January 19, 2012

On Thuggery Versus Heart

This must be the millionth time I've said this, but I can't say it enough, because this team keeps on giving me reason to. I am so fucking proud of them. I love them so fucking much. This team is just something else. Such pride, such heart, it's unmatchable. After the last Clasico, where we beat them 3-1, I was talking to a fellow Culita about how Barca play these games and win them with their hearts. For a team of players that have been bred with the beautiful Barca philosophy, these Clasicos are more to them than just matches, and they are passionate about playing them. It's something inside them, something you can't find in a Real Madrid team of players that don't have such a strong tie with their club. The Clasicos are impersonal for many of them and you can tell from the detached, haphazard way in which they play. Homegrown or not - because even the players who join Barca from other clubs are quickly caught up in the beauty of the Barca family, and form the same sense of pride for this club - these players cannot play a match like this without showing up to it and giving it everything they've got. It's the heart that wins these games.
There is no heart, or even shame, in a team that plays the way Real Madrid did last night.  I see that the Madrid media and even some Real Madrid fans are calling the club out on their despicable behavior; for example Palomar, journalist of pro-Madrid extraordinaire sports paper Marca, wrote: Pepe cannot continue staining this shirt. Pepe's behavior in the clasico, and many other games that comprise for him a true criminal history, is intolerable. Does this mean we will finally see something done about it? Perhaps, perhaps not. After all, it is nothing new. I, for one, truly thought that Mourinho was abandoning his shady tactics and finally instructing his team to play actual football, after the more favorable way in which they played the most recent Clasicos before this one, namely the two legs of the Spanish SuperCopa. But alas, he was back to his old tricks and more. 
It is a miracle of epic proportions that Real Madrid finished this game with 11 men - they deserved to be down to 7. Pepe, Coentrao, Carvalho and Alonso all should have been sent off for their repeated offenses. It was simply disgusting. I don't understand how Pepe is even allowed on a football pitch looking at all the crap he's pulled, from his kick-fest on Getafe captain Casquero a few years ago to his foul spree of last night, including the lower than low instance where he knocked his knee into Messi's shoulder and then stomped on his hand after Messi was already down from an ugly foul from Callejon. He deserves a lifetime ban. The most maddening part? When he's not the one committing the fouls, Pepe puts on an angel's face and plays peacemaker, going to talk down the other players and the ref after a foul, which is what he was on his way to do when he stomped on Messi in passing. Dirty thug and hypocritical. Worse still is that his teammates would defend him, as Carvalho did: "Pepe always try to play fair. It was hard but it's clean. He always try to play legally." This is beyond bias. This is a downright lie. Or else Carvalho is just blind. But we know he isn't, his aim at the Barca layers' legs last night was near as impeccable as Pepe's. Fellow thugs got each other's backs?
Someone put together this video compilation of all Pepe's offenses from last night - I didn't watch it, as seeing it all the first time was quite enough, but I've linked it for your perusal. What I do wish is that someone would do a compilation of all of Alonso's offenses from last night - not because I want to see them again either, but because I am absolutely fed up with the way so many people call him a classy player. Xabi Alonso is anything but classy, at least since he joined Real Madrid (playing under Mourinho seems to have that effect on players - look for example at how the formerly upright Ozil was shoving opponents left and right when Barca beat Real Madrid 3-1 in the league) and it's time people stopped overlooking his buffoonery. Let's not overlook the rest of the dirty moves exhibited by Real Madrid last night either, like Coentrao shoving Messi's head into the pitch after he had already fouled him and brought him to the ground.
I stress that these incidents not be overlooked because sadly, they are being disregarded by match officials and the people who actually have the power to do something about it. The only thing more sickening than a team going through a match as dirtily as Real Madrid did last night is that they manage to get away with it. And last night's instance is unfortunately nothing to be surprised at, looking at how the refereeing in Spain has been going lately. The last time we faced Real Madrid in the Copa Del Rey, last season's final, was also a foul-fest from them with the referee letting it slide. Does Mourinho still believe that Barca are behind a grand conspiracy through which they control all of the referees in Spain and Europe?
