Barça’s 2011/2012 Season – Part 2

Part Two of Six: In a multi-part saga, Barcelona Football Blog offers a retrospective blow-by-blow account of events around Barça’s First Football Team over the past season. Join us as we look back on the high and lows of the 11 months that were Pep’s last, as Manager.

For a larger view, click on the image:

 


Continued from Part One

September 2011

Into the swing for La Liga, and the results of the away games started the alarm bells softly ringing. The first 9 days were occupied with National Team duties while Pep also attended the managers’ forum in France and received a medal from the Catalunyan Parliament. The FIFA virus reared its ugly head and Guardiola only had 3 training sessions with a full squad before the first game. Champions League commenced with Group Play: Barça was grouped with AC Milan, Bate Borisov and Viktoria Plze?.

1st September: With the International Break in place, Pep Guardiola attended the 13th UEFA Managers’ Forum in Nyon, France.

7th & 8th September: Team members started returning from the International Break.

9th September: Pep Guardiola received the Gold Medal from the Parliament of Catalunya.

10th September: Away vs. Real Sociedad. La Liga. 2-2.
With 14 players back from FIFA International duties, the team travelled to Anoeta Stadium in the gorgeous city of San Sebastián. Pep elected to sit Messi, in an attempt to rest him after the international break, and started with Pedro, Thiago and Alexis up the front. A traditional 4-man backline was utilised, but the surprise was that Busquets and Fontàs would play the CB positions between Alves and Adriano. Xavi, Keita and Cesc would take the midfield.

All went well with quick goals to Xavi (9’) and Cesc (11’), but even though Barça maintained the majority of possession, no more goals were added. In the 30th minute, Alexis Sanchez went down with his second injury for the season and was replaced by Villa. The 2nd half started with Barça pressing hard, but early opportunities went begging. The game went pear-shaped when poor Barça defence allowed Sociedad to score two goals in as many minutes (59’ and 60’). Messi came on for Thiago; Barça upped the intensity and changed to a 3-man backline, however no shots could be netted. To add to the team’s woes, Messi went down after being fouled in the box at 90’+3, and, instead of receiving the penalty, he was booked for diving. Barça dropped 2 points in only the second game of the season.

Link to Match Highlights Video

11th September: Alexis was ruled out with a hamstring injury for the next 8 weeks.

13th September: Home vs. AC Milan. Champions League. 2-2.
It was time for the Champions League Group Stage with the first game played at home against AC Milan. Ibrahimovic was ruled out injured for Milan, and the sound of clucking chickens was heard throughout Barcelona.

A disastrous start to the game saw Pato score (25″) the fastest goal in CL history. Barça held their nerve, kept peppering the Milan goal and were rewarded with a goal to Pedro (35’) from a hard-fought Messi cross. However, the first half finished badly when Iniesta left the field with a hamstring injury.

Soon after the break, Villa scored (51’) from a wonderful free-kick, and the team hung on with most of the possession. Puyol and Afellay were subbed on for their first games after pre-season injuries had kept them from playing. The game looked to have gone Barça’s way when they conceded a late corner to Milan in virtually the last minute of play. Puyol was booked for dissent. The ball was sent into the box and Thiago Silva climbed above the defenders to score the equaliser from a strong header. A drawn result and 1 point each.

Link to Match Highlights Video

14th September: Iniesta was confirmed out for at least 4 weeks with a hamstring injury.

17th September: Home vs. Osasuna. La Liga. 8-0.
The Basque visitors bore the brunt of the Milan aftermath when they visited Camp Nou for Round 4 of La Liga. After picking up an injury in the pre-season tour, Maxwell got his first playing time of the season when he was subbed on in the 54th minute.

Fielding a 3-4-3 with Puyol back as a starter, the team ran rampant over a helpless Los Rijillos side, scoring a manita by half-time. Messi scored an early first (4’), followed by Cesc (13’) and Villa (33’). An Osasuna own-goal by Roversio (39’) made it 4-0, with Messi scoring the last (41’) for the first half.

In the second half, Xavi (56’) and Villa (75’) kept the score ticking over, while Messi completed his first hat-trick for the season with the final goal (79’) for the match to end 8-0.

Game Facts:
~ Abidal made his 100th Liga appearance achieved over 4 seasons.
~ Alves also made his 100th Liga appearance for Barça over 3 seasons.
~ Xavi scored his 40th Liga goal.
~ Cesc led the passing statistics, completing 101 of 112 attempts.

Link to Match Highlights Video


21st September:
Away vs. Valencia. La Liga. 2-2.
Playing the Mestalla is never easy and is a ground at which Pep has never won as Manager.

The game started poorly when a Mathieu cross was deflected into the goal by Abidal (11’), and Barça was on the back foot, playing a 3 man backline. A quick retaliatory goal by Pedro (13’) made it even again and, not long afterwards, Messi was denied a penalty after a rough Rami challenge; the defender already on a Yellow card. Valencia had the better of the first half with Mathieu causing a lot of problems down the left flank. The second goal for the home-side came again from a Mathieu cross which was collected by an unmarked Pablo who had no problems in scoring (22’) the second for Los Che.

Although switching to a 4-man backline for the 2nd half, Barça still looked uncomfortable under the energetic Valencia attack. A long-range blast from Mascherano unluckily hit the crossbar. Back to a 3-man backline at the 60th minute, Barça laid siege on the Valencia goal as the home-team chose to defend their lead. Mascherano nearly scored his first with a long range drive which bounced off the cross-bar. A great pass from Messi to Cesc saw him slot the ball (76’) past Guaita to level the score. The Blaugrana continued to push forward and nearly scored again in the 89th minute, but a triple opportunity from Villa, Adriano and Messi couldn’t find the back of the net. Another 2 points dropped.

Game Fact:
~ Puyol played his 350th Liga game for the club.

