We kick off round 19 of the 2010/11 La Liga campaign at home versus Málaga, essentially the richest team in Spain. For those who didn’t know, Málaga was sold in June 2010 by former Real Madrid president Lorenzo Sanz to Sheikh Abdullah Al Thani, a cousin of the ruler of Qatar and himself a billionaire businessman. To the best of my knowledge, they are now the only foreign owned Spanish club, a fact I hope stays like that. It is a bit surprising they haven’t received the type of venom the likes of Manchester City and Chelsea have endured, but I suspect it is because they are quite a small club, not attracting the same sort of players, and not really winning. From what I have read though, he does not seem eager to follow the Man City business model, opting more for the youth system but obviously a few good players along the way. The owners have entrusted the immediate future of the club to Manuel Pellegrini (after former Porto boss Jesualdo Ferreira got the sack), most recently former Real Madrid manager, but really the man who most impressively and admirably brought Villarreal from a club nobody knew to a well-known Europe team renowned for their very aesthetically pleasing brand of football.
Málaga have been rather busy in this transfer window, bringing in no less than 6 new players, including a few well-known names. Experienced (even though I think a bit rubbish at center back, being originally a midfielder) Argentinean Martín Demichelis (who worked with Pellegrini at River Plate) has come in after 7 years at Bayern Munich, Julio Baptista returns to Spain after his stint at Roma, and once super hot young goalkeeper Sergio Asenjo has found a new home after a seriously horrible and unlucky move to Atlético Madrid. Those are the most well known new transfers, and of the 3, I’d say Asenjo could prove the most important. If he finds the type of form he had at Valladolid prior to his move, he really is top draw. Atlético Madrid midfielder Ignacio Camacho also makes the move as well as 30-year-old Italian Enzo Maresca who has had big club experience at Juventus, Fiorentina, and Sevilla. Maresca has a few goals in him here and there, but overall, he isn’t much of a great player. They have also signed the latest of the River Plate big names (though he has not made the kind of noise Aimar and Saviola did in their day) Diego Buonaotte, but he will only join in June 2011. It isn’t a factor tomorrow night, but more likely than not we will see our own Gaby Milito join Málaga in the next weeks after reportedly shunning moves to both Italy and England, which on a personal note I am quite disappointed and saddened about him leaving.
Aside from the new boys, their most quality player is Duda, who on his day can produce some wonderful passes and free-kicks. Eliseu is another interesting player, who I once read was the fastest player in La Liga. Finally, many of us will remember the center back Weligton who back in 2009 gave Messi some really thuggish treatment when he purposefully stomped his ankle in an off the ball incident. Málaga were in fact particularly filthy that day and since then I have not really been a fan of theirs.
Barça go into this game now unbeaten in 27 matches, which is in fact equal to the club record set in the 1973/74 season. Frankly, I was quite surprised to hear this, as I felt we went unbeaten for that length of games quite often. Guess that is just proof of how spoilt we have been the last decade, in particular the last 2 years. So, this is really a record to admire and be very proud of, and I hope we can keep this unbeaten run going for much longer, as I believe this team deserves to be splashed all over the record books of FC Barcelona because they truly are something special.
Pellegrini and many Málaga players have been optimistic in the pre-match, saying things like they think they can win tonight, that Baptista has had good luck at the Camp Nou, etc. They do a few good players now, which can definitely boost morale, but at the same time it is not easy to bring in 5 debutants and expect the team to gel. Still, Barça cannot relax tonight and need to be focused and determined as always to secure the 3 points. Most people, whether rightly or wrongly, expect us to win, and actually crush most teams in La Liga. With Madrid not giving us an inch of space, it appears we really do need to win every game before the enormous clash at the Santaigo Bernabeu come 16/17th of April 2011. Personally, I think that is a lot of pressure and many teams could fall into a false sense of security. But, I think Guardiola is the perfect manager for us and will not let the boys underestimate or treat any opponent with disrespect. In fact, since that shock (yet deserved) loss at home to Hércules on September 11, 2010, we have not lost again, scored 81 goals and only conceded 13 (and in any game never conceding more than 1). That is simply marvelous.
I would expect Pep to play his best starting 11 tonight (and he has a full squad to choose from) especially as midweek against Betis we can feel comfortable with our 5 goal cushion, making it the perfect opportunity to give games to Adriano, Keita, Mascherano, Bojan, and maybe even Fontas and Thiago.
Enjoy the game readers. Visca Barça.
Málaga Squad for tonight (19 – one will drop off the final team sheet):
Arnau, Weligton, Fernando, Apoño, Seba Fernández, Kris, Hélder Rosario, Duda, Eliseu, Mtiliga, Manolo Gaspar, Quincy, Rondón, Recio, Demichelis, Sergio Asenjo, Maresca, Camacho, Baptista.