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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Honours Even

by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (February 19th 2015)

Dominant

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Mauricio Pochettino was disappointed with the result after his Tottenham Hotspur team were held to 1-1 draw at White Hart Lane tonight by Fiorentina. Pochettinoʼs decision to rest the in-form Harry Kane backfired, despite Roberto Soldado Rilloʼs 6th minute strike – his first goal of the year. In the first half hour Spurs dominated, running Fiorentinaʼs back three ragged, but despite creating chances, the hosts failed to profit.

After 5 minutes Nacer Chadliʼs effort was saved at the expense of a corner. Paulinho took it finding Soldado. The former Valencia strikerʼs shot beat Romanian keeper Ciprian Tătăruşanu to give Spurs a platform they failed to capitalise on. Half chances at the other end were made by Joaquín Sánchez Rodríguez, resulting in a weak effort by Mario Gomez and for Mohamed Salah, on loan from Chelsea as part of the deal that took Juan Guilermo Cuadrado Bello the other way, but Federico Fazio blocked the Egyptianʼs shot. Despite the threat posed by the visitors, led by their captain Manuel Pasqual, but Spurs were more dangerous.

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Christian Eriksen had almost converted a chance created by Chadliʼs excellent approach play, but shot just over. After his goal Soldado was profligate, but spectacular. Eriksenʼs cross found Soldado after Stefan Savićʼs block rebounded to him. Soldadoʼs bicycle kick was spectacular, but straight at the keeper from point blank range with the goal gaping.

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Recovery

With half an hour gone Fiorentina came into their own. Borja Valeroʼs cross field pass found Pasqual and Fiorentinaʼs captain set up Gomez. The former Vf Stuttgart and Beyern Munich strikerʼs effort went just wide. Two minutes later Salah slipped Gomez through, but recovering from a long injury lay-off Gomez had to settle for a corner.

That five minutes of pressure culminated in Soldado tripping Joaquín after the former Real Betis and Valencia winger had got past him. Soldado was rightly booked. Chilean international Matías Fernández Fernández took the free-kick. It was pushed out to his right by Hugo Lloris onto Savićʼs back and rebounded into path of José María Basanta, who took advantage of his good fortune to smash in the equaliser from close range.

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Just Deserts

Just before half time Spurs almost regained the lead. Kyle Walkerʼs cross was met by Soldado, whose header was saved by Tătăruşanu. Chadli latched on to the rebound. His shot was lashed onto the crossbar. Appeals for a goal were rightly turned down as the ball bounced on the wrong side of the goal-line. Vincenzo Montella changed his formation at half time and contained Tottenhamʼs threat, despite the introduction of Harry Kane.

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After 90 minutes we were better, we created more chances”, Pochettino said, “but it’s true that in the second half, in the last 15-20 minutes, we maybe didn’t create many chances. It’s a shame because at half-time maybe the team had deserved to score more than one goal and then it was 1-1. We have 90 minutes in Florence to try and win the game”.

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Return to Form

The decision to rest Harry Kane raised a few eyebrows, although it may indicate where Pochettinʼs priorities lie. At first he was vindicated by Soldadoʼs goal, but the equaliser and Montellaʼs changes in formation saw la Viola become a different proposition in the second half. Shortly after the restart Joaquín created space for himself on the right flank to tee up Salah. The Egyptianʼs curling shot from just outside the area went close with Lloris beaten.

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Savić deserved his booking for hauling back Chadli after 5 minutes of the second half. With an hour play Spurs pressure was absorbed by Fiorentinaʼs defence. Andros Townsendʼs cross was headed clear by Savić to Nabil Bentaleb. The Algerian defenderʼs long range shot failed to trouble Tătăruşanu. Five minutes later Pochettino made a concession of sorts. Kane was introduced for the last 25 minutes, but despite his red hot form, not even a front two of Soldado and Kane could find a way past Tătăruşanu.

We have a lot of games ahead, six in 17 days”, Pochettino said in defence of his decision to rest Kane. “It’s difficult. We need to rotate and give the possibility to play for all. It was a very open game. I think that we made a big effort in the first half, a great effort. I’m a little bit disappointed with the result because I thought we could have won.”

