29 June 2008

La Furia Roja!

What a tournament this Euro 2008 has been. Simply amazing with some of the best that European football has to offer. Which is surprising in itself, since we're talking about national teams, not club teams. I've generally enjoyed the caliber of play among the various national teams. I know someone like Arsene Wenger might think club football is the pinnacle of the sport, and one can pull out some rotten national competitions from the past to support that argument, but this wouldn't be one of them. Euro 2008 was fun to watch and full of delightfully unexpected twists and turns.

Truth is this tournament has been a keeper. No joke about it. There were the flamboyant Dutch with their surgical destruction of both France and Italy. The gritty flair of the Portuguese. The Croatians with their tight attacking game. And then, there were the Turks.

Oh. My. God. The Turks. Those guys were unbelievable. They would just not go down, no matter what. Down two goals against the Czech Republic with 20 minutes to go, and they need to win. So, they do. And this after already coming back from behind in two previous matches. They almost took Germany to extra time in the semifinals with a late equalizer and only had to bow out in exhaustion after the Germans pulled a last minute goal of their own in the 90th minute. My heart goes to the Turks. Their squad was riddled with injuries and suspensions, but they didn't lose the plot until it was far beyond what any other side could've endured. They say no one remembers the losers, but I'll be damned if I'm going to forget them. The Turks were a huge part of Euro 2008, and if you don't believe that just imagine this tournament without them and their fighting spirit.

The other big surprise were Russia. Here was a side that didn't realize it was quite risky to be so attack oriented, and because of that the Russians pulled off some very impressive wins. Their incessant pace and unrelenting counterattacks even did in the tourney favorites, Holland. But Spain had the Russians' number from start to finish, and Arshavin & company finally had to bow out. Still, Russia have put themselves back on the football map, and I look forward to seeing how they progress on the road to South Africa in 2010.

And, then there was Spain. España. Castillian blood flows through my veins if removed by several generations, so it was especially exciting to see la Furia Roja dash all the old jinxes, batten down the hatches, and pull off an achievement to be remembered for some time to come. What Aragonés and his boys did was to confirm the superiority of attacking football. Intelligent attacking football. A game that was a mix of creative artistry with a dab of pragmatism and a sprinkling of luck. It was a joy to watch the Spanish passing game, but it became mesmerizing when the Spaniards started their 'dance' into space and those passes began to slice defenses wide open, like a rapier that finds a chink in otherwise thick armor. To be fair, the Spanish weren't always in top form, but even then, they showed they possessed cojones. This was big in and of itself, because it showed this Spanish side had belief in themselves. They had confidence to see it through, to beat Italy at their own game, as it turned out.

I think what I loved most from watching Spain was that they always attacked, even when other sides would've chosen to sit on a lead. An old military adage says that the best defense is a good offense. Spain showed how that applies to football too. In the final against Germany, the last 10-20 minutes of the match were played almost entirely in the Germans' half. The Spanish just wouldn't quit. I had to chuckle to myself as the Scottish announcer surmised that maybe the need to attack was part of Spanish DNA. Who knows, but it sounded good anyway.

So now it's all celebration in Spain. The trophy is theirs after a 44 year wait. Enjoy it, España, you deserve it.

"Many people will look at this Spain team because it has been a model for playing football. I think all football lovers want people to make good combinations, to get into the penalty area and to score goals. At the beginning I said that if we managed this squad well, we would be champions. The team just thought I was trying to give them confidence. I just hope Spain carry on in this way and have many more victories."

15 June 2008

Ronaldinho to Chelsea?

This article, along with a couple others, seem to suggest that possibly Ronnie, and even Deco, might be bound for the Premiership club, Chelsea. All I can say is that while I think Ronaldinho likely has greater skill than Deco, I'll miss the Portuguese more. At least Deco put in some consistent effort these last two seasons, something I wouldn't say about Ronaldinho. For the Brazilian, the proverbial 'light' went out and while there were sparks of inspiration from Ronaldinho even in 2007-2008 (that overhead kick against Atleti was 100% golazo) the fact remains he more often than not simply disappeared on the pitch. Of course, there are many fans from other clubs who can't believe that Barcelona would let go of Ronaldinho. His skills are formidible and his exploits are legend, but at some point a person can no longer live on ones laurels. At some point one has to produce, and that is something Ronaldinho stopped doing since the end of the last World Cup. So, if Chelsea or Manchester City are eager to see the Brazilian sign for their side, fine, more power to them. Maybe Ronaldinho will have a revival. But the fact remains that for two seasons Ronaldinho had failed to produce at Barça, and this while under a coach who felt players were adults and should be responsible for themselves.