Link to Match Highlights Video


22nd September:
9 days after returning from a pre-season tour injury and playing minutes in the Milan and Osasuna matches, Afellay tore his Anterior Cruciate Ligament during a team practice. He required surgery and was placed on the longterm injury list.

24th September: Home vs. Atlético Madrid. La Liga. 5-0.
Los Colchoneros came to visit and to proudly exhibit their newly acquired star, Colombian Rademel Falcao. However, he could only stand and watch as Barça controlled the match. After an early ATM miss, Villa opened the scoring (8’), followed 6 minutes later by an Atlético own-goal resulting from some wizardly play between Xavi and Messi which saw the ball rebound off Miranda (14’) into the net. The 3rd goal was a Messi masterpiece as he threaded the entire Atlético defence to chut-da-bol (25’) inside the near post.

The second half saw the Blaugrana switch from a 3-man to a 4-man defence when Piqué came on to play his first match since the second Supacopa match on 17th August. Messi produced another dazzling run to score (76’) his second, and completed his second hat-trick for the season (89’) to close out the match with another home manita.

Game Fact:
~ Victor Valdés played his 300th Liga game – made more significant by the fact that his debut game, on 1st September 2002, had also been against Atlético Madrid.

Link to Match Highlights Video

28th September: Away vs. BATE Borisov. Champions League. 0-5.
September finished with a visit to Hlebelarus to play the Minsk side in the second game of the Champions League Group round. It was a wet and cold Wednesday night, because Stoke has dibs on wet and cold Tuesdays.

The game was played in the Dynamo Minsk Stadium because BATE’s Horodskiy Stadium does not conform to UEFA minimum requirements for Champions League arenas.

BATE started with a deep defence (what’s new?), but Barça quickly assumed control, and pressure from Messi saw the first Blaugrana goal scored as a BATE own-goal (18’) by Aleksandr, followed quickly by a lovely Pedro header (21’) after he beat the keeper to the ball. The 3rd was equally embarrassing for the keeper after he dropped the ball from a Pedro cross, and Messi was there to head it (37’) into the net.

The second half continued in the same vein, with Messi scoring his second (54’). The visitors eased off the pace after this and were content to play out the game in unpleasant conditions. Villa scored a late strike (89′) to seal an emphatic win. Hot showers all around.

Game Facts:
~ Messi’s second goal of the night placed him equal with Kubala (194 goals) as the second top scorer in Barça history. He was now chasing César’s all-time record of 252.
~ The team equalled their biggest CL away win score of 5.

Link to Match Highlights Video

29th September: Alexis traveled to Chile to continue his recovery. He was accompanied by one of the team’s physiotherapists.

SEPTEMBER INJURY REPORT
1st – 6th:  Adriano with hamstring injury.
1st – 9th:
  Puyol, Maxwell and Afellay.
1st – 23rd:  Piqué with left calf muscle injury.
11th – 30th:  Alexis with hamstring injury.
14th – 30th:  Iniesta with hamstring injury.
22nd – 30th:  Afellay with ACL injury.


OCTOBER 2011

A rough month filled with more twanging hamstrings, an International break and lots of Liga, as well as a Champions League match and the grand opening of the new Masia Formation Centre Oriol Tort.

1st October:
Cesc pulled a hamstring during training and was out for at least 3 weeks.

2nd October: Away vs. Sporting de Gijón. La Liga. 0-1.
Playing at El Molinón is as unpredictable as a roulette game, but the team managed to record its first away Liga win for the season.

The goal came early from a rare Adriano shot (11’), and the team hung on for the next nervous 79+ minutes. Abidal was forced to come off with an injury. A narrow win, but we’ll take it. Barça tops the Liga Table for the first time this season.

Game Fact:
~ VV equalled Zubizarreta’s record of 301 Liga games for Barça.

Link to Match Highlights Video

3rd October: Afellay underwent his knee operation to repair his ACL. Abidal was reported to be out for 10 days with a hamstring strain suffered in the Gijón game, although this was later reduced and he was able to join the French team for international games.

4th October: The third International break for the season. 14 players left for their national teams of Spain, Argentina and France, to return on 13th October. Would the FIFA virus plague the team in the next game?

15th October: Home vs. Racing de Santander. La Liga. 3-0.
Racing came to town, and Piqué pulled his hamstring in only the 8th minute of the game and was replaced by Abidal. Iniesta was back for his first game after being injured for 4 weeks.

Barça quickly took control of the match and Racing keeper Toño was kept busy. Messi scored his first (12’) through some lovely link-up play with Iniesta. The 2nd goal (28’) was courtesy of a great header after an accurate Pedro cross found Xavi rising to meet the ball in the box.

After the break, the chances kept coming with Villa, Messi and Pedro missing good opportunities. Abidal even attempted a Ronaldinho bicycle shot (from a corner kick) which just missed going in. A penalty call for a definite foul on Messi was turned down, to the disbelief of the whole team and the fans. The match was sealed when Messi passed to Iniesta who shot for goal, only to have the ball bounce off the far post back out to Messi who made sure (69’) that it went in. The game finished with no appearance by the FIFA virus.

Game Fact:
~ Even though he lasted only 8 minutes, Piqué celebrated his 150th game for the Blaugrana.

Link to Match Highlights Video

16th October: Piqué ruled out for 15 days for a slight hamstring strain.

17th October: CB Andreu Fontàs extended his contract until 2015.

19th October: Home vs. Viktoria Plze?. Champions League. 2-0.
The last game in the first legs of Barça’s Champions League Group was against the Czech side at Camp Nou. It was pretty much a one-sided affair with Barça attacking and Plze? defending deep, particularly through the middle of the pitch.

Iniesta scored the first (10’) after some amazing linking with Messi. The shots kept coming well into the second half, with a few misses from Villa and Pedro, and more Messi misses than he’s had hot dinners. Nothing that he could do would make the ball go into the net, including a free kick which hit the bar, and a denied penalty appeal.

