Archive for April, 2012

Rayo Vallecano 0, Barca 7, aka “The post break-up breakfast”

So many of us have done it. You break up with someone on good terms, and you decide to have a meal in the aftermath of the event, because how bad could it be, right? And it’s brilliant. You laugh, you joke, you remember the good times, you remember everything about the relationship except the parts that made you want to set the bed on fire, with that charming, wonderful person sitting across from you, in it. Then you remember, and you wish you could be someplace, anyplace else.

And so it was today, in a demolition of a brave, plucky, misguided Rayo side that conceded early, then opened the floodgates. But the cameras before the match were all following Pep Guardiola, the now lame-duck coach of FC Barcelona, a man who spent the entire match looking as if he wanted to be anywhere except there. The team scored, he looked glum. They scored again, he looked even more glum, as did the newly announced coach, Tito Vilanova. The reasons for that, only they know. But for me, it was a fascinating match for so many reasons, that I will just throw up in bullet points, since my ability to string coherent sentences together has been disarmed by the weirdness.

I stayed clear of BFB and social media, because I wanted to watch this match fresh, without picking up any notions or impressions about how things might or might not have been. And even in its fundamentally meaningless state, there are a great many interesting things about today’s match:

Goals were in the house again

And it was more than the quality of the opponent. It was off-the-ball movement, aggression, dynamic play that was at times vertical. It was all of those things, that we used to see regularly and wondered why, for two desperate, crucial matches, we didn’t.

The pressure was off

There is a common misconception that Barca doesn’t feel pressure. EVERY team feels pressure, but that pressure manifests itself in different ways. Yes, we had injuries, yes, we had a great many complexities coupled with two key missing players. But we also had pressure, by the ton, pressure that makes legs kick not as freely, that makes players hesitate when they shouldn’t. Some of it is the pressure of fatigue, of having played pretty much non-stop for the last 4 years. Some of it is the pressure release that many of us feel at the end of a long run or bicycle ride. You’re hammered, but knowing that you’re in that home stretch makes you perk up and suddenly, you’re feeling pretty darned good. Fatigue, and relief from that fatigue, can be as mental as it is physical.

Someone tell me the last time they saw Lionel Messi smile during a match, as he did today a few times, smiles that he tried to hide, but they leaked out. When has Pedro run as freely, worked as much magic as he did today? Having said that, let’s be clear about the fact that I in no way, shape or form think that the team buckled under pressure. But I do think that they felt that pressure, in ways that I can’t begin to imagine.

And it’s okay to feel pressure. Our gladiators wouldn’t be human if they didn’t feel it. Today, however, was the result of that presure being released. And it was spectacular.

Messi was back, in full effect

Part of the grand design or not, it was so great to see Messi playing the entire pitch again, running at defenders, working balls loose, dashing about outside of our box and generally raising hell. I haven’t seen him play a match in as unfettered a style as he played today, in a very long time. Same defensive pressure, same phalanx of defenders saying “No, not in our house,” and he still knocked in two goals himself, and contributed spectacular passes, including an absurd nutmeg to set up Keita, on countless occasions.

The game was fun again

Today, the club played like it had nothing to lose. Yes, as a consequence, defense was a little loose at the back, but it was a match that felt much more like a scrimmage against a talented opponent. Even more, that first goal, which looked inevitable, seemed to loosen up the side even more. Our players were romping, and not just on the scoreline.

Keita served notice

Of all the players that might be sold this season, he is one of the most likely. And he gave us a taste of what will be missing, with a display of classic Keita, with flair and style added. Spins, slick ball control, incessant running and omnipresence were a few of the reasons this was a Keitastic match, and one that showed him off in a way that should, if there’s any justice, quiet his detractors, at least for a spell.

Afellay is back

In his first match appearance in a very, very long time, 3M took to the pitch, and the look down at his chest was funny, almost as if he was thinking “Man! I still can’t believe I’m playing for this club.” Was he himself? No. Which is to be expected. But it was good to have the squad move toward being whole again, in the vibrant presence of Afellay.

Um, about that Alves thing

Martin Montoya started at right back, and had an excellent match. He was calm, assured and present on defense, a very different kind of match from the marauding Alves, who entered as a sub in the second half. And when Rayo Vallecano unleashed an attack that took advantage of the space created with Alves up the pitch as usual, you could, when the camera cut to Guardiola and Vilanova nattering and gesturing, exasperated, at the pitch, almost imagine them saying “See? See!?”

They weren’t for everyone knew exactly what kind of player Alves was when he came, what kind of player he still is, and that he is one of the best right backs in the world. But interesting questions will be raised in the off-season, questions that I don’t think any of us are prepared to deal with right now. So we won’t.

