drawing) Goliaths -- reference the most recent match from either Barca or Madrid -- the current course if unaltered is untenable.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Money League: Group Phase Thoughts

The Champions League 2011-2012 edition has begun. The groups were drawn last week, so it is prediction time:

Group A: Bayern Munich, Villarreal, Manchester City, Napoli

This is the group of death -- Manchester City and Bayern Munich are the most likely to advance. Villareal traded Santi Cazorla over the summer, but kept Rossi. Still, they are weaker and will struggle to get to the knock-out round. Napoli are no pushover, though, and might give Bayern or Man City a run for their money.

Group B: Inter Milan, CSKA Moscow, Lille, Trabzonspor

This is the snooze group. Inter and CSKA advance, methinks.

Group C: Manchester United, Benfica, Basel, Otelul Galati

This is too easy for Man United. Benfica should also advance. Swiss side Basel are familiar faces in the Champions League, but have not yet made it out of the group stage. Otelul Galati are a Romanian side I know nothing about. Good for them for making it this far!

Group D: Real Madrid, Lyon, Ajax, Dinamo Zagreb

Such is my loathing for RM that I am hoping for a miracle here in the shape of Ajax or Dinamo. Alas, it is extremely unlikely that either of those will make it through.

Group E: Chelsea, Valencia, Bayer Leverkusen,Genk

Genk is such a great name for a football club. They will be the whipping boys here. Should be interesting to see who between Valencia and Leverkusen make it through (along side of Chelsea, of course). My hopes are that Valencia can do the job -- they could use the money to keep up with Barca and RM.

Group F: Arsenal, Marseille, Olympiakos, Borussia Dortmund

With the crap Arsenal have been playing lately, it is hard to imagine them making it through. Their new signings might just provide the necessary spark, however. I expect some hard fought matches in this group, and it should get very entertaining. Dortmund were incredible last year in the Bundesliga -- they are my tip to win this group.

Group G: FC Porto, Shakhtar Donetsk, Zenit, Apoel FC

I bet this will be closely fought group, but I don't expect any of these teams to make it past the first knock out round.

Group H: Barcelona, AC Milan, BATE Borisov, Viktoria Plzen

BATE Borisov play their European games at the Minsk Stadium in Belorussia. I am glad Barca plays them in September, rather in December as the temperature must drop brutally. Good to BATE for making it into the CL - I hope they enjoy the experience. Barca's game against Viktoria Plzen in the Czech Republic should be interesting, but I assume they have both the quality and the depth to get the points from those fixtures. The Milan games should determine who finishes first and second in the group, and they (Milan) are bound to run us close.

Visca el Barca!

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Barcelona or Buenos Aires?

Summer is ending here on the East Coast of the United States, and autumn breezes have started to blow in. We will get an Indian summer or two, but it definitely seems like a season change is upon us.

This is great for many fans of futebol, especially fans of European futebol. Seasons have already kicked off in England, Germany and France; this weekend will see the first games of La Liga and I, for one, am eager to watch some competitive games.

I pose the title question as I am rethinking life in New England. I don't have it bad, mind, but have been increasingly ready for a change for some time. So, if I, the missus and our little boy were to move in the near future, which place should I go from a footballing perspective?

Our top three choices, in alphabetical order, are Barcelona, Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro. I know from personal experience that football in Rio is great. Pick-up games are easy enough to find, especially in the Parque do Flamengo. Believe it or not, I once played on a team that held the court (you have to win to continue playing) for seven straight games. That is practically the entire time allotted to pick-up groups on the main court in PdF. After that 7th game, two official teams with an official ref began an organized game on the court.

I don't know what it is like to play in Barcelona or in Buenos Aires, but will be doing some research...

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Supercopa, the First of the 2011-2012 Clasicos

Last Sunday evening Real Madrid drew 2-2 against FC Barcelona in the annual preseason Supercopa. A two-legged tie pitting the winners of the Spanish Liga and the winner of the Copa del Rey, this is the traditional kick-off to the season in Spain.