Finally, in the 82nd minute Villa regained possession and went forward.  He offloaded to Messi who couldn’t control the ball in the box and went down. The chasing Villa made sure that the ball went into the net. 2-0 in a game which should have been about 10-0 if all the sitters had found their mark, and an unhappy, frustrated Messi skulked off the pitch.

Game Fact:
~ Cuenca played for 6 minutes in his first team debut, making him the 18th La Masia graduate to play with the first team since Pep became the Mister.

Link to Match Highlights Video

20th October: In a grand ceremony attended by many players past and present, the new Masia Formation Centre Oriol Tort was opened, exactly 32 years after the original La Masia was commissioned.

22nd October: Home vs. Sevilla. La Liga. 0-0.
A dynamic Sevilla came to visit, and once more Pep fielded a 3-4-3 formation. The match became a goalkeeper duel, with VV and Varas in hot demand, as shots on goal were traded and saved.

In the 30th minute, the Blaugrana changed to a 4-man defence when it became apparent that Sevilla was looking for the quick counter and was not decreasing the intensity of their pressure. With Barça now playing wider, the attack intensified, but Sevilla keeper Varas played an outstanding match and continued to save shot after shot.

In injury time, a penalty was awarded to Barça after Iniesta was fouled. In the resulting kerfuffle, Kanouté was red-carded for tussling with Cesc. Messi stepped up to take the penalty which would win the game. Varas read it well and saved the shot. The game finished scoreless with the Barça team receiving a thunderous ovation from the Camp Nou crowd. 2 more points dropped.

Game Fact:
~ Valdés broke his own clean sheet record of 577 minutes without conceding a goal.

Link to Match Highlights Video

25th October: Away vs. Granada. La Liga. 0-1.
Off to Los Cármenes Stadium to play a team which had been promoted to La Liga after winning the play-offs at the end of last season.

Cuenca made his Liga debut on the left wing, and Cesc started after being out with injury for 4 weeks. The Granada defence held off the Barça attack as shot after shot was blocked or missed the target. Xavi was fouled on the edge of the box and scored a magnificent goal (33’) from the resulting free-kick.

Not long after the second half began, Granada’s Jaime was sent off after his second yellow which he received from dangerous play on Maxwell. Pedro also left the field after twisting his ankle. Barça still could not find its way past a 10 man Granada and the misses continued – the most amazing save came when Messi chipped the ball over the keeper only for it to be cleared off the line by Granada’s Mainz. Towards the end of the game, Granada’s Dani Benítez, who had been needling Alves all match, was also red carded after 2 yellows. The game finished with another narrow away win for the Blaugrana.

Game Fact:
~ Xavi played his 392nd Liga game and he now holds the record for most Liga games played by a Barça player after equalling Migueli’s record in the last game against Sevilla.

Link to Match Highlights Video

26th October: Pedro injured tendons in his ankle during the Granada game and would be out for 2-3 weeks.

28th October: Piqué and Puyol get medical clearance to play again.

29th October: Home vs. Mallorca. La Liga. 5-0.
The team from the Balearics came to town and was battered by one of the fastest hat-tricks that they have most likely seen. Xavi watched from the stands and Piqué, Puyol and Iniesta sat on the bench.

Messi was flanked by Cuenca and Villa with Thiago, Busquets and Keita in midfield. A conventional 4-man line (Alves, Mascherano, Abidal and Adriano) stood before VV, although this morphed into a 3-man defence as Alves went forward.

The first goal (13’) came via a penalty after an Adriano cross hit the hand of a Mallorca player. Messi made no mistake with this one, (after his miss one week earlier against Sevilla), and planted it in the top right of the goal. The second goal (21’) once again involved Adriano as his mis-hit strike turned into a cross which found Messi, who stroked into the net. 8 minutes later, a perfectly weighted and flighted cross, from Alves, found its way to Messi’s left foot (29’) and was also put away. Messi’s 9th hat-trick in La Liga was scored in 15 minutes.

Soon after the half-time break, Cuenca latched onto a ball which he danced around the keeper to score his first La Liga goal (49’), and his maiden goal for the first team. With the game done and dusted, it was time to introduce B-teamer Gerard Deulofeu who came onto the pitch in the 63rd minute. More was to come, however, when Alves out-did his cross to Messi by scoring an absolute golazo (91’) to complete the manita win.

Game Facts:
~ Gerard Deulofeu was the 19th La Masia graduate to play under Pep Guardiola.
~ It was the 14th 5-0 win for the team with Guardiola as Manager.

Link to Match Highlights Video

31st October: The team flew to Prague for the next Champions League match. Alexis was included in the team, even though he had not received medical clearance to play.

OCTOBER INJURY REPORT
All Month:  Afellay with ACL injury and Alexis with hamstring injury.
Until 28th:  Puyol is rested for a few games as a precaution.
1st – 13th:  Iniesta with hamstring injury.
1st – 22nd:  Cesc with hamstring injury.
16th – 28th:  Piqué with hamstring injury.
26th – 31st:  Pedro with twisted ankle.

 

In the next instalment: An action-packed end to the year with 3 trophies played for, international travel for Champions League and the Club World Cup, a visit to Madrid and a season-ending injury for another player.

 

Not a bad lot of substitutes

The 2012-13 FCB Schedule

Oh. Hey. Been a while.

There’s this thing I just learned about called time management. And by “just learned about” I mean “discovered when I was 5 or so when it became obvious that I couldn’t play on both the monkey bars and the swing set at the same time.” Trying to get from the swing set to the monkey bars, on the other hand, was merely dangerous, not impossible–wheee! RFEF does not appear to have learned that valuable lesson about not, you know, waiting until the last minute, realizing you haven’t been on the monkey bars yet, and panicking. Yet another year of “when do you think we’ll play?” is about to happen.

At least they released a tentative schedule.