Puyol will be missed

Thiago bopped in a headed goal off of an excellent pass from Alves. After the goal, the two creators started dancing, a choreographed little move. Puyol charged up, broke up the party, and sent them back down to their end of the pitch, to prepare for the kickoff. Man, I liked that. We were killing Rayo Vallecano. Why rub it in like that? Celebrate briefly with your teammates, and return to the task at hand. He was all business, even as he knows that we are just playing out the string. His committment and complete dedication to the cause is inspirational.

Pedro was windmilling away

Is Pedro officially back? Good question. I rather imagine he will get more starts for the remaining matches, and if he plays as he did today, we might have to give him his exclamation point back. He was everywhere, and being a constant danger as the activity levels of Messi and Sanchez freed him up to be Pedro. That is, he isn’t the guy who beats somebody off the dribble. He’s the guy who runs into space, tucks under an excellent pass and does his thing. But more than that he tracks back, and runs constantly. Good to see that player back today.

Sanchez and Messi

Next season is going to be loooooooonnnngggg for our opponents as Sanchez and Messi continue to develop the fluidity and sense for where each other will be. Sanchez was a dynamo, wreaking havoc with intelligent movement, ball skills and constant danger. As for Messi, the more space that he can have, the more dangerous that he is. All that Sanchez will need to is start reliably converting the chances that he gets, and look for either a lot of goals from him next season, or more space for Messi. Either way, the result is a lovely thing to consider.

I know that Guardiola doesn’t want to ….

But he might want to consider handing over the reins to Vilanova earlier, rather than later. Part of his pained expression, I think, was him trying to mentally divorce himself from this club, from realizing that he isn’t going to be the man in charge of beautiful displays such as these any longer. But I also think that he just plain doesn’t like being the main source of attention, rather than his players. Finally, I think he’s sad, in the ways that we all are when we make decision that are for our own good, about something or someone that we don’t want to leave.

I reckon that from every match on out, cameras are going to be everywhere, and the scrutiny will continue. Guardiola is the kind of man who wants all of the focus on his players and how they play, which is as it should be. It will be interesting to see if his demeanor is as dour for the next league match(es), and Copa final.

And yes, it’s a pretty safe bet that the reins have already been handed over. I would guess that Vilanova has even more input into squad and tactical decisions as this season moves to a close, as he takes a look at every player on the squad, even a squad that he almost certainly knows so well.

Next up is a pair of matches that will tell us a lot about this club, as they come against more formidable opponents than Rayo Vallecano, in Malaga and the always-difficult derby vs Espanyol. Until then ….

Rayo – Barça Match Comments Post

Today we face Rayo Vallecano. The last time we played was a 4-0 drubbing with Alexis, Messi, and a certain David Villa all finding the net. That was the last match in which Villa scored before he broke his leg. He is not in the starting lineup to find the net again on his return, unfortunately, but Ibrahim Afellay is on the bench! Yay!

Lineups:

Barça: Pinto, Montoya, Puyol, Mascherano, Adriano, Busquets, Keita, Thiago, Messi, Alexis Sánchez, Pedro

Rayo: Cobeño, Tito, Arribas, Pulido, Rober, Movilla, Trashorras, Michu, Lass, Tamudo, Diego Costa

And with that, Pep ruins my plans for Fantasy league domination. Valdes and Cuenca will take no part and Cesc and Tello start on the bench. At least Messi will play…

Gracies Pep!

Well yesterday kicked my ass, how about you? When I heard the news I was simultaneously gutted, grateful & relieved. Pep has been the best coach (and man) we could possibly have asked for. I have no words to express my gratitude for what he has done for this club. Silverware is the least of it. Pep has crafted a team that has combined fantastic football with human values and a clear philosophy (there’s that word!) and identity. There will never be another one like him. Fortunately, we have an excellent successor in Tito Vilanova, who has been with Pep every step of the way and shares his vision and football principles. I look forward to continuing this journey with Tito at the helm.

If you, like me, spent yesterday evening drinking, eating comfort food and feeling weepy, you might want to check out a few of these videos about Pep. If you can stay dry-eyed I will make you a manita on the house.

This one is an oldie but a goodie:

Pep Guardiola — The Director:

Adeu Pep. Stills. If this doesn’t make you cry, I don’t want to know you.

One of the best Pep interviews I have ever seen. Translation can be found here courtesy of the ladies of @FCB_LJlive

And lest we forget, Pep has other interests besides football:

TV3 also has a lovely musical tribute that you can find here.

Thanks for everything, Pep.