The other potential problem I see for Ronaldinho signing with Chelsea (or Man City) is that we're talking about the English Premiership. This is a league whose fans reward effort and drive and grit above all else. English football is also a fast game and quite physical. I'll be very interested to see how Ronaldinho adjusts to the increased tempo of English football. On the other hand, a lot of running would do the Brazilian a world of good.

10 June 2008

"We Were Not Prepared To Run"

An article on Eto'o has some interesting things to say about Barça's performance last season. Not necessarily surprising, but certainly interesting. Thinking back on the Blaugrana of the last two seasons, it did strike me how little they actually ran on the pitch. Not all of them of course, but quite a few of them. Enough of them to leave an impression. Even in 2005-2006 that sort of lackadaisical manner to FCB's movement (except when in the attacking third and in possession) was apparent to me. Back then, I wrote it off as a case of excellent-men-oozing-with-confidence. Silly me. Funny thing was in 2005-2006 the one concern by many pundits was Barça's rather soft and squishy defence.

This can partially be attributed to an attacking philosophy, since emphasis on attack will create vulnerabilities in the back at the instant ball possession turns over. The problem is Barcelona never seemed to 'get' it until the latter part of this season, when it was evident that the squad were beginning to put immediate pressure on the opposition when possession was lost. Of course, it was far too late with dwindling morale and a few key players no longer committed to the cause.

One can only hope that Guardiola will make sure that the players are impressed with a new sense of greater movement. A pace-aggressive mentality in defense should effectively diminish Barça's natural vulnerabilities, allowing them to regain their winning ways.

08 June 2008

During the Interrim: transfer goodness

Interesting to see where Txiki is 'rebuilding' the squad. So far we've seen:

  • Keita to FCB
  • Piqué to FCB
  • Edmilson to Villareal
  • Zambrotta to Milan
  • Pinto stays at FCB
  • Henry stays at FCB
  • Alves to FCB
  • Cáceres to FCB
  • Giovani to Tottenham

Dealings possibly in the works are:

  • Ronaldinho, Deco, and Eto'o on their way out
  • D. Villa being shown interest from FCB
  • Ongoing talks between Barcelona and the Belorussian, Hleb
I think it may be safe to assume that of last season's squad, we can expect to see the following remaining: Puyol, Sylvinho, Abidal, Toure, Milito, Xavi, Iniesta, Henry, Krkic, Valdés, Pinto and Messi. Add those who've been signed on, and it looks like Txiki (Guardiola?) is really looking to stiffen Barcelona in the back, plus add a wider variety of players in midfield.

And I'm actually quite hopeful for Guardiola's leadership with the players. Like Rijkaard, Pep was a solid and gifted player, and in addition he was a good leader. Hopefully this will translate well into his role as coach of Barça.

19 May 2008

Finished: 2007-2008

It was a nice last match for Frank and his squad, beating a relegated Murcia 3-5. Hey, Giovani even got a hat trick! That one goal, the chip in traffic over the keeper-it was a keeper, no doubt. Henry looks like he's finally found his stride too. Interesting.

Anyway, it's over. Frank's gone, and so will a significant percentage of the senior squad, if rumors are anything to go on. Won't bother repeating what all is being speculated by whichever news source, since it's pretty much a no brainer that heads are gonna roll in FCB this summer. It's just too bad that the board doesn't apply in that regard. My personal axe to grind would be aimed right at Txiki's neck. He'd be hittin' the Ramblas in a second. Buh bye!

Having said that, Pep Guardiola's a smart guy, an experienced intelligent footballer, so he might just pull it off and bring out a 'new' rejuvenated Barça next season. The problem will be if he can maintain success for more than a year, or two. After all the sparkle has settled and maybe the squad hit a dry spell in the middle of a campaign. We'll see. In any case, I'll just spend my summer watching old games on Barça TV, and support Spain in Euro '08.

Until next season!

12 May 2008

Sign of the Times

According to an article, Barça training today saw only eight players attend. Rijkaard himself was absent as well. After the lack of support for the home club by the cules in Nou Camp yesterday, it's not that surprising. What a mess this has become. FC Barcelona are broken and their camp is abandoned.