Jornada 1 – Sunday 19-08-2012
Barcelona-Real Sociedad

Jornada 2 – Sunday 26-08-2012
Osasuna-Barcelona

Jornada 3 – Sunday 02-09-2012
Barcelona-Valencia

Jornada 4 – Sunday 16-09-2012
Getafe-Barcelona

Jornada 5 – Sunday 23-09-2012
Barcelona-Granada

Jornada 6 – Sunday 30-09-2012
Sevilla-Barcelona

Jornada 7 – Sunday 07-10-2012
Barcelona-Real Madrid

Jornada 8 – Sunday 21-10-2012
Deportivo-Barcelona

Jornada 9 – Sunday 28-10-2012
Rayo Vallecano-Barcelona

Jornada 10 – Sunday 04-11-2012
Barcelona-Celta

Jornada 11 – Sunday 11-11-2012
Mallorca-Barcelona

Jornada 12 – Sunday 18-11-2012
Barcelona-Zaragoza

Jornada 13 – Sunday 25-11-2012
Levante-Barcelona

Jornada 14 – Sunday 02-12-2012
Barcelona-Athletic Club

Jornada 15 – Sunday 09-12-2012
Betis-Barcelona

Jornada 16 – Sunday 16-12-2012
Barcelona-At.Madrid

Jornada 17 – Saturday 22-12-2012
Valladolid-Barcelona

Jornada 18 – Sunday 06-01-2013
Barcelona-Espanyol

Jornada 19 – Sunday 13-01-2013
Málaga C.F.-Barcelona

Jornada 20 – Sunday 20-01-2013
Real Sociedad-Barcelona

Jornada 21 – Sunday 27-01-2013
Barcelona-Osasuna

Jornada 22 – Sunday 03-02-2013
Valencia-Barcelona

Jornada 23 – Sunday 10-02-2013
Barcelona-Getafe

Jornada 24 – Sunday 17-02-2013
Granada-Barcelona

Jornada 25 – Sunday 24-02-2013
Barcelona-Sevilla

Jornada 26 – Sunday 03-03-2013
Real Madrid-Barcelona

Jornada 27 – Sunday 10-03-2013
Barcelona-Deportivo

Jornada 28 – Sunday 17-03-2013
Barcelona-Rayo Vallecano

Jornada 29 – Sunday 31-03-2013
Celta-Barcelona

Jornada 30 – Sunday 07-04-2013
Barcelona-Mallorca

Jornada 31 – Sunday 14-04-2013
Zaragoza-Barcelona

Jornada 32 – Sunday 21-04-2013
Barcelona-Levante

Jornada 33 – Sunday 28-04-2013
Athletic Club-Barcelona

Jornada 34 – Sunday 05-05-2013
Barcelona-Betis

Jornada 35 – Sunday 12-05-2013
At.Madrid-Barcelona

Jornada 36 – Sunday 19-05-2013
Barcelona-Valladolid

Jornada 37 – Miércoles 29-05-2013
Espanyol-Barcelona

Jornada 38 – Saturday 01-06-2013
Barcelona-Málaga C.F.

I pulled the schedule from this useful page on MD. You can check out the full schedule (all the teams) there. I bolded the clasicos so that you wouldn’t miss them (cause you totally weren’t looking immediately for them or anything). What do you think of this schedule? I’d post thoughts about the tough Hlebruary, but, really, shouldn’t we be over that curse by now?

Barça’s 2011/2012 Season – Part 1

In a multi-part saga, Barcelona Football Blog offers a retrospective blow-by-blow account of events around Barça’s First Football Team over the past season.  Join us as we look back on the high and lows of the 11 months that were Pep’s last, as Manager.

 

After Guardiola’s successful first 3 years, odds were severely weighted against the team to do it all again, because of the oft-spoken 4th year slump.

It takes an extraordinary set of circumstances for a successful team to remain focused enough to do it all again, when continuous success may bring feelings of complacency which replace the drive to maintain the required high standards to win and win and win.

The motivation slips, as does the concentration, no matter what anyone says to state otherwise.  The psychological tolls, (of being on top and being the team to beat), stack on top of physical limitations as bodies, given little rest, begin to fail.

The following quotes are part of an unattributed AP article, (published on 15th August 2011), which was perhaps the bad news harbinger of what was to come, without pointing to specifics:

“The fourth season is different from the first, the motivations are different.  It’s a little calmer, but I still have the same enthusiasm and desire to play football well.” ~ Pep Guardiola.

“I have told (Guardiola) if you have a good team you have to squeeze everything out of it. (Then) he has to look to make a change before the team dies out.  Each season it gets harder.  First, Barça is the team to beat, and second, everyone is increasingly analyzing ways to do so. Staying at the top is harder than getting there.” ~ Charlie Rexach, while explaining that often it is easier for a new coach to make those tough choices.

This past season was interesting, to place a positive spin on it.

Players left and arrived; playing formations were tinkered with, as were starting line-ups; results fluctuated on a weekly basis as home wins were mostly multi-goal affairs while away games were eked out to draws or scrappy wins, as well as a couple of losses.

The year was filled with so many obstacles that most coaches would not face over their entire careers.  Abidal’s liver replacement; Tito’s salivary gland tumour; Villa’s broken leg; Afellay and Fontàs with ACL injuries and a dire spate of hamstrings and calf muscles twanging more often than Eric Clapton replaces his guitar strings.

There was hardly a week where Pep had more than 17 players fit to play.  He also had to be mindful that to field injury-prone (and aging) lynchpins Xavi and capità Puyol, (in less meaningful games if, in fact, there are any of those for the club nowadays), meant risking their presence in more important matches when their leadership was mandatory.  Calling up Barça B Team players is a great fall-back option, but playing B-teamers who were already struggling with play in the Liga Adelante was a stop-gap measure, at most.

Let’s review the past season with all its glory and gore, and there’s no better place to start than at the very beginning.