Adeu, Pep Guardiola! Moltes gracies per tot! UPDATE

Remember this guy?

Now he's THIS guy. In four years.

BREAKING: New coach is Tito Vilanova!

Pep Guardiola’s coaching career with FC Barcelona began in 2007, when he was announced as coach of the B team. He grabbed that team by the scruff of the neck, led it to a championship and promotion. When Joan Laporta subsequently announced, a year later, that he was to be coach of the first team, there was a lot of reaction, most of it bewildered.

He was to helm a club that had gone silverless for two seasons under its beloved coach Frank Rijkaard, and what the hell could some guy who was just running the B team do?

Only win every trophy that the club contested that season, 6 of them, the vaunted Treble (Copa del Reig, La Liga and Champions League) and an award from doctors, as jaws had to be re-set from hitting the floor.

That man, that great coach who is Blaugrana and cule to his core, announced today that he is leaving the club at which he started as a ballboy, for very simple reasons of fatigue and loss of the enthusiasm necessary to give as much as he does for the team that he loves.

We all knew that this day would come, because Guardiola himself warned us that it would. In thinking of Guardiola’s tenure, I recall the first time I had gelato at this little place just off La Rambla, called Patagonia. It was a double-dip of chocolate and vanilla. It was so good, I began taking smaller bites, to delay the onset of the bottom of that cup coming up. So it was with Guardiola, who told us all, time and again that he wasn’t a coach for the long-term.

From the onset, his contracts were structured as one-year deals, so that he could follow his famous “feeling.” He always said that only he would know when it was time to leave, but that when he chose to leave, it would be for the good of the club.

Now is that time.

We can leave whether he is correct about his decision for another post, another time. For now, this is the time, and the place, to say “Thank you” to the coach who has made our beloved club the stuff of legend, who fashioned the team that we so adore into something that generations will speak about with reverence. Because unlike great clubs that did everything except win silver, Guardiola’s Barca won silver, but it did more than that.

He came in and jettisoned Deco and the great Ronaldinho, and people questioned the moves, but he knew. He also wanted to sell Samuel Eto’o, who convinced him that he could be part of the program, so Eto’o stayed. Then he took players who were jaded, a damaged locker room, and in the span of a pre-season, fashioned that mess into a Blaugrana fist, one that pressed, passed, ran, defended by attacking and brought concepts of total football into bright, shining life. In 2009, facing a Manchester United side with suspensions and injured players, a United side that boasted the great Wrongaldo, Guardiola’s Barca grabbed an early smash-and-grab goal against the run of play, then proceeded to play the style that the world now knows as tika-taka, until the littlest giant, Lionel Messi, headed home for an insurmountable lead.

“Sure, that was this year, but let’s see next year.” The next year, he did it again, winning the Liga, and being stopped in Champions League only by a freakin’ volcano, in a hotly contested Champions League semi-final tie against Inter Milan and Jose Mourinho, one that cules will say was unjustly ajudicated in both legs, but still, there is only the result.

He began to integrate B team talents into the first team, with the likes of Pedro Rodriguez and Sergi Busquets, who many now consider one of the best DMs in the world. He brought up Thiago Alcantara, Isaac Cuenca and Cristian Tello, and has more talent waiting in the wings, talent all reared in a system that values more than physical ability — intelligence, calmness with the ball, vision and further, foresight. In a favorite quote, Guardiola said that “The key is that these are the best players in the world. Without this, there are no coaches who can perform miracles, less so, me.”

But in the argument that many have offered, that anybody could with with Lionel Messi, that isn’t entirely true. Rijkaard had a ton of world-class talent, but lost that buy-in that you need from players to make them believe. But more than money, players want victories. And after two trophyless seasons, Guardiola took over a team that wanted to win. His timing was, then as now, perfect.

Later, when Jose Mourinho vaulted from Inter Milan to the Evil Empire, and people said “Heh, now there’s a REAL coach in La Liga. It’s go time.” And Guardiola did it again, laying a legendary, now-iconic manita on Barca’s most hated rival, and winning the La Liga and Champions League titles, losing the Copa del Reig in a memorable, and memorably violent final match.

And then came this season, his fourth, a season studded with injuries both minor and catastrophic, medical issues that threatened Eric Abidal and his faithful assistant Tito Vilanova, conspiracy theories and pretty much everything that you could shake a stick at. This season was, for me, his best coaching job because he took a tired, damaged side and fashioned it into something remarkable: a club that, in spite of everything that was going on, was only a few goals away from doing it all again. Ultimately, the fatigue, the injuries were too much to overcome, but it was the spirit and fire instilled in this club by this man, that enabled the group of players we enjoy watching so much, to come so close to beating the odds.

