FC Barçelona On My Mind

Segun at Wembley

by Segun Odegbami © Segun Odegbami (March 2nd 2015)

Fan

I guess every reader of this column knows by now that I am a fan of FC Barçelona. I love the team because, like me, they are football purists, always winning by playing the better football, cleanly, clearly, and on the field – never in the boardroom. In the past decade, it is hard to find many lovers of football that have not been captivated by the club’s achievements, its football brand and philosophy, its youth academy and its very exceptionally gifted players.

Without question, FC Barçelona have been the team of the 21st Century, winning the world’s most coveted club trophy three times since 2000, getting to the semi-finals six times, and the quarter finals twice. Compare this to Bayern Munich and Real Madrid, which have won it twice each in that period, although, under José Mourinho, Real Madrid had a semi-final hoodoo, broken by Carlo Ancelotti winning the historic ʻLa Décimaʼ last season against cross-town rivals Atlético de Madrid.

Nevertheless, to the chagrin of Realʼs supporters, there is no question of who has played the better football and been more successful this century. It is clearly the Camp Nouʼs finest. This century the world has been treated to a brand of football that had never been seen previously in the history of the game.

The Blueprint

Tiki-Taka was a deliberate style of football conceived in Barçelona’s youth academy, complimented by acquiring some of the best players in the world – but many of Barçelona’s young players, not only held their own in élite company, they went on to play for Spain and made them World Champions for the first time in their history and the only nation to win and retain the European Championship.

Tiki-Taka became an art exhibition on display every week and everywhere FC Barçelona played. The team taught the rest of the world the ultimate art of ball possession, the quick one-two passing and movements, the short interchange of passes, back and forth and sideways, the players running and pressing when they lose possession, and maintaining a fluid but intricate organised pattern of movements all the time like a well-oiled machine.

With this style of play the team simply ran rings around most opposing teams. They were a delight to watch, even though critics of their style began to describe them as boring and rather monotonous. In the past decade, particularly, the ultimate challenge for European club managers was how to decode the team’s play. In the past three years a few have succeeded.

Real Madrid and Atlético de Madrid in Spain and Bayern Munich in Germany discovered the antidote and reduced Barçaʼs impact and dominance. FC Barçelona needed to do something different to compete to win the UEFA Championsʼ League again.

The New Era

As great players aged – not even Barçelona have discovered the elixir of perpetual youth – a new style was needed too. Barçelonaʼs captain supreme Xavi Hernández i Creus doesnʼt play so much now, but Andrés Iniesta Lujáremains an integral part of the new machine.

I have just watched Barçelona FC take Manchester City FC to the cleaners in the first leg of the round of 16. It was a very emphatic and comprehensive performance that captured the essence of a ‘new’ FC Barçelona.

What is clear is that Tiki-Taka has been dismantled and is metamorphosing into something new, something less dramatic but, potentially more exciting and more deadly when the ‘concoction’ fully matures!

The old Barça played with 7 or more midfield players without a permanent striker upfront. Now, from outside the influence of the Barçelona youth academy, the team has been experimenting with new players for two seasons. FC Barçelona may have returned to the conventional style of European club football but they have created a new headache for European club managers.

The price that Barça have had to pay for this new formation is a midfield and defence that now look less compact with more open spaces for opposing teams to play. FC Barçelona are no less exciting than they once were, are less patient in attack than they once were, are less dominant in ball possession than they were previously, and less imposing on opposing teams than they once were. But for everything that they now are in deficit over, they make up for it with a striking partnership of three of the best goal scorers on the planet in their team!

In Neymar da Silva Santos Júnior (Neymar), Luis Suárez Díaz and Lionel Messi Cuccittini, FC Barçelona now have a dream attacking formation almost unmatched by any other team with the exception of Real Madrid.

Questions

Having said all of that the question now arises: can the new FC Barçelona win the 2014/2015 UEFA Champions League? I run a betting shop so I know a good wager when I see one. This one is not. I will not put my money on FC Barçelona winning the Champions League this season.