The game was entertaining, but it clearly showed, to me at least, two teams in different stages of their development for this season. The Madrid players seemed to be revving at near top speed, building upon a successful preseason. The Barca players, on the other hand, were clearly not running well at all, in part due to a choppy preseason.

Both teams had players out for the Copa America in Argentina this summer. Di Maria, Higuain, Messi, Alves, Mascherano, Milito, Adriano, and Alexis Sanchez all represented their country in the games, altering their training schedules for the summer and preseason. Both teams also acquired a few new players, some of whom will become first team regulars if not starters.

My impression is that this preseason Pep, has been more lax with the most senior players, allowing them more down time and not being so strict about training regimes.

For the game, Madrid started what appeared to be a first choice team. Pep, the FC Barcelona manager, however, sat Pique, Xavi, Pedro and Busquets, all reportedly suffering from minor injuries. Personally, I think they just needed more rest.

In the first half, the irregular squad for Barcelona had a hard time dealing with the speed and diligence of the Madrid attack. When Barcelona possessed the ball, Madrid pressed hard and regularly won the ball back. Barca played a large number of long balls in hopes of relieving the pressure -- a sure sign that the squad was not yet firing on all cylinders.

In the midst of this, four great goals were scored, and it is worth having a look at the highlights.

A couple of positives to note: Alexis Sanchez looks pretty good. He is a definite asset to the team.

Also, even under intense pressure, all of the Barca players kept their cool, defended well (Alves and Mascherano were great) and showed considerable skill in their one touch, twenty-yard passing moves. Once they get settled, which will take considerable time on the training pitch (this strike may be a good thing for this), they should be quite dangerous.

Tonight's game will resolve the Supercup, and it should be a sight to behold.

Come on you Barca!

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Klinsmann Era

So it begins --
Tonight's friendly against Mexico in Philadelphia marks Jurgen Klinsmann's debut as US Mens National Team manager. I have high hopes, but tempered expectations. The problems with the USMNT are easily identifiable, but they are not easily fixed. The two most immediate problems are a lack of technique in the squad, and a lack of unity. Technique is something learned at a young age over an extended period of development. Klinsmann cannot be expected to improve this in his players, especially because he will only work with them for a few days per year. What he needs to do is to uncover the technical gems that we do have, somewhere in the United States, and give them a chance in the national side.

I think he can do something about the latter issue. In Germany in 2006, Klinsmann (JK) was able to successfully galvanize his squad into a incredibly cohesive unit, one that combined work ethic with attacking flair. If JK can find the right combination of players, I belive he can bring them together in common purpose to deliver a reasonably successful World Cup campaign in 2014.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Three Things I Like about the Preseason

There are many fans who couldn't give a toss about preseason friendlies. They say they are meaningless and boring. I disagree.

The three things I like most about the preseason are this 1) we get to see debuts 2) we get to see youth players from a team's academy mix it up with first-teamers and 3) we get the occasional anomaly.

I have watched a lot of preseason games this summer and was lucky to be in the stadium for three of them -- USA vs Spain (ok, technically this was not a preseason game, but a friendly -- I'm still counting it), N.E. Revolution vs. Manchester United and FC Barcelona vs Manchester United. In each game I have seen at least something interesting and remarkable.

New signings are always eager to please and it was no different for Ashley Young when he stepped onto the pitch vs. New England. I think United are glad to have him.

Barcelona brought a large number of their youth academy to the US, and a few have left an impression. Thiago, a regular for Barca B, looks the real deal, though as Sid Lowe argues, he has some developing to do. Fontas, brought into the first team along with Thiago fairly recently, looks a great replacement for Puyol.

Real Madrid have signed multiple players to try to cope with and overrun Barca in La Liga this year. Devastating for Barca's other rivals, Espanhol, Jose Maria Callejon could be even more of a pain in the neck for Barca with Madrid. If the Merengues call upon Spurs striker Adebayor again, they will probably have the deepest attacking bench I have ever seen.

As for anomalies, the one that stands out the most would be Mario Balotelli's attempted back heel from eight yards out vs. L.A. Galaxy. Outrageous and a bit disrespectful, even if it is only a friendly.