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Decoded At Last

by Segun Odegbami © Segun Odegbami (November 5th 2014)

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Enigma

It is Wednesday night. I have just watched my favourite football club in the world, but strangely I am in a rather melancholic mood. I watched ‘my team’ trounce Amsterdamʼs finest Ajax FC in the ongoing European Champions League. It was a very exciting and very entertaining match. I should be feeling great, yet, I feel empty inside.

The best football player of all time, in my humble estimation, Lionel Messi, scored a brace as usual and equalled Raúl González Blancoʼs European Champions League record of highest number of goals scored by an individual – 71. He achieved that feat in just 90 matches. It took Raúl – 66 goals for Real Madrid and 5 for Schalke – 142 matches to reach that tally. But hot on their heels is Messiʼs contender for best player, Cristiano Ronaldo, trailing by just one goal – albeit from 17 matches more than the mercurial Argentinian.

I should be happy, but, the match against Ajax was revealing. All is not well with FC Barçelona.

The Greatest?

This season they have left most of their fans hungry for the Barçelona of old – the team that won everything in club football in the world. They also contributed the largest number of players to a Spanish national team that won the World Cup in 2010.

In the past 10 years Barçelona have been the team to beat in global club football with unforgettable memories of performances beyond description. In terms of actual performance, for a period of years, the rest of the world was playing catch-up. Without being disrespectful to any one of the other great clubs in Europe and South America, at their best, Barçelona stood alone far and away better than the best the rest of the world had to offer.

The System

The secret to their monumental achievements was a system and football philosophy implanted, nurtured and perfected in the club’s academy – La Masia. It was then brought to fruition as a generation of exceptional players came through that academy, augmented by shrewd purchases along the way. It also required a great coach schooled in Barçelona’s ways. All these ingredients combined at the same time to deliver a sumptuous feast of football.

Personally, it is in the work perfected by coach Pep Guardiola that I started to have a fuller appreciation of how a coach can truly impact a team, how the daily grind of training sessions could transform into a playing style and system that become entrenched as a culture in the performance of a team, and etched into the psyche of their followers. Now I understand and appreciate Sir Alex Ferguson, José Mourinho, and Tihomir Jelisavčić1 – the shamefully neglected architect of Nigeria’s first African Cup of Nations triumph – even better.

Tiki Taka

That was the birth of the phenomenon called Tiki Taka, an intricate ‘dance’ movement like no other with the ball: quick short one-two passes, endless, seamless movements and interchange of positions, back and forth, leaving in their wake a perplexed, bemused and confused opposition struggling to keep pace.

Match after match of the Barcelona brand of football rattled and embarrassed coaches and dazzled the world. Playing some of the ‘weirdest’ and unconventional football imaginable, Barçelona’s midfield tore through opposing teams’ defences like a knife through butter. Never had the world seen such a display and such a team that performs with such elegance and ‘arrogance’, completely dominating every match with effortless running and ball possession. They were a delight to watch and a nightmare to confront.

Deciphering the Code

So, last season, when Barçelona failed to win any silverware many felt it was due more to ‘winning-fatigue’ rather than because Tiki Taka had been finally decoded. Now we know that there was more to it. The football ‘laboratories’ of some of the big clubs in Europe had not been asleep, They had been very busy and on full throttle to find an antidote to the Barça epidemic.

At the same time, in order to stay one step ahead and sustain their invincibility, Barçelona took some steps that may now have backfired. Most significant amongst several of them was the exit of coach Pep Guardiola and the departure to fight a sadly losing battle against cancer of his successor, Tito Vilanova. That resulted in the appointment of a new coach – one not brought up on Barçelona’s philosophy and culture. The Tata Martino experiment failed and Barça returned to a coach brought up the Barça way.