 

JULY 2011

After an off-season period of about 6 weeks, activity started to ramp up again at the club.  The pre-season was affected by the South American Copa América in which several key club players were involved.  July is also typically a month in which there is player movement.  New players were signed while others moved on. Existing players’ contracts were also renewed.

Starting the Season, Injured: Puyol who had a knee operation on 2nd June, Xavi with a calf muscle twinge, Pedro and Maxwell with general fitness problems.

1st July:  Thiago Alcantara’s contract was extended until 2015, and he’s confirmed as a First Team player.

4th July:  Andreu Fontàs was officially promoted to the first team and received a contract promotion to 2013.

5th July:  Pedro’s contract was extended until 2016.

18th July:  First training for the season was attended by only 15 players because of injuries and the absence of the South Americans playing in the Copa América.

19th July:   It’s confirmed that Piqué injured his calf during the first training and will be training separately as he recovers.

22nd July:  Bojan Krkic moved to Roma in a complicated loan/sell/buy-back situation which is still not fully understood by many.

23rd July:  The team travelled to Croatia to play Hadjuk Split.  Puyol, Xavi, Pedro and Piqué remained in Barcelona to work on their injuries.  Pep fielded a team which included a lot of youth players and was fairly happy with the quality of play, even though the game finished in a 0-0 draw.

25th July:  Acquired from Udinese, Alexis Sanchez was presented to the press after signing his contract.  He immediately left Barcelona to join Chile for the Copa América.

Pre-Season Tour

25th July:  The team left Barcelona for their pre-season tour, stopping in Munich (Audi Cup) and then travelling onwards to the USA (Turkish Airlines US Tour 2011).

Missing were most of the South American players involved with their national teams for the Copa América, taking out key members Messi, Alves, Adriano and Mascherano, as well as newbie Alexis.

First Team members: Valdés, Pinto, Puyol, Piqué, Maxwell, Fontàs, Abidal, Busquets, Keita, Thiago, Iniesta, Xavi, Afellay, Jeffren, Pedro and Villa.

Pep also included 9 Barça B players to travel to the USA:  Masip, Muniesa, Balliu, Rosell, Riverola, Carmona, Dos Santos, Cuenca and Soriano.

3 further B Team players travelled to Munich, but returned to Barcelona after the Audi Cup: Ledes, Lozano and Espinosa.

Audi Cup
The pre-season tour’s first stop in Munich was to play in the Audi Cup.  Audi is the car supplier to FC Barcelona and, as part of that agreement, the club was required to play in the tournament which was of no importance, except to satisfy a sponsor’s marketing and branding requirements.

Those cars don’t come cheaply, and the team lost its first member with a major injury to B-teamer capità (and last season’s Liga Adelante Pichichi winner) Jonathan Soriano, who returned to Barcelona to begin his recovery and lost his opportunity to prove his worth to Pep for Barça First Team inclusion.  (After he regained his fitness, Soriano would soon leave the club for Red Bull Salzburg.)

Barça won the Audi Cup (2-0) in a final played against Bayern Munich.  Time was so tight to catch the plane to the USA that most of the fans (travelling with the team in the same plane) and some of the team members had to leave the stadium at half-time.  At the end of the game, the next wave of players and fans departed for the airport.  Those players and staff, who remained behind to receive the trophy, were rushed to the airport under police escort, in a scramble to arrive in time.  Luckily, they made the flight.

Stateside
The USA tour was a dog-and-pony show.

The team was called upon to front up to so many photo and press events that it started to impact on what little training time Pep already had.  The called-off training run on the Mall close to the White House (because of “security issues” and poor planning) in Washington DC was the last straw, as far as Pep was concerned.

The team played friendlies in hot and humid conditions against Manchester United, Chivas Guadalajara and Club América, losing the first two and winning the last. The first signs of Villa struggling with his form (and with a cracked tibia as was later revealed) were visible, as was a downturn in Pedro’s performance, and everyone was wondering, “Who the hell is this beanpole right-wing guy, Cuenca?”

Pep simply wanted to get the team home and away from the media circus.

Link to Open Training Video


31st July: 
During the Man U game, Afellay picked up a hamstring injury which would see him miss the start of the Liga season, and remain out for 4-5 weeks.

JULY INJURY REPORT
All month: Puyol.
Wrapped in Cotton Wool: Xavi with calf muscle niggles, Pedro and Maxwell with general fitness issues.
19th – 31st: Piqué injured his calf during the first training and trained separately for the remainder of the month.
31st: Afellay injured a hamstring during the Man U game.

 

AUGUST 2011

The month began with the team still in the USA on their pre-season tour, before returning to Barcelona on 8th August.  More players left the club in the first week.  The B Team was seconded to play in the Copa Catalunya, while the First Team prepared for a busy month in which 3 trophies would be contested: the Spanish Supacopa, the Joan Gamper Memorial Trophy and the UEFA Super Cup.  The first game for the new La Liga season would be played; precious training time would be reduced by 2 International breaks and further diluted by more player injuries.

1st August:  Jeffren Suárez was given permission to leave the pre-season tour early, to fly to Portugal and sign for Sporting Lisbon.

2nd August:  2 additional B Team players joined the tour after their Spain U-19 duties in Romania were finished: Deulofeu and Gómez.

4th August:  Gabi Milito was given permission to leave the club and returned to his old home club in Argentina – Atlético Independiente.

7th August:  The team arrived back from the USA.

8th August:  The Copa Catalunya Competition kicked off. It simply wasn’t physically possible for the first team to play, so the Barça B team was used for these games.  This caused much annoyance to the other teams who thought that they deserved to play against the First Team members, as that was what had been long-arranged.  Barça B played against Girona in the semi-final (winning 2-1) and Espanyol in the final (losing 0-3).

9th August:  International Duty again, already!  10 players were called for their National Teams:  Spain, France, Chile and Brazil.