The upcoming season should be interesting.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

N.E. Revolution 1 - 4 Manchester United

Over 50,000 fans turned up on a Wednesday night in remote Gillette Stadium to watch Champions League finalists Manchester United play the local MLS squad, the New England Revolution. All were treated to a fascinating and competitive match. Man U started the game with a strong side that included Nemanja Vidic, Nani, Wayne Rooney, Michael Carrick and new signing Ashley Young. Young was looking to impress -- he was certainly the most dynamic United player in the first half. Here is how I thought the rest of them did:

Anders Lindegaard: 5
Not much action for the newish Man U keeper. New England's deflected goal was not his fault.
Fabio: 7
Lively throughout. Worked well with Young on his wing.
Jonathan Evans: 6
Didn't have much to do all game with the Revs' toothless attack.
Rafael: 7.5
A bit more adventurous than his brother on the other wing. He had a few good turns and looked dangerous throughout.
Ashley Young: 8
Put in a few good crosses and was willing to take his man on in attack. Solid debut.
Anderson: 6
Created a few opportunities and held possession well.
Michael Carrick: 7
Provided solid protection for the back four whenever the Revs ventured into their territory, and was purposeful in attack.
Nani - 5.5
Didn't create much, but made no errors either.
Dimitar Berbatov - 4
Berba and Rooney were not in sync.
Wayne Rooney - 5
Along with Berba, looked like he'd prefer to still be on vacation.
Key Subs:
Park Ji-Sung - 8
Easily cut apart the Revs' subs in the second half. His 1-2 with Giggs at the end was brilliant.
Michael Owen - 7.5
Got a good goal, and put in a decent effort.
Frederico Macheda - 8
Back from loan and eager to please, his goals were very good.
Several European teams are doing mini-tours of the US throughout the summer. Manchester United played here, FC Barcelona will play in Washington DC, Real Madrid will play in Philadelphia, Juventus will play at Citi Field in New York. For those of us who are unable to make it to Europe to watch these players in action during the regular season, these mini-tours are great, even if each game is technically a friendly.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Cesc Fabregas, the Copa America and the WWC

Mr. Wenger, Cesc Fabregas has done all he could do for you. It is time to let him go.

The scouts at Arsenal were astute in spotting Cesc's talent over eight years ago when they initially signed him. Since then, Cesc has been an integral part of the team, helping them to maintain consistent top four status. He has started 266 matches, scored 57 goals and enhanced Arsenal's reputation as a team that plays attractive football. He's put in a good shift for you.

I understand it is Arsenal's job as a business to get the best price for him, but the directors should strongly consider the work he's already done, and allow him to leave as soon as possible.

Copa America
Thank you for helping me get my football fix this summer, Copa America. Univision and Telefutura here in the US are broadcasting it, and the few games that I have caught have been incredible. Last night's match between Argentina and Columbia was excellent in it's competitiveness.

Both teams were highly motivated. rigorous in their challenges and sharp in their passing. I can't believe many of these players have just finished long seasons in Europe and still play at this level.

A Word about the Women's World Cup in Germany
My guess is that the US team is expected to do well, we usually do. From what I saw yesterday, in the 2-1 defeat to Sweden, we do not deserve to. The Swedes were much sharper and deserved the win. In the second half, the US attack was pathetic -- Route 1, long ball tactics to chase an equalizing goal. It was painful to watch. We couldn't control the ball at all, or put together 3 passes.

Monday, June 20, 2011

FIFA is a Mess

I am trying to think of a good acronym for FIFA, the Federation Internationale de Association Football, but am having a hard time keeping it clean.

With the resignation of Jack Warner, cleared of all charges of corruption by FIFA's internal ethics committee, a spot has opened up on the executive committee. My hope is that it is filled by someone who is worthy, someone who really cares for the game and has no ulterior motives. The cynic in me suggests it will be filled by another kowtowing Blatter crony.

Leadership should change at FIFA, but who should be in charge? How can one get into a position to represent, for example, American Soccer on the international stage? If time were abundant I would research the answer, but alas, this blog is for asking questions about that which I do not know, hoping some person somewhere can provide an answer.