Do not get me wrong. With a little bit of luck they can win it but the chances of that happening, in my humble estimation, are slim. Looking at how they have been playing this season, with Tiki-Taka dismantled, and a new style still developing, it may require the experience of one more season for the emerging philosophy to take a firm hold and make them champions once again.

Lionel Messi – Back and Better

Lionel Messi’s lethargic performance at the World Cup cost him a great deal. All he needed to do was alter his mindset and commit one hundred percent to the cause and lead Argentina to win the World Cup. That feat would have earned him the highest honour in the history of football – the best footballer that ever lived.

But something happened to him during the World Cup that I still cannot fathom. He did not play with the spirit of one that wanted to win very badly. He ‘strolled’ through the matches, and even got to the final playing without conviction and fire in the eyes. When Argentina lost Messi lost even more.

As a result, no one raised an eyebrow or complained when a few months later the hard-working, but obviously less talented Cristiano Ronaldo stole the show again and took away the crown of World’s best player from him again. Ronaldo thoroughly deserved it and it appeared as if the spirit to win had left Messi.

Now here comes a new season and suddenly, for the first time in a long while, Barçelona FC and Messi are back. Lionel Messi is playing spiritedly again. It is quite apparent in the way he plays these days, chasing and running around, joining in defending when his team loses possession, getting involved more than ever before during play, and playing his team from the front through physical effort.

It reminds me of the Messi of the early days of his career. He anchored Barçelona FC’s unique brand of football that dominated world football in the past decade. At that time there was no disputing the fact that in Barçelona and Messi the world had the best team and the best player respectively.

For Lionel Messi there is no doubt in my mind that he is the greatest to have ever played football. He may not have the complete range of skills like Pelé, or almost singled-handedly led his country to win the World Cup like Maradona, but in terms of sheer natural ability and affinity with the ball at his feet, there has never been a better player.

There is a magnetic relationship between his left foot and the ball that makes him do almost anything with it at will, almost effortlessly. It is hard to put into words his ease and comfort on the ball, his dribbling ability even in the tightest of corners, how he wriggles between defenders, how he rides tackles, how he glides and races past defenders, how he makes difficult shots look so easy, how he makes goal scoring a habit.

From what I have seen of Messi this current season, if all goes well and he remains injury free, he is set to extend his grip on world football. He will likely win the World’s best player award again for an unassailable 5th time. And probably the world will now accept, as I have claimed over and over again, that there has been no player like Lionel Messi in the history of football!

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Spain Bow Out

by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (June 23rd 2014)

Sated

World Champions Spain had lost their hunger after six years of dominating world and European football. They became the fifth defending champions to exit in the first round. Italy have suffered that ignominy twice (1950 and 2010), Brasil in 1966 and France in 2002, but few were as surprising as this. Having dominated the sport for so long nobody expected such a capitulation.

This afternoon one of the finest generation of players to grace the sport set the record straight with a 3-0 win over Ange Postecoglouʼs Socceroos. David Villa Sánchez bid farewell to la Roja in his 97th international with a Spanish record 59 international goals – the last in this match – a sublime back-heel from 8 yards out. Andrés Iniesta Luján picked out Atlético de Madridʼs Juanfran on the byline. Juanfran picked out Villa who showed that at 32 he still had the class.

After the World Cup Villa departs to play for Melbourne City and New York City FC, part of Manchester Cityʼs franchise.

Setting the Record Straight

Spain dominated possession. Australia were bereft of ideas in the absence of their suspended captain Tim Cahill. Given Postecoglouʼs mandate to bring young players through – Australia hosts the Asian Championship in 2016 – Cahillʼs international career may be over. Mark Bresciano made an appearance from the bench aged 34. This could be his swansong. International retirement is likely for Barcelonaʼs Xavi Hernández i Creus as well.

Despite the much publicised training ground bust up between coach Vicente del Bosque and Cesc Fàbregas Soler, Chelseaʼs new signing made an appearance from the bench. Fernando Torres Sanz tried to repeat Villaʼs goal, but missed and was offside, but later he got his goal. With 20 minutes remaining Iniesta pass through the Australian defence was taken by Torres on the left of the area and slotted between keeper Matthew Ryanʼs legs to double Spainʼs lead.