Who's to blame? Well, it has to go deeper than a discussion of tactics and football philosophy, like my earlier post. I mean, Frank knows his tactics, he knows what he's trying to accomplish and what the risks are. But unlike Sir Alex, Rijkaard doesn't have a real say on which players to seek and which players need to go. That's Txiki's job, and I think, personally, the director is about as stable as Laporta. And I think jello is made of firmer stuff than Laporta. For example, why in the world did they let go of Saviola? Why is Oleguer still on the senior squad?

Of course the players are to blame too. Heck, even Levante, a bunch of players who haven't been paid in a long time by their club president, played with more verve and grit than the Blaugrana for much of the season. Word is the squad has fragmented into cliques, and has done so for some time. If you ask me, that's the result of too many big money players in one club. Egos so bloated that one of them's going to end up being 'wronged' in one ridiculous fashion or another.

But let's not forget the fans. Cules is an apt name for them at the moment, because that's exactly what they are. You support your squad through thick and thin. You don't whistle at them every time they get possession of the ball just because they're rubbish. That's exactly when supporters need to become the 12th player, and urge their side on in the worst of it.

In conclusion, I think the lot deserve one another, except maybe Frank. He was always a gentleman, polite, gracious and humble. Frank deserved better, so I wish him the best with his future.

God, one more game and this campaign can be consigned to some dark corner of History's hallway. Good riddance.

30 April 2008

Ronaldinho, Where Are You?

Was wasting an hour away, looking at videos off YouTube. Ended up looking at a few vids of Ronaldinho. One was a compilation of his days in France and his initial time with Barça. Then, it was the bicycle kicks. First, the one against Atletico this season, and then the one last season against Villareal.

As Ray Hudson is fond of saying: man, oh man. One can become furious with Ronaldinho's performance these last two years with FCB, but then all one has to do is look at what the man was capable of--and very likely still is, and one is left with awe. Such a talent. Amazingly so.

I may still want to see him leave the Blaugrana, but it won't be in anger. Maybe just a little sadder for it. And two parting words: thank you.

Intelligent Attacking Football

From what I've seen of Barça, there is the distinct impression that Rijkaard is adamant of employing a game philosophy of attacking possession football. No matter who the opposition, or where it's to be played, or what is at stake, every situation has one tactic: attacking possession football. I have loads of respect for Frank and what he did with Barcelona in 2006-2007, but this idea of one tactic fits all just irks me to no end.

Anyone who watches Spanish football should likely know the best way to beat Barça. Play defensive, be ready to counterattack quickly, and always apply pressure whenever the Blaugrana are in possession. Training for a match against Barcelona is largely one dedicated to endurance and pace, because if you intend on squeezing out a satisfactory result against the Catalan side, you're going to be running your butt off. Seriously running. The good news is it really does pay off, because one thing Barça aren't skilled at is the transition from attack to defense.

One thing you can absolutely count on is that Barcelona will not collectively pull back into a defensive configuration. For example, they will never fall back into a 4-5-1. Ever. Barcelona don't hunker down in their own rear third and employ rapid transitions from defense to attack. They operate from the perspective of possession, building attacks slowly from the opposition's half. When they suddenly lose possession, Barça are extremely vulnerable to counterattack. And, until just recently, Barcelona have not been a side that collectively pulls back into defense, then works hard to regain possession.

All this means that when you play Barça you can bet they'll be predictable, which makes the task of preparation for a match against them a relatively easy one. It doesn't mean the game will be easy, but when it comes to Barcelona, what you see is what you get. And what you see rarely changes.

It's this predictability that I find unacceptable. There's no reason Barcelona can't employ an overall attacking philosophy, but please, employ it with some tactical finesse. For me, attacking possession football often results in the military equivalent of a frontal assault. You are basically hitting the opposition at their most prepared state. Everyone is back and prepared to defend, while the attacking side is stretched and vulnerable in their rear. A far better idea is to use possession football to tire the opposition, rather than seriously attack. Make a show of attacking intent, but don't seriously act on it unless an opening presents itself. Tire the opposition and get them a little riled to boot. Slowly pull back defensively, stretching the opposition. Then, attack with a killer pass. The intent even then is not yet of overt attack, but more of preparation. Wear the opposition down by forcing them to chase after the ball a lot. Once fatigue and frustration set in the other side, press the attack.

Such a game plan keeps the opposition guessing and sets the table for scoring chances. There is no single directive regardless the situation, but a series of stages based on the opposition's gameplay. It's an intelligent application of tactics in football. Intelligent attacking football.