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

USA vs. Spain -- Int. Friendly

I was at the game. It was so nice out that day, tailgating was great, the atmosphere was incredible (pre-game), everyone was stoked to see two great national sides compete.

We knew Xavi and Puyol were staying home, but this was a primo Spain team to catch, regardless of the cast -- enough quality was on show to give an improving US side a great game.

Unfortunately the US looked completely lost or inept throughout, even though Spain were practically navigating on autopilot. Certainly put off by the pitch (don't get me started), the hung over Spanish players were very professional, playing some class ball and making a game of it. The best the US could do was to play kick and run with the kids. Bradley should have played his best squad from the start -- who cares if we beat Guadeloupe in the Gold Cup, or even Canada.

Bob Bradley embarrassed us by putting out this side. It was an insult to the Spanish players that made the journey.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Four Clasicos in 18 Days! Final Considerations

Watching Champions League soccer in the US is always a bit odd. First of all, games are on Tuesdays or Wednesdays at the odd time of 2:45 in the afternoon. In the middle of the work day, the soccer fan must discreetly log in to whatever website they use to watch games, or take a late lunch and find a TV to watch the game. This results in either the viewer feeling like they are scheming away from their boss in the middle of the day or postponing midday nourishment to catch the game of his/her favorite team.

The first point is reconciled by the ability on several programs to have small viewer on your desktop showing the game while you plug in headphones for the audio. You can therefore work on other things while the game plays in a corner of your screen. To view this most recent game, I had the convenient excuse of meeting a work colleague for collaborative planning - which was true. We had to discuss a mutual plan to teach a unit on sport.

Regarding the last of the Clasicos, the 1-1 draw in Catalunya was contentious but just in my opinion. 0-0 at halftime, it felt like Barca was easily doing enough to withstand the Madrid pressure. Barca maintained possession well (as usual) and defended decently enough when Madrid tried to hit on the break.

In the second half, Higuain's goal shoulda woulda coulda standed, had the ref not already whistled for the non-foul. I say non-foul because it was not a foul. But the ref blew the whistle -- you have to stop when that happens. Whatever. There is no conspiracy trying to get Barca to the final -- Mourinho and Marca can shove it. Barca outplayed Madrid over the two CL games and that is that.

I'm glad all four games are done. The final tally of Clasicos (for 2011) was 1W, 1L, 2 draws. Barca conceded the Copa del Rey to Madrid, while Madrid conceded a spot in the Champions League Final to Barca.

Barca won the overall record of Clasicos for the 2010-2011 season. Let's not forget the 5-0 thumping on November 29. :-)

As I write this, Barca have just won the title -- well done boys! I am happy to have seen you play live once this season -- may your good form continue -- and may you win in Wembley!

Friday, April 29, 2011

Four Clasicos in 18 Days! Game 3 Considerations

First leg of the Champions League Semifinal in Madrid

Barca were brilliant. Madrid came in to frustrate. Barca were motivated to create goal scoring opportunties; Madrid's objective was to disrupt Barca's play and hope to pinch a goal on a counter attack. Madrid's tackles were cynical and a bit dirty. Barca wasn't having any of it.

Highly motivated by the King's Cup loss and Mourinho's whining, Barca came to play. Dominating possession, they attacked the Madrid goal in waves.

In the second half, as Barca continued to dominate possession and frustrate the Merengues, the whites started to lunge into tackles. One such lunge, Pepe on Alves, Pepe came in reckless and with his studs up. Replays seem to show not so much contact was made. Alves spun around and fell to the ground. Red card to Pepe. A fair call based from an accumulation of challenges in my admittedly biased opinion.

Madrid could have responded differently to the red card, perceiving a conspiracy against them and fighting extra hard as a result, but this team is different; more petulant. They seemed to throw in the towel, especially after the Alfellay to Messi goal. Later, Messi scored an incredible solo effort. The kid is good.

All of that was overshadowed, of course by the negative bits. Busquets does play act a bit too much. I would prefer it if he didn't. Same goes for Di Maria, however, for Madrid. Tit for tat.