Vila had already been replaced by Manchester Unitedʼs Juan Mata García. The former Valencia and Chelsea midfielder completed the scoring with just under ten minutes of normal time remaining. Fàbregasʼ pas found Mata on the right of the area. Mata controlled and nutmegged Ryan again for the third.

Honour partially restored. With very talented young players having won youth tournaments playing the same possession football that the late Luis Aragonés Suárez implemented along with a winning mentality in 2008 and del Bosque utilised to win the World Cup and retain the European Championship in 2012, it is far too early to write Spain off.

Hunger restored and youngsters blooded they will be back wounded and thirsting for success sooner rather than later. Meanwhile, the team they beat to win the World Cup four years ago, the Netherlands battle Chile to top the group and probably avoid hosts Brasil.

 

 

 

Down and Out

by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (June 18th 2014)

Humiliated

The World champions are out and Vicente del Bosque Gonzálezʼ side deserve it. Chile have beaten Spain at the eleventh attempt. Chileʼs coach Jorge Sampaoli Moya out-thought his world renowned counterpart from start to finish with an energetic pressing game that knocked the aristocrats of world football out of their stride. This is the first time in eight years that Spain has lost back to back matches.

They are the fifth defending champions to go out in the first round, but have done so with a match to come, which adds to the humiliation. While Barçelonaʼs Alexis Sánchez Sánchez and Juventusʼ Arturo Vidal Pardo will grab many headlines in a famous win along with the goal-scorers Eduardo Vargas Rojas and Charles Aránguiz Sandoval, captain and goal-keeper Claudio Bravo Muñoz and Cardiff Cityʼs Gary Medel Soto were immense.

The Writing on the Wall

The 5-1 drubbing by the Netherlands over, Spain needed an emphatic response. It did not come. Del Bosque stuck with the unfit Diego da Silva Costa. Atlético de Madridʼs striker was disappointing in both matches, slow to get shots away and failing to test Bravo. Perhaps this was a case where the false 9 that had served del Bosque so well previously was a better option than the genuine 9s Costa and the misfiring Fernando Torres Sanz who had not been in a Spain squad since the Confederationsʼ Cup.

Xabi Alonso Olanoʼs misplaced pass was intercepted by Sánchez. An incisive one-two with Vidal was followed by a pass that found Aránguiz on the right in the area. He squared to Vargas who rounded Casillas to give Chile a lead that had been coming. Spainʼs response was a Costa shot into the side-netting after David Jiménez Silva put him clear – poor effort that summed up his first tournament for Spain.

With two minutes remaining in the first half Casillas made another howler, deciding to punch Sánchezʼ free-kick which should have posed no problems to catch. Aránguiz latched onto the rebound and his shot beat Casillasʼ desperate dive. Two nil down at half time del Bosqueʼs and Spainʼs legacy were on the line.

Tradition versus New-Comers

World Cup and football history suggested that Spain would come out fighting and somehow find a way out of their predicament, but Sampaoli and his team had other ideas. They defended like Titans, but this was not a team that got everyone behind the ball and looked to hold on to what they had. Six minutes into the second half Sergio Busquets Burgos spurned the best chance that Spain had. In 68 internationals he has never scored and after this miss it was not hard to see why.

The chance stemmed from another poor goalkeeping decision. Bravo chose to punch Sergio Ramos Garcíaʼs when it was straight at him – a strange decision after the problems experienced by Casillas. It was returned to the right of the area and Costaʼs overhead kick found Busquets 8 yards out on the left of the goal. He shot wide – a terrible miss. It was an omen of things to come.

Chances came and went for Vargas and Mauricio Isla Isla and substitute Santi Cazorla González demanded a save from Bravo who was equal to the test. Four years ago Barçelonaʼs Andrés Iniesta Luján scored the only goal of a dreadful World Cup Final to establish beyond doubt just how good a team Spain was. Iniesta went close again from outside the area, but Bravo refused to be beaten, tipping it over. Spainʼs reign was over.