But there were other problems – the ‘reinforcement’ of the Barçelona striking force. Last season the hugely talented Brazilian Neymar Jnr joined Lionel Messi upfront. The combination had not fully clicked before, this season. Now former Ajax and Liverpool FC striker Luis Suárez Díaz has been added to the mix. On paper it may look like a dream striking partnership, but the reality after three matches is that in order to accommodate these new players that are not nurtured on the diet of the Camp Nou style and philosophy, Barçelona’s playing style has had to change.

Laid Bare

Last Wednesday night, against Ajax Amsterdam FC, the ‘new’ FC Barçelona was laid bare. It is nothing like the Barça of old. Gone is the intricate ball possession that defines Tiki Taka. Gone are the endless running, the pressing and the hot pursuits every time the team loses possession. Gone is the creative ingenuity of a team playing without an outright striker but conjuring a whole array of striking and free scoring options from mid-field.

Gone is the team that played with the patience of a vulture, probing, teasing and taunting opponents to pry open even the tightest and hardest defences. Gone is the team that dictates how every match is played, and, even in occasionally losing, usually is the better team.

Slowly but surely, the demystification of FC Barçelona is taking hold. The team has not won any silverware in two seasons and several big European clubs appear now to have their number – Real Madrid, Atlético de Madrid, Bayern Munich. Even Celta Vigo, a team at the bottom rung of La Liga, defeated them last week so tamely and so easily it was hard and painful to watch.

Do not get me wrong. FC Barçelona are not finished. Far from it. After all, they defeated Ajax and barring any disaster will qualify easily for the round of 16 of the Champions League.

Decoded

They have only lost their edge. They have dropped from their place as the best team on the planet and rejoined the league of the great teams in Europe. They no longer stand ‘alone and apart’ at the very top of world football.

It was inevitable that the ‘end’ would come one day, but for many of us it is coming too soon! I still love my Barça, but even I must admit that the end is in sight for the philosophy of football that made FC Barçelona the best team that ever played football – the team that the world stood still and watched every time they stepped out to dance to the beat of Tiki Taka.

For now I can only celebrate in muted anticipation of what would happen next to my beloved club. My Barça have been decoded!

1Jelisavčić coached the Super-Eagles from 1974 until 1978. We won the next edition in 1980, coached by Otto Gloria, but the foundations of that triumph were laid by Jelisavčić.

Making History

by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (September 17th 2014)

Injuries

Hit by injuries German outfit Schalke04 face in form Chelsea in the first match of Group G of the Championʼs League at Stamford Bridge tonight. Schalkeʼs injury list is problematic too, headed by their captain Benedikt Höwedes, fresh from this summerʼs World Cup triumph. “Of course, itʼs very difficult if you lose your captain and from a central defence berth and itʼs also a very difficult situation”, Schalkeʼs manager Jens Keller said. “Weʼve still got a little bit of time to think about what our solutions are and what options there are for us”.

A morale boosting result against Bayern München was tempered by the injury crisis. The loss of Höwedes being the hardest blow. “I donʼt know how long heʼll be missing for”, Keller said. “Heʼs a very important player for us. Heʼs very confident now having won the World Cup and weʼve got lots of games ahead of us, two games a week, so weʼre hoping it wonʼt be too long”.

Their left sided defender Dennis Aogo agreed. “It depends whoʼs actually missing”, the sometime midfielder said. “In this case itʼs our captain, but weʼve got quite a few players missing. Itʼs not easy for us players, but we have to try and compensate and we have to try and cope with that situation whereby the players that are on the pitch, maybe theyʼve got to take on a little bit more responsibility. We canʼt just sit here and say weʼre sorry for ourselves, we have to give our best on the pitch and try and compensate for that”.

Familiarity

“I donʼt think weʼre under any more pressure than we are every year you know, because being a club like Chelsea this is our eleventh consecutive season in the Championʼs League”, Chelsea Director and Club Secretary told us. “You know weʼve been in the semi-final about eight times and two finals and also people expect us to be there or thereabouts every season, so weʼre always under that sort of pressure”.

