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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Real outclass Sevilla

by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (August 12th 2014)

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Cagey

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Despite a typically cagey opening where chances were at a premium, it was Real Madridʼs World Player of the Year Cristiano Ronaldo who grabbed the headlines with a brace that defeated the obdurate defensive display of the Andalusian club. Gareth Baleʼs homecoming was overcome by a fine display by Toni Kroos. Germanyʼs World Cup winner belied his recent move, looking as though he was born and bred in Madrid.

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Club legend el Buitre (the Vulture) was impressed. “Well, they did it very well today”, Emilio Butragueño told us. “In fact, both Kroos and James [Rodríguez Rubio], they play a great game. Iʼm sure in the following weeks theyʼre going to get better, because they need time to adapt themselves to their team-mates. Iʼm sure that theyʼre going to gel with their team-mates. Well, we are optimistic about the future”.

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Ronaldoʼs first effort was a weak shot after 3 minutes that posed no threat to international colleague Beto (António Alberto Bastos Pimparel) – the hero of Sevillaʼs Europa Cup penalty shoot-out triumph in Turin last May. Baleʼs hopes for a penalty after clashing with Sevilla captain Federico Fazio were waved away by referee Mark Clattenburg after less than ten minutes. Ronaldo won a 13th minute free-kick after bamboozling Coke on the left wing. Ronaldo brushed aside his team-mates and took the free-kick himself. It deflected off Coke, brushing the roof of the net.

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By his own exceptionally high standards the Colombian phenomenon James Rodríguez had a disappointing match, but provided glimpses of his undoubted ability – he has only had a week and a half as a Real player. Rodríguez almost provided the assist for the opening goal. His cross from the left wing was enticing, but the angle at the back post proved too tight for Bale.

It took almost 20 minutes for Sevilla to pose any kind of threat to Iker Casillasʼ goal. Casillas has been below his usual high standards last season, but proved on top of his game when required tonight. A swift break found Vitolo on the left of the area. Vitoloʼs shot was pushed round his near post for a corner by Casillas. It was the closest to a goal up to that point, but against the run of play.

Five minutes later Ronaldo ought to have opened the scoring. A sumptuous 40 yard pass by Fábio Coentrão spread play to Karim Benzema on the right wing. Benzema squared it to Ronaldo who turned and shot. Beto saved well to deny the World Player of the Year.

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Resistance Cracks

Three minutes later Bale crossed from the left wing to the back post. Ronaldo stole in to sweep past Beto to give Madrid the lead. Rodríguezʼ free-kick was met by Pepe, but his header was easily dealt with by Beto. Rodríguez, eager to impress made a complete hash of his defensive clearance, but Daniel Carriçoʼs shot was deflected over. There was still time for Vitolo and Daniel Carvajal to be shown the yellow card before Clattenburg ended the first half.

Sevillaʼs task soon became harder as Ronaldo gave Portugalʼs first choice goalkeeper Beto no chance when found on the left of the area by Bennzema less than 5 minutes into the second half. Ronaldo acknowledged Benzemaʼs crucial role in providing the assist in his celebration of the goal.

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Despite requiring goals Sevilla continued to absorb the pressure and were indebted to Beto for keeping them in the match with a fine save to deny Benzema after Coentrão and Ronaldo had combined to create the chance for the French international to test him. The rebound was squared by Coentrão, but eluded everyone. Beto was required again midway through the half after Rodríguez controlled Baleʼs pass on the edge of the area. His half-volley was well saved by Beto.

Attack

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Benzema and Luka Modrić wasted excellent opportunities to extend Realʼs lead, blasting well over when well placed. With less than ten minutes remaining Grzegorz Krychowiak kept Sevilla in with a chance denying Ronaldo in full flight with a superbly timed tackle to thwart the danger. It set up a frenetic end to the match as Unai Emeryʼs team finally tested Realʼs defence and keeper.

With two minutes of normal time remaining the ball broke to Krychowiak, just inside the area. His powerful shot was parried by Casillas at the expense of a corner. Less than a minute later substitute Diogo Figueirasʼ shot was deflected for a corner as Sevilla piled on the pressure resulting in Carlos Baccaʼs injury time shot from the edge of the penalty area being blocked by Sergio Ramos. A rapid counter-attack released Bale for the final effort of the match, which Beto saved.

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No Expense Spared

At £364m this was the most expensive football team ever assembled. At that price there was no excuse for failure and they didnʼt. The Copa del Rey and Championsʼ League winners face a tough test this year. Success is demanded, especially after such an outlay on talent, but after the historic La Décima has their hunger been sated.

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Butragueño is having none of it. “Every season we start the same”, he told us. “We have to fight for every title to try to do our best and we know itʼs going to be difficult, because there are great, great teams in Europe and in Spain and we know that we have to play very well to perform at a very high level if we want to achieve our goals, so we have just started the and then itʼs step by step”.

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The legendary striker want more from his beloved team – much more. “Well, weʼre really happy”, Butragueño says. “Weʼre delighted with the performance of the team. I think we well deserved the victory tonight and taking into consideration that some players started practice one week ago, we did well and now we have to prepare the proper way for the Spanish Supercup, which we are going to play next week”.

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