10th August:  Before their game, Xavi left the Spanish camp with a recurring injury to his right calf soleus muscle.

10th August:   Training saw Puyol, Xavi, Maxwell and Afellay working separately because of injury.

11th August:  NT reps returned, including the South American players who had a brief break after the completion of their Copa América duties. 2 players returned injured: Busquets with bruising to his ribcage, and Piqué suffered a thigh strain.

Before the official 2011-12 La Liga season kicked off, the first 2 games of 6 Clásicos (or Clàssics in Català) over the 2011/12 season were played for the Spanish Supacopa.  The matches are played between the past season’s Liga winners (Barça), and the Copa del Rey winners, (Real Madrid).

14th August:  Away vs. Real Madrid Spanish Supacopa.  2-2.
Real Madrid was held to a draw by an under-prepared Barça team which included new-comer Alexis Sanchez thrown into the deep end, as well as Thiago.

The result was a pleasant surprise to many fans because, in comparison to Barça’s horrible pre-season tour, Real Madrid’s tour had been very successful and the team looked to be much fitter and sharper than Barça.  Real Madrid had many more shots on goal and were denied by some fine backline defence and stopping by Valdés.  First half goals included the opener to Özil (12’), followed by a beauty from Villa (35’) and another from Messi (45’).  After half-time Alonso scored (53’) and the teams hung on to end the match with a draw.

Link to Match Highlights Video

15th August:  After 8 years of roaming in the cup-less wilderness that is Arsenal, local boy Cesc Fàbregas was presented to the press and 30,000 fans at Camp Nou.

17th August:  In the warm-up before the return Supacopa game, Alexis pulled a leg muscle and was ruled out of the match. 

17th August:   Home vs. Real Madrid.  Spanish Supacopa. 3-2.
The return Supacopa leg was a tense win at Camp Nou.  Iniesta opened the scoring (14’), and Cristiano countered (20’) before Messi scored (45’) just before the break.  After half-time, Benzema scored (81’) and the game looked as if it was headed for excruciating extra time.

However, Cesc was subbed on for his first club game and had an immediate impact as he was involved in the build-up to Messi’s winning (87’) goal.  Not long after this, Cesc was chopped down by a Marcelo tackle (for which the Brazilian was red-carded), and the game erupted into a sideline brawl in which Villa was also red-carded and sent from the bench.

Unfortunately, the whole evening is better remembered for Mourinho’s poke-Tito-in-the-eye incident than for any of the on-pitch play, or subsequent trophy-lifting by the Barça team.  The Blaugrana team has won 10 Supacopa trophies to Madrid’s 8, and this win made it 3 Supacopa trophies in 3 consecutive years.

Link to Match Highlights Video


Two more trophies quickly followed.

A new defensive strategy, called “Park the Blunderbuss”, is trialled at the Gamper Trophy Game

22nd August:   Home vs. Napoli. Joan Gamper Trophy.  5-0.
The (ceremonial and memorial) Joan Gamper Trophy (vs. an invited Napoli) was played at the end of a fun-filled gala day at Camp Nou as part of a “thank you” event to the fans.

The team featured more B-team members than First Team players, and Kiko Femenia received his maiden start.  Cesc scored his first goal (25’) for the club.  Keita scored the 2nd (31’) for the evening, Pedro the 3rd (61’), and Messi (subbed on in the 55th minute) added a brace (66’ and 77’) to complete the first manita of the season.  It was really relaxing to attend a match at Camp Nou where the result really didn’t matter.

Link to Match Highlights Video

23rd August:  During training, Piqué tore fibres in his left calf muscle and was out for 3 weeks.

25th August:  In Monaco, Messi received the 2011 UEFA European Player of the Season Award.

26th August:  Away vs. FC Porto. UEFA Super Cup.  2-0.
The UEFA Super Cup is a match played between the past season’s winners of the Champions League (Barça) vs. the winners of the Europa League (FC Porto).  The game was played on a cow paddock somewhere in Monaco.

The first goal came when Messi latched onto an errant Porto back-pass, jinked past the Porto GK and slotted home in the 39th minute.  Porto was reduced to 10 men in the 86th minute when Rolando earned his second Yellow of the night, and Cesc scored the 2nd for the Blaugrana.  Porto finished the match with 9 men on the pitch after Guarin was dismissed for a slide tackle on Mascherano in the last minute of the game.

Barça had won their second official cup for the season.

Link to Match Highlights Video

27th August:  Adriano pulled a leg muscle during the Super Cup match and would be out for a few weeks.

27th August:  A players’ strike (in support for some of the league’s players who had not been paid), delayed the official start to La Liga.  As a result, Game 1 – the away to Málaga – was postponed until January 2012.  The first game for the 2011/12 La Liga season would be played at Camp Nou.

29th August:
  Home vs. Villarreal. La Liga.  5-0.
Already we could see that there were tactical changes afoot, especially down the back. Exciting stuff when it went to plan – excruciating when it didn’t work.

Guardiola put out a 3-man backline.  This was, in part, because 5 defenders were unavailable:  Maxwell, Adriano, Puyol, Piqué and (suspended) Alves.  The Yellow Submariners were expected to put up a spirited fight, but the intensity and pressure initiated by Barça from the kick-off whistle left them chasing shadows for most of the game.

Newly-promoted Thiago scored the first (25’), followed by Cesc scoring his first-ever (44’) La Liga goal.  Into the second half, and the third goal came quickly, courtesy of Alexis Sanchez also scoring his first (47’) for the club.  A brace (51’ and 74’) from Messi opened his Liga account for the season, and Villarreal returned home comprehensively beaten and bewildered.  A manita for the first Liga game – not too shabby.

Link to Match Highlights Video

30th August:  Incredibly, the next International break arrived and the players dispersed to their various national teams to perform services for their countries: Spain, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, France and Mali.