Chelsea played Schalke last season too – a season that ended poorly by Chelseaʼs standards without a trophy. Nevertheless Chelsea were there or thereabouts and are the favourites of Group G. “I think that Chelsea will definitely have a say in this competition and are a very, very good team and they showed that last season and theyʼre showing it this season as well”, Keller said. “Weʼve learned that mistakes get punished. Weʼve learned that home and away last season and theyʼre a top team and now with the new acquisitions theyʼve got, even more a top team”.

Barnard recognises that Chelsea got a draw that they should progress from. “I think this time round when you look at our colleagues from the Premier League and the groups that theyʼre in, I think people are saying we got the better of the draw … in terms of the opposition, but weʼre not taking lightly our group”, he said. “Weʼll be playing Schalke, and Schalke we played last year in the group stage. Hopefully we can repeat those performances”.

A Tough Ask

Meanwhile, Aogo agreed with his manager. “Well of course in Germany, weʼve seen that heʼs had a great start to the season, but itʼs not just him”, Aogo said of on fire new Chelsea signing Diego Costa. “I mean the whole teamʼs doing really well. Not for nothing are they number one in the Premier League. Weʼve just got to give our best”.

Aogo knows that Schalke face a difficult task. Shorn of top players through injury the burden is higher on the others. “Weʼre playing against some of the best players in the world”, he said, “so we donʼt really need any extra motivation. Last season we actually started very well. Maybe weʼve got to be a little bit more clever in the way we play, but what is there to say against us having a good day and competing at the highest level?”

Despite the mounting problems Keller remains optimistic too. “Well Iʼm a very positive person”’ Keller said. “Youʼve got to remember that anything is possible in football. Also when we played against Bayern Munich people said we didnʼt have much a chance there and we showed what we could do there, so anything is possible; thatʼs what Iʼm saying”.

Swiss Roll On To The Last 16

by Richard Duke © Richard Duke (June 25th 2014)

Shaqiri Shines

A hat-trick by Xherdan Shaqiri, the second of the tournament, put the Swiss into the last 16, after a comfortable win against a limited but spirited Honduran side in Manaus. In fairly humid conditions the Swiss knew that as long as they bettered Ecuadorʼs result against France, they would go into the next phrase and it did not take them long to take the lead.

In the 6th minute Shaqiri scored a wonder goal. The Bayern Munich forward scored a goal out of nothing from about 25 yards. He pinged a left foot shot past the Honduran keeper Noel Valladares who seemed to wave bye bye to the ball as he thought it was going wide, but instead the ball landed in the top left corner.

Control

As the first half wore on the Swiss were in complete control as the Hondurans were tackling in their roughshod manner which has been their hallmark of the tournament. The Swiss who were causing problems to the Hondurans with their movement up front. Meanwhile, Honduras seemed to be getting dispirited and in the 31st minute Switzerland made it two with a breakaway goal.

Deep in their own half, the Swiss won the ball through their captain Gökhan Inler who then played it out to Drmić, who then played the ball out to Shaqiri in the centre and with the Honduran defence wide open, Shaqiri slipped the ball coolly past Valladares.

As the second half kicked off with Honduras making a substitution of Marvin Chavez coming on for Roger Epinoza, Honduras knew that they were going out of the World Cup, and made a spirited start, and had a chance from Jerry Bengtson who had a shot cleared of the line and Jerry Palacios had a penalty appeal turned away by the Argentinian referee after a slight touch by Johan Djourou.

Safety

Switzerland made the game safe in the 71st minute with Shaqiri completing his hat trick, again with another breakaway, and again Josip Drmić was involved, as the ball was played out wide by Ricardo Rodríguez to Drmić. After beating a defender Drmić passed to Shaqiri who again easily beat the keeper with a left foot shot, without a Honduran defender in sight – game over.

Also that goal was the 50th hat-trick in World Cup history. With the game as good as finished Shaqiri was substitued with 5 mins left to receive a well earned ovation from the Swiss fans.

After hearing the news that Ecuador had only drawn with France, the Swiss knew that they were on the way to the next round. So Ottmar Hitzfeld knows he has one more game at least before he retires as Swiss coach. Unfortunately for them itʼs against Argentina, led by an inspired Lionel Messi.