The final Clasico of the year is at the Nou Camp on Tuesday. Que gana el mejor.
Visca el Barca!

Monday, April 25, 2011

Four Clasicos in 18 Days! Game 2 Considerations

I watched the Copa del Rey final in the Phoenix Landing in Central Square. Good venue to watch games as it is generally full of fans. Inside it seemed the Madrid supporters outnumbered the Barca supporters. Still, with one hundred or so people crowded into the place, the atmosphere was good. Perhaps twenty to twenty-five were there for the Arsenal vs. Tottenham game going on at roughly the same time.

Madrid definitely held the upper hand in the first period. Mourinho put Pepe, the big Portuguese center half, in the midfield to lock Messi down and generally harangue Barca's midfielders. It was an effective tactic. Madrid looked sharp and worked extra hard to close Barca down whenever we got the ball. As is typical with a Mourinho side, there were a lot of rough challenges.

Barca played a much better second period. They kept the ball in Madrid's half and created several great chances, only to be denied repeatedly by Casillas and the Madrid defense. The second half ended tied at nil-nil. Pep made some attacking changes. Alfellay came on; so did Keita. Madrid's changes happened earlier.

At the start of extra time, the momentum shifted back to Madrid. Their goal in the first half of extra time was followed by intelligent defending, clever stall tactics, and a general greater desire to maintain the trophy that was Barca put forth.

I am not bitter that Madrid won. Ronaldo scored an impressive goal. Di Maria put in a great cross after beating Alves. Ronaldo out jumped Adriano to hit a picture perfect cabezazo into the corner of the net.

It all sets up a very tense Champions League semi-final. Madrid look supremely confident going into this first leg at the Bernabeu. Barca is missing Iniesta, Abidal, Maxwell and Adriano. Puyol is arguably not 100% fit -- our bench looks thin. Still, we will give them a good game. Visca el Barca!

Monday, April 18, 2011

Four Clasicos in 18 Days! Game 1 Considerations

Ay Caramba!

One down, three to go. This tie, the first of FOUR, took place in Madrid. For the millions watching, this was the appetizer, to help whet the appetite for the three, arguably more important, matches to come. I viewed this match as crucial in establishing a foundation for the following games.

Before the match I considered the possible outcomes. For Madrid, a win in this first game could rebuild confidence for moving forward. For Barca, a win would provide further vindication of superiority (firmly established in the first leg at the Camp Nou and in subsequent league games).

However, losing might not have been tragic for either side. Sometimes a defeat early in a competition is the best motivation for future encounters. See Spain's performance in the first match of the World Cup in South Africa; Barca vs. Inter Milan in the CL group stage in 2010. Mourinho returned to face Barca in the Semifinals of the CL that season and put us out of the competition.

As probably every other Cule around, I wanted Barca to win (this one and all of the others), but I wasn't under the impression that a loss in the tie was detrimental.

Both sides can take positives from this game: Barca proved that they can create chances and maintain possession, regardless what formation and strategy Mourinho employs; Madrid again demonstrated their incredible speed and agility on the counter, but also showed commendable courage in their fightback with 10 men.

I thought both penalty calls were correct. Alves' foul on Marcelo was not as egregious as Albiol's on Villa -- correct decisions in both cases regarding the red card (and lack thereof). The Copa final is next -- my cousin Victor is off to the final in Valencia -- hope he gets a cracker!

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Clasico, Part III

As we walk in, Victor Valdez is warming up. A few minutes later the Madrid and Barca players come out to warm up. After running some drills and stretching, the players partner up and pass the ball amongst themselves. Dani Alves and Leo Messi are right below us. Right below us. I can't believe it.

There are tremendous whistles and jeers for the Madrid players and coach when they take to the field. Those jeers contain serious venom. The noise is unremittingly loud. Madrid is loathed here, it is obvious. Many of the Madrid players have played Clasicos before, and in general they look unfazed. Still, all of the players seem a bit jumpy. They understand this is a big game.