31st August:  Hleb was loaned out to Wolfsburg in Germany.  Negotiations opened for the renewal of Abidal.

AUGUST INJURY REPORT
All month:  Puyol (knee) and Afellay (hamstring).
1st – 13th:   Piqué with calf injury.
1st – 23rd:  Maxwell with calf injury.
10th – 16th:  Xavi with calf injury injury and rested as much as possible.
11th – 18th:  Busquets with bruised ribcage sustained in Spanish NT game.
17th – 23rd: Alexis with pulled leg muscle.
23rd – 31st: Piqué with left calf muscle.
27th – 31st:  Adriano with hamstring injury.

 

In the next instalment:  More injuries; worrying away form and results; Champions League starts and Pep receives a medal.

Fare thee well, Keiteeee!, you will be missed

Sighhhhh

This is my absolute, all-time favorite picture of Seydou Keita, the man I nicknamed “Huh? What?” because he always had a look of incredulity on his face that was hilarious. That man is leaving the club, it was announced today, as he informed the powers that be of his wishes to no longer continue with a club at which he became an integral part.

As we all know, now-gone coach Pep Guardiola had nothing but love for Keiteee. Here are some comments after, fresh from a return from the African Cup of Nations, Keita turned himself inside out to help the club outbattle a pesky Sporting Gijon side:

“This is a guy who never plays poorly and who always makes the right decision.

“There are many players who, when they lose the confidence of a coach, are offended. They feel that they are the center of the universe and do not understand that the coach does it [drops them] for the good of the team.

“But one of the most wonderful things in these four years is to have met a guy like him.

“Today I’m happy that he has had such a huge game and scored a great goal. The work he does makes my job easier and I hope he will stay here as long as possible.”

He joined the club in 2008 from Sevilla, the club’s first Malian player, for a sum believed to be around 14m. At the time, we set his release clause at 90m, something we apparently don’t believe any longer, as he is leaving on a free. And I bet you’ve forgotten, as I did, that his Liga debut was in a loss (against Numancia), one of only 7 that occurred under his watch.

His statistics aren’t really all that impressive, for you stat whores: 22 goals and 11 assists in 188 matches. And there was a growing cadre of “Keita is worthless” believers, who found it difficult to understand why Guardiola played him, when he seemingly contributed so little statistically to the side. But I remember my Keita Revelation thanks to Ramzi, verbose commenter and advocate for the Malian midfielder.

For a match, I watched Keita and only Keita, a task that made me realize why he plays. I also wanted to change his nickname to In The Way, because that’s what he does. You think that “Hey, any damn body can get in the way,” but not the way that Keita did. His loping strides seemed to almost always place him in a spot that made him a pain in the butt for the opponents’ attack.

But more than that, he was a physical presence in a world of sprites, a not-at-all magical creature who stood up, man-style, and kept out midfield from being pushed around by the big kids.

Here is Keita’s last goal for the club, in a 2-2 match against Betis, a header in which he gave up his body to score, and had to sit there and collect himself afterward, before getting up and continuing with his task of getting in the way.

He is going to Chinese club Dalian Aerbin, following what appears to be the new money trail. He will earn 10m per annumm over a two-year deal, at which point he will probably stroll off into the sunset, richer than Croesus.

It seems fitting that with the departure of Guardiola, the man who he called his moral barometer is leaving as well, even if I’m cranky as Hell for how he is leaving, which is on a free. I’m happy for him, but he’s also a valuable player, released from his contract by activating a clause within it that says he can leave on a free if he didn’t get time in 50% of matches last season. There were talks with Vilanova, and rumors that Keita had agreed to continue as if he had received the requisite number of minutes, etc, etc. When the rumors first broke, they were denied by his hew Chinese club, but they came from too many reputable sources for us to be fully convinced. So there we are.

If the club, which offered Keita a last-minute, half-assed renewal, gets anything from the departure, it will be pittance, because free transfers are kinda that. Bad business? A presumption that a player would do something different? Who knows. All we know right now is that dude is gone, and the midfield is a little weaker. We’re also losing a box crasher, a guy with a howitzer of a long shot who was unafraid to use it and a physical presence in the box. It should also be noted that the next time the African Cup of Nations rolls around, the club will be unaffected.

Did he go to chase money? You bet. And who can argue with that, really? He has had glory galore, being part and parcel of the club that has won so much, done so much and captured so many imaginations. Why not get paid. I would suggest that his meetings with Vilanova also left him unconvinced about his value to the Tito Project. So farewell and good luck, Seydou Keita, with your adventure in China. Here’s something fun to remember him by:

We have things to discuss, including your departure, such as:

Where the brothas at?

I noted today on Twitter that if the Keita rumor became reality, there would be no black players in the club’s roster this season, unless Eric Abidal made a miraculous recovery. And certainly, Spaniards who make monkey chants at Dani Alves will argue with me. Nothing extra to that observation, just a bit of oddness for a club that has in its very recent history Thuram, Toure Yaya, Henry, Eto’o, Abidal and Keita, that even started 4 black players, effectively thumbing its proud Catalan nose at those elements who aren’t all that fond of black players. So there we go.

And we replace him with ….

Nobody. Jonathan Dos Santos will probably be most pleased by this news, as he is the player currently on the roster who is most Keitaesque in his abilities. Rangy, smart with the ball, physical and fully capable of getting in the way with the best of them.

And that’s that.

Spain isn’t Barca, except when it is

Zzzzzzz …. huh? What? It’s over? What do you mean?

Ain’t backlash a beautiful thing? Spain went from everyone’s darlings to a team that was boring, seemingly in about 12 seconds. And why? The parallels between Spain and Barca fascinate, and I don’t just mean the players. For instance:

Bandwagon Backlash

Spain rolled through the group stages, quarterfinals and semi-final, barely breaking a sweat. They dispatched their opponents with ease, never really bothering to get out of third gear.

