January 24, 2011
Would Barcelona bounce back from its Copa del Rey loss to Real Betis? Would they be able to extend their 13-game league winning streak and 17-game league unbeaten streak? Could Racing Santander pull Hérculean sized upset at the Camp Nou?
It took all of 90 seconds to put that notion to rest. A brilliant combo move between Lionel Messi and David Villa after a short corner involving Messi, Xavi, and Iniesta led to a cross that Pedro put in with his chest. 89 minutes later and the score was 3-0 as the final whistle blew. 73% possession, 11 shots on goal, and 8 saves by Racing's Toño told the basic story. 0 yellow cards told a different sort of story--a far less violent story than anticipated, given the 5 cards earned in the first meeting between the two--but there remained a window of opportunity for Racing that seemed far less dominate than other stats and the final score would imply: 7 shots, 3 on goal. That's fewer shots than the 11(7) they got in the first meeting--in fact they outshot Barça then--but Valdes had to be alert and the team owes him a few pats on the back for keeping a clean sheet.
January 18, 2011
Pep Guardiola turned 40 yesterday and all of Barcelona streamed into the street for the day-long festival of dancing and jubilation that ended at midnight with fireworks galore. Or at least that's how it should have gone. Guardiola remains mum about his contract, saying only that he'll sign when he's ready. Level-headed fans wonder why he would stay on in the circus that is the Barça life, but few of us truly understand his depth of feeling for the club. And as such, it's impossible to say what he'll do or why he'll do it.
But it's time for the Copa del Rey again. Guardiola moves on, as always, from one thing to another without the slightest hesitation. 5-0 is the current scoreline and it looks impossible to overcome. It isn't, of course, if the team fails to show up--though wouldn't we lose 3-0 if we simply didn't play at all?--but Guardiola will have them ready. I predicted a fairly absurd lineup yesterday that included a midfield of Mascherano, Keita, and Afellay, but that's unlikely to happen as it would mean no real ball controllers in that region of the field.
Betis come in off a 3-0 home victory over Alcorcón, pushing their lead at the top of the Segunda table to 6 points. Barça, for their part, defeated Malaga 4-1 at the Camp Nou to go 4 points clear of Real Madrid (who drew 1-1 away to Almeria). It should be a decent game, despite the aggregate scoreline and the potential lack of motivation from both sides. I predict a 2-2 draw and a Barça-Almeria semifinal.
January 11, 2011
Lionel Messi won some award or another. I'm not sure what it was, since I don't care for MVP awards in team sports. More important is Real Betis' visit in the Copa del Rey, when the supposed "best player in the world" gets to put on a show alongside the teammates that make him so great, so complete.
You see, the proverbial "There's no 'i' in 'team'" makes a lot of sense in football. You've got 11 men making a go of it, not Rafa Nadal vs Roger Federer in a test of who is better one-on-one (or, really, who has better knees that day). Athletic Bilbao's defenders kept Messi and the rest of Barça from scoring at the Camp Nou, but would you ever say Koikili is a better player? It doesn't matter because Koikili can hold his head high and say he played his heart out against a superior squad; remember, Athletic didn't lose to Barça in the Copa del Rey, but instead went out on away goals, having conceded just 1. And that to Eric Abidal, of all people.
And that's where Real Betis come in. You can't rely on your superstars to make magic against a "lesser" side, but rather, you have to put in the hard work that creates a winner. So Guardiola will reinvigorate the troops, tell Andres Iniesta and Xavi to go out and earn the next Ballon d'Or, and make sure everyone is ready for it.
January 6, 2011
Say his name in almost any bar in the world and you'll get appreciative nods, maybe a smile, someone oohing into their beer. A good one, he is. Say he's the best player in the world and you'll get laughs, though, until you point out what he's done with his life: 5 Spanish league titles, a Spanish Cup, 4 Spanish Super Cups, 2 Champions Leagues, a UEFA Super Cup, and a Club World Cup. And that's just his domestic haul. He's also got a World Cup and a European Cup to polish. But best in the world? Hardly, right?
Xavier Hernández i Creus has now appeared in more matches than anyone else in the history of FC Barcelona. 550 matches, 1 more than Migueli, the Ceutan defender from the 70s and 80s that most thought would never be surpassed. And yet Xavi, as he is known, turns just 31 on January 25. He's been playing in the first team since 1998 and averages nearly 45 matches a year, more than Paolo Maldini did (though Xavi surely can't surpass Maldini's 902 official matches...can he?) and throughout it all--the injuries, the ups and downs on the field itself--Xavi has remained about as regular as you can expect.