Back into the tunnel for the line up and march in front of the camera. The Hymno de Barca starts on the PA system played (x2, the first to warm the crowd up apparently). People hold up their piece of the mosaic, which spells out "T'estimo Barca." Incredible. Now to the kickoff...

At first, the game is tense. Players are trying to assert themselves and find some sort of rhythm. Barca creates a chance early, then another from a corner kick. After the ball bounces a around a bit, Puyol nudges it to Messi who lofts a delicate chip over everyone onto the far post, agonizingly close to an opening goal. A few minutes later, Xavi strikes gold. Iniesta makes a run on the left side of the field and spies Xavi in the box, loosely covered by Marcelo. Marcelo goes to make a play on Iniesta's pass but fails to clear, the ball flicks off of Xavi's heel and somehow bounces over his shoulder -- Xavi instinctively volleys the loose ball past Casillas who is clearly at sea as to what to do. 1 - 0 to Barca. Xavi runs to the corner closest to us with arms raised to celebrate. Jubilation in the stands.
Now that the ice has broken, the Catalans can relax and let their skills and training shine. Madrid do get a couple of chances on counters in the first half, but are not creating much. Ronaldo, petulance incarnate, shoves Guardiola when not getting the ball back for a throw in. The crowd reacts with a chant directed at the Portuguese.
The second half is a master class in possession and attacking football. Rather than walk you though the rest of the game, you should have a look while the link is still there. Go to ESPN3 and watch it. Messi's passes to Villa for goals are simply brilliant. the fifth goal is icing on the cake.
On reflection, I think my personal favorite moment is when Marcelo fouls Pedro, mocks him, then turns his back as Pedro sprints in behind him to net the second goal -- sweet retribution! Also, the Ramos red card was particularly indicative of character.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The Clasico, Part I

In March of last year, after the birth of our son, Leo, we were visited by my wife's cousin, Mar. When Mar arrived, we asked her if it would be alright if we came to visit in November. Absolutely, she said. Good, seeing as we had already bought tickets :)

Months went by. We watched gleefully as Spain (playing a Barca system with mostly Barca players) won the World Cup in fabulous style. And then we waited. Actually, I guess, I hear the fixture list for the 2010-2011 season. I was going to see Barca play, regardless of whom they played or even where they played. Secretly I harbored desperate hope that we would meet Madrid during our visit, and that I would get to go.

On July 20, 2010, the fixture list was posted on the La Liga website. I did a double take. I did a triple take. I could not believe it, but there it was: week 13: FC Barcelona vs. Real Madrid CF. I did not hesitate -- I wrote to tio Jordi that moment via three different email addresses. Can you help me get to this game, please?

Fast forward to our visit -- incredible -- not the subject of this blog, but I must mention that it was wonderful to have the family in Spain meet Leo. Leo loved them and they loved him right back.

On our last full day in Barcelona, I watched the hours slowly roll by until about 7pm. Out the door, get me to the game. Monique and I took the bus to the Camp Nou, which crawled through the streets of Barca at an agonizing pace, especially when we got near the stadium. There was one other couple on the bus when we boarded that was obviously heading to the game. The rest looked like they were just off from work. The closer we got, the more nervous I got. Not about getting in. I knew we were getting in - tio Jordi had borrowed someone's season tickets and someone's ID cards for us. I was nervous about the result.

Madrid had a one point advantage over Barca and were looking stronger than they had looked in more than two years, with a new manager Jose Mourinho instilling much confidence in the team. Madrid had done better in the games preceding the Clasico. The stage was set for a big game.

Barca: A People's Passion by Jimmy Burns

Book Review

Horribly written, but interesting enough for a Barca fan. I read the version that came out in 1998. I believe it was updated recently.

Interviews with legends of the game were informative, as were stories of the founding of the club by Swiss and English ex-pats in Catalunya at the turn of the century. The author does a decent job of portraying the importance of the club for Catalans, but this reviewer felt he could have been more descriptive of the role of the club for Catalans during Franco's dictatorship. In all, not a great read, but if you are a Barca fan you might find parts interesting. There must be better books out there on the club, however. I'll keep looking.