Mourinho's gameplan of parking the bus, attacking only off the happenstance counter and kicking the crap out of the Barca players is disgustingly old. I don't know why he persists in having his team play this shameful form of non-football when they are, thuggery aside, a fantastic group of players capable of so much more. They aren't even getting anywhere with it. Sadly, Mourinho has the club wrapped around his finger and it seems no one, be they players or administration, has the balls to tell him to cut the crap and have the team just play football.
The beauty in all of this is that despite all of Mourinho's philandering tactics, the thuggery of his players and the shameful way in which they approach these games - shameful to themselves as well as to football as a sport - Barca still manages to overcome them, time and again, against all odds. As every new Clasico approaches pundits say, this is the one, this time Real Madrid will win, this time Mourinho has figured it out - only for Barca to triumph over and over again. They fought back against Real Madrid's early goal and their parked bus and their kicking legs and put two beautiful goals past them to take themselves to the top, and how amazing was it that Puyol and Abidal were the ones to score those goals? Amazing is an understatement. I am fucking in love with the fact that Puyol and Abidal scored those goals. I would not have it any other way, none of the other players scoring would have thrilled me as much. 
When Capita scored the equalizer off of the gorgeous classic header from a corner that should be named after him for all the amazing times he's repeated it, I was literally yelling at the TV that he is the greatest player alive and there is nobody that can touch him. And by greatest I don't mean in terms of technical skill, but in terms of skill and heart and pride and soul all wrapped into one, there will never be anyone like him. I am beyond ecstatic at his goal. And then for Abidal to score the second, it was just too much. Too much beauty, because players like he and Puyol represent what this club stands for and they are not players who score often, but these goals came at the right time. This is only the second goal Abidal has ever scored in 178 games for the club. Perfect time for it to happen. Puyol's goal was the first Barca had managed to convert in 196 corners. Perfect time for it happen. These things don't happen just like that. It's the heart in Barca's game that makes them happen. 
A few last words on individual performances before I leave you with some yummy stats. Alexis was incredible. He was ruthlessly targeted with fouls from the Madrid players but nothing could hold him back, he was all over the place, chasing balls, going for the attack, even clearing balls in defense. Pep put it beautifully: "Alexis stole my heart. He's an extraordinary transfer. He adapted well, gives us something we don't have. I'm very happy for him." We hit the jackpot in signing him, especially given the blow of Villa's injury. Grande Alexis. Iniesta was also fabulous last night, just a breath away from scoring with all the runs he was making and several superb chances. Shame that he didn't find the net. Dani impressed me with his liveliness up front and lack of rolling around when taken down, but he's got to watch out for his defending. Cesc and Messi were a bit on the low-down but had their moments. Busquets played up to the praise Pep deservedly gave him last week, including this delightful little moment. I will continue to say he is drastically underrated. He deserved to be in the world 11 in place of the currently overrated Xabi Alonso. Xavi is amazing as always, it can't be said enough. Pique is getting back to his best which is great to see, we've missed his prowess this season. And Pinto is a beast. Pep is amazing for keeping his faith in him and playing him in the Copa and he played a great match. The goal that we conceded was an excellent one from Ronaldo and I'm not sure Valdes would have saved it. Maybe, maybe not. It was tough. As Pep said: "Pinto is a fantastic goalkeeper. Maybe people have doubts because of his looks, but I have a lot of confidence in him." The goal Ronaldo put past Pinto in last season's Copa final was also a superb one and anyone who blames our cornrowed keeper for that loss is extremely narrow-minded.
And now the stats:
- For the first time since 1933, Barca have as the same number of Clasico victories as Real Madrid: 86W - 45D - 86L 
- Pep has now won more matches against Real Madrid than any other side since he became a manager: 9
- Pep has equalled Johan Cruyff as Barcelona coach with most Clasico wins: 9
- Messi has equalled the all-time record of Real Madrid's Luis Molowny of most Clasico assists: 9
(looking at the last three stats, 9 is the magic number - also the amazing Alexis' shirt number! )
- Barcelona are the first team in history not to lose any of 7 consecutive away games against Real Madrid. 
- The last time Barca and Real Madrid met in a 2-legged Copa Del Rey tie Mourinho was Barca's assistant coach and Pep was Barca captain.
- Pep is the first Barca coach ever to win a Clasico on his birthday. HAPPY BIRTHDAY EL MISTER, VISCA BARCA Y VISCA CATALUNYA!
I leave you with the epic goal celebrations.