Now, the day that Guardiola warned us would come, is here. His “feeling” tells him that it is time to step down as head coach of FC Barcelona, for a much-needed sabbatical from the game. The real reasons that he stepped down are his own, so I will not speculate on them. But what I will say as a cule and a proud, proud socio, is thank you, Pep Guardiola. Thank you for the wins, the joy, the tears of joy and sadness, the amazing way that you took a group of coddled millionaires and made them into a family. It was only a family that would go to war for each other like that, in the way that they picked each other up, a new person working magic when someone else couldn’t. Thank you for reminding us again how beautiful football can be, played by players whose genius was fully unleashed by a system that wasn’t created by you, but that you utilized, tinkered with and adapted to their individual skill sets.

Thank you for the way that you brought beauty to the game, as an aesthete but also a radical who messed with established notions, who ran press conferences like a boss, who put up with so much until finally it was enough and you lashed out at the coach who became your nemesis, putting the verbal smack down in a glorious (and almost certainly calculated) way that energized your charges — they responded by putting the smack down on the pitch.

As with the way that this season ended, cules can’t be sad about your decision, because you always have to respect the decisions of people who are in full control of their personal lives. And from each and every ending is a new beginning. But also, it’s the joy that you brought to us all with your band of swashbuckling midgets. So for all that, for every last bit of that ….

Moltes gracies, Pep Guardiola!.

Will he or won’t he, aka “Say it ain’t so, G!”

Uh, oh …. what a week this has been. First, we lose not once, but twice in our house, and now this, the thing that we don’t know.

Pep Guardiola, even when he signed on as our coach what seems like an eternity ago but in fact has only been four seasons, said that he wouldn’t sign long-term deals, so that he could follow his heart, his “feeling” in deciding when it would be time to step down as coach of FC Barcelona.

I thought, as we all did, that he would be around for a very long time, through a series of one-year deals. As time passed, that feeling for me began to change, to my most recent view, which is that this coming season would be his last.

Armageddon began brewing with a casually tossed off Tweet by writer Jimmy Burns, who said that if we don’t qualify for the Champions League final, Guardiola would most likely go. We didn’t qualify. A teary Guardiola hugged his players, one by one, after the Chelsea match.

Then today, came word of a series of meetings, dependent upon how trustworthy Barca-centric media sources are:

–Guardiola met with Tito Vilanova to discuss his future
–Guardiola met with RoSELL to discuss his future, or the meeting will come on Thursday, whichever
–RoSELL met with sporting director ZubiZa after his meeting with Guardiola, or before his meeting with Guardiola

And then, finally, word from the club that there will be no official announcement until Guardiola has an opportunity on Friday to speak with the players.

Recall the last time that he renewed. The club made an announcement, a smiling Guardiola received a standing ovation from his charges at practice, and that was that. This, however, all feels very, very different. My initial reaction was “Oh, crap, our coach is leaving us!”

Unfortunately, that is still the reaction of the journalist in me, even as that side battles with the cule, who doesn’t want the journalist to be right, who wants all this stuff to lead to an announcement that this will be his last season, and he wanted to let the players know. This move would also allow him to partially finish out his program, see through a bit of his commitment to the Masia grads and go out on top, with either/both a Liga or Big Ears cup.

At present, we still don’t know what is going to happen, but signs are ominous. But it’s all still speculation, but we’d be crazy if we didn’t acknowledge the possibility none of us want to believe would happen: Pep Guardiola might be coaching his last season as Mister at FC Barcelona.

Already, we have begun to hear names, such as Ernesto Valverde, Laurent Blanc, Andre Villas-Boas and Marco Bielsa being bandied about as possible successors. Don’t forget that Roberto DiMatteo doesn’t have a job, either. And it’s safe to say that this club, right now, would be a coach’s dream job, and nightmare. I mean, what a club, but what a record of success, right? Guardiola, whenever he leaves, will whomp down a set of big, giant shoes to fill. You also wonder if now isn’t the time, precisely because the big magic hasn’t happened, leaving the door open for a new coach to have his own successes.

Yikes!

For now, we sit and wait, but not for long. You can imagine that every journalist covering the club is beating the bushes and flogging sources in an attempt to get something, anything that might clarify the picture. And the question isn’t only who, but what, as in “will Guardiola do after he leaves?”

I don’t know that I have ever seen our coach looking so harried and helpless, sounding almost valedictory in his recent press conferences, sometimes almost wistful. I believe that a season off will come after he leaves us, whenever he leaves us. And now, we wait.

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