And what was wrong with that? Is there some sort of rule that says a team must play its absolute best, every last time or they suck? When I first started bicycle racing, I would win races by 4-5 bike lengths, until I got a coach, who said “You only need to win by enough to make it clear that you won.”

Spain, as with Barca, coasted. And that coasting was usually good enough, though Barca was caught out on more than a few occasions this season, trying to low-effort a match. More importantly, it is this quality that outrages, that makes people cry “Foul!” as though they are disappointed every time Spain didn’t win 235-0, with 125%of the possession. And when that didn’t happen, when Spain played only well enough to win, they were “boring,” in the same sort of backlash that saw Barca go from being the team everybody loved, to the team that people suddenly tired of watching win everything.

Is playing well enough to win boring? Good question. I’d wager that Spain or Barca don’t care a whit. The job got done. Time to move on.

That Passing Stuff is Boring

No, it isn’t. You know what’s boring? Opponents who won’t come out to play. So like Barca, Spain is content to pass the ball around and wait for the opening that almost always comes. And even when it doesn’t, it matters not, because Spain/Barca has the ball. And as long as you don’t have the ball, you can’t beat them.

Much of made of how “exciting” Spain was in the final, but people forget that Italy came out to play, once they went a goal down. But before that, the first goal came from a profoundly absurd bit of play that resulted in a spectacular team goal of the type that Spain and Barca score. Then Italy had to come out and play. Spain stepped it up early precisely because it knew that an early goal would fundamentally mean that the match was theirs.

Spain gave up one goal in the Euros this go-round. One. Goal. And scored 12. It doesn’t take a math whiz to note the stultifying nature of that statistic. Yet Spain doesn’t play defensive football, right, just like Barca. The hell they don’t. That lateral and back passing display that Spain and Barca put on are every bit as parked a bus as 9 men in the box. It’s just a (mostly) positive bus parking. They’re passing the ball, looking for attacking holes.

Much was made of the two times in the Guardiola years, Mourinho’s Inter and Di Matteo’s Chelsea, that Barca was beaten in Champions League play. But people forget that it was only an incorrectly ajudged handball call, and appalling finishing that kept Barca from the final both those years. You can’t really stop either Spain or Barca, but they can stop themselves.

Look Ma, no striker!

Xavi makes the pass to Iniesta, who fakes, dribbles, leaves a defender grasping air, floats to the wing to float in a cross and …. cricket! Cricket!” Nothing. Both Spain and Barca employ a fundamentally striker-less formation. Call it False 9 all you like, but what those systems both do is capitalize on the fact that a running player is more difficult to keep from finding space than a stationary one. Messi runs as Alba runs as Silva runs as Mata runs. It’s an offense predicated on getting there, rather than being there.

And it works.

Spain Don’t Give a Damn Who Score

I was watching an FCB match out in public once, and a civilian asked me why the Barca players ran to the guy who didn’t score, to start the goal celebration. I explained that the pass makes everything possible, that it is the perfect pass that will lead to a goal, which is often incidental to the assist that fed the player through. Assists matter.

Once a team decides to play a strikerless system, movement and passing become paramount. This often means that the goal scorer has a header or tap-in.

Is not conceding boring?

Barca and Spain have in common a miserly quality on defense, when they are at their best. Is a 1-0 win more or less boring than a 5-0 blowout? Depends on who you ask. Three points is three points, right? More importantly, Spain is Barca in that the passing game is used to play defense. Is it parking the bus in the same way as having 9 men in the box? Nope. Is it as effective? Absolutely. Either way, it’s a tactic designed to keep an opponent from having the ball to score, while also looking for ways to breach the defense.

The bottom line, however, is that as long as Spain/Barca have the ball, you don’t. This means you can’t score. Which is just fine by them.

No speculation, thank you

For long, we have lamented the fact that Barca doesn’t take speculative shots. Neither does Spain. The reason is simple: speculative shots cede possession, which ruins the team’s defensive strategy. It accounts for Messi’s astonishing finishing efficiency rate as well, as unlike his major rival for best in the world, he doesn’t take speculative shots. If Messi hits one, it has a chance of scoring, or there’s no point.

“They try to pass the ball into the net.” Exactly. It’s a tendency that I don’t see changing for Spain/Barca, either. Ultimately that’s an impossibility, as it’s no coincidence that Spain’s success has arrived at the same time as Barca’s golden period. Barring injury, Puyol, Pique, Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta, Fabregas and Villa would most likely have been starting for Spain. That’s Barca. So anyone who asserts that Spain is not Barca is kinda messing with themselves.

Greatest of all time?

Spain is making a case for being the greatest international team of all time, just as Barca has made a case for being the best club side that anybody has ever seen. Again, with the same players playing the same essential way, it could be argued that both Sparca has its success inextricably linked. But if you look at how the two sides make this argument, again there are parallels galore, most notably the sheer inevitability of their success.

When Sparca turns it on, the only real question is how much you are going to lose by. We saw it against Athletic Bilbao in the Copa del Reig final, we saw it against Italy in the Euro 2012 final. In high gear, both teams are unstoppable, primarily because they not only have more talent than anyone else, but that talent plays a system that always maximizes the skill sets of that talent. Is Iniesta, for example, playing in his “best” position when he dons the national shirt? In the context of how that side plays, yes. It’s why he was so decisive at Euros, and why he is so decisive with Barca.

So how is Spain not Barca

In three words, Messi changes everything. Without that same sort of galvanic talent running around, Spain become a different club and are forced to play a different way, even as that way is the same because that is the way of its nucleus. But what Spain doesn’t have is the genius that can take a ball, run around and create something amazing.

It is this quality that makes Spain a bit more deliberate in its approach, in lacking the “Here, go make something happen” quality that makes Barca so dangerous.

But what’s probably most fascinating is that both sides, the “Spain is Barca” or the “Spain isn’t Barca” both have supportable arguments. But what say ye? Discuss.