January 3, 2012

Soriano Promoted?

Ever since Pep said this: "Because of the injury of Villa we're thinking about promoting Soriano. Problem is he then can't go back to the B-team" in his press conference today, I've been getting a lot of questions about Soriano and his possible promotion. I'm going to address hopefully everything here, adapted from the transfer piece I wrote last summer.

As Pep said, the club is considering promoting Soriano to the first team since Villa is injured. It would have to be a direct promotion and not just call-ups when needed, like for example the way Cuenca sometimes gets called up, because Soriano is 26 years old and players over 25 aren't allowed to get called up. It has to be a promotion or nothing.

If you don't know Soriano's story you may wonder why he is still on the B team at age 26, why he never got called up or promoted before. The thing is that he was not raised in Barca's academy like the rest of the B-team. He joined Barca B at age 24, and before that he was a first team player at first-division Liga club Espanyol. First team, as in he took a step back to join Barca B, who were then in the third division.

Soriano had a rough time of it with Espanyol. They dragged him out on loan after loan and never gave him a real shot, and in the end let him go without renewing his contract or caring to look into taking offers for him.

Barca, as Soriano puts it, ‘saved his footballing career.’ Not one to be daunted by his bad experience with Espanyol, he came to Barca B and started over. His first season with Barca B saw him score 36 goals (31 league goals), finishing among the top scorers in all four sections of the Segunda B and leading Barca B into promotion to the Segunda A, the second division. He scored another 36 the next season (32 league), claiming Pichichi, top scorer of the entire second division, and leading Barca B to finish third place in the league ranking. An incredible achievement for a B team in the second division.

His history with Espanyol and his performance with Barca B over the past two seasons invalidate any doubts based on his age. Last season, only the rule claiming that players over 25 can not be called up from the B team to the first team if they haven’t been called up from the start of the season prevented Pep from calling him up (he did try).

Pep included Soriano in his preseason squad prior to the start of this season, and Soriano played 2 or 3 matches with the first team in which he was very impressive. Then he received a massive blow in the form of a calf injury that would sideline him for two months. The injury meant that he was dropped from Barca's preseason squad and also stood in the way of a possible transfer to another club.

So Soriano would be stuck on the B team for another season. This season started with him still sidelined, recovering from the injury, and his absence was greatly felt by the B team as they started the season poorly. When Soriano returned to the playing field Barca B's form immediately picked up.

Recall that when Nolito, who is also a striker, decided he wanted to leave Barca B last season and join another club, he was offered a first team contract. He’s only one year younger than Soriano and Soriano’s performance has been more impressive, so if Nolito is/was first team material than Soriano most certainly is.

As for Soriano’s own willingness to join the first team – he doesn’t share Nolito’s stance. Nolito left because he saw no future for himself at Barca, insisting that he needs to go somewhere where he’ll get more playing time and make more money; seeing as he’s married with his own family as well as his parents to support, and no one can blame him.

Whereas Soriano… he did an interview for Sport last summer where he talks about his time at Barca and what the future may hold for him, saying how grateful he is to Barca and completely at peace with whatever may happen, if he leaves or if he stays. If he leaves he will miss Barca very much, but he will accept it, thought his hope is to stay and be promoted, in which case he would give it everything he’s got. “I’ll be grateful for any opportunity Guardiola gives me,” he says. As his soaring season with Barca B last season neared it’s end he said, “I’m fighting for the first team.” More than anything he just wants to play football, wherever that may be. He was close to quitting the sport before Barca ‘saved’ him; now he says he wouldn’t dream of leaving it.

That Soriano would be a viable and effective replacement for Villa, that he would work for it and give all his effort, and that he deserves the promotion, is undoubted. The question then becomes, if Barca promotes him then what happens once Villa returns?

Well, Villa is out until the end of the season. Soriano will be leaving Barca at the end of the season if he doesn't get promoted to the first team. At his age and talent, it is shame for him not to be playing first division football, and only injury stood between him and a transfer last summer.

So since Soriano would be leaving at the end of the season anyway, it makes sense to promote him now. Better he spend the remainder of the season with the first team than with the B team. Then at the end of the season when Villa returns, if the consensus is that Soriano is no longer needed, he will transfer to another club - as he would be doing anyway, if he hadn't got the promotion. That's why the way I see it, there is no reason at all not to promote him. And now that Pep has brought it up it seems probable, so fingers crossed.