Competitive football is back! Barça are finally back!! And what an opening match to sink our teeth into it. In what will be 1 of 4 guaranteed Clasicos of the 2011/12 season, we travel to the Bernabeu for the first leg of the Spanish Super Cup, which will kick off at 10 pm local time, against our rivals of all rivals. The events of last year’s matches, along with quite a bit of media sensationalism, and Mourinho’s words and antics notched up the intensity of the rivalry and made Spanish international team mates, probably friends, act towards one another like true enemies. There were worries it would spill out in the national team, which reportedly did not happen, but it will be interesting to see tomorrow the attitude on the pitch.
Let’s look at our rivals first. Towards the end of last season, club legend and former second in command Jorge Valdano was essentially fired by President Fiorentino Perez due to constant conflict with The Special One, Mou. Perez decided to go with Mou and since then the Portuguese has apparently been transforming the club from top to bottom, changing the way they scout players to public relations. He has been given more power and authority than any coach in recent times at Madrid, and having actually inspected the Real Madrid organigram, even the appointment of Zinedine Zidane as Sporting Director, it is very clear he works under Mourinho.
As usual they have been rather busy in the transfer market, though definitely not to the extent of previous seasons. 5 new players have come in for a grand total of around 55 or 56 million Euros. The “crack” of these signings is without question Portuguese leftback Fábio Coentrão who came from Benfica for 30 million. Now, this guy is a top quality player and was by far the best player for his team at the 2010 World Cup. I’ve watched most their pre-season games and he fit in like a glove and gave some seriously dangerous attacking presence, and on top of that, he is a better defender than Marcelo. The next interesting signing is 22 year old German born Turk (plays for Turkey) Nuri Şahin who came from Bundesliga champions Borussia Dortmund for 10 million. He was instrumental to his former team winning in Germany and was part of a very fast pace, creative attacking team, so he will bring some creativity but also provides steel in the middle. They also got Turkish international Hamit Altintop on a free from Bayern, which I think is simply because of the price and the fact he is versatile, playing in defense, midfield, and attack at one point or other in his career. They then spent 10 million on French defender Raphael Varane. This lad is only 18 years old but was a hot property in the market over the summer. Finally, they spent 5.5 on former youth team player Callejon from Espanyol, and here I cannot fathom any reasoning.
Oh, I almost forgot their latest signing (which I think could be more wishful thinking when looking at the name), 7 year old Argentine Leonel Angel Coira. But no need to worry about him just yet, if ever.
On the door out there are only 2 noticeable names. Canales, who I knew from the start made a mistake joining Madrid, has been loaned to Valencia for 2 years which will hugely benefit his development. Eziquel Garay was sold to Benfica, where I think he was used as a bargaining tool for Coentrão. Adebayor’s loan ended and Dudek was released.
So once again Mourinho has an absolutely stacked squad, probably the deepest in Europe (with maybe Man City as the only other rivals on that), and will use who he wants, when he wants, how he wants. They had a more successful pre-season than ourselves, of course acknowledging that our preseason results are quite distorted, in fact, they had their best pre-season in 24 years apparently. In their 7 games, they won them all, scoring 27 and conceding only 5. Truth be told, they looked very fit and motivated, especially going forward, but they did have some defensive lapses despite weak opposition. But hey, it is pre-season, so how much or how little to reflect from it one never knows.
Alright, now us. We don’t look particularly ferocious going into tomorrow’s game. Our pre-season was extremely mediocre (despite picking up the Audi Cup!), with 2 wins, 2 draw, and 2 losses with both 8 goals scored and conceded. I have not included the two Copa Catalunya games here because the teams we fielded for both those games have not one tiny bit of impact on the first team. Much can be said of the other pre-season though as well. None of our South American based plays took part, and I’d say on the whole our B team players played more than the 1st team. Pep did not enjoy all the touring which he hinted at recently by saying “Before you had preseason, now you have tours”.
The conclusion from all of this is that we may be underprepared and slightly unfit as a first team as in reality Pep only had the entire first team available since Thursday, due to that moronic FIFA friendly which saw both Pique and Busquets pick up injuries. These sort of nonsensical international matches are a big reason the big European clubs have threatened very seriously to walk out of their agreement which allows FIFA and UEFA to govern them when it expires in 2014.
Transfers wise I think we are all well aware of the dealings. Europe’s hottest piece of property Alexis Sánchez signed from Udinese, and though it has not yet been made totally official, it is widely reported and believed Cesc Fabregas will join very soon, though he will not take part tonight as some papers had predicted. On the out there was obviously Bojan and Oriol Romeu, both with buy back clauses, as well as Jeffren to Sporting Lisbon, and Milito to Independiente.
Sánchez is obviously the marquee signing and I’ll admit I very much hope he plays tomorrow. With Villa never quite hitting the heights many expected and Bojan gone but never really contributing, Sánchez becomes a very important goal threat. If he is as good as hyped to be, imagine opponent’s frustrations. Man marking Messi didn’t work all that often, but even when they did it left the likes of Pedro, Iniesta, and Villa open, but now it will leave Alexis space to do his thing. Let’s hope the number 9 curse Eto’o left behind will be his to break.
We will be leaving the Camp Nou at 6 pm tonight to spend the night in the capital. Pep has travelled with 23 players, some of them injured, in order to create team atmosphere and togetherness. Pique and Xavi both trained normally this morning, but Busquets looks unlikely to start. Puyol’s fitness is another doubt. His feedback on Twitter is that he is feeling good but it’s likely the management will decide to let him rest.
I believe we will start with a line-up of:
Valdés ; Alves, Piqué, Mascherano, Abidal ; Xavi, Keita, Iniesta ; Messi, Villa, Pedro
But there could be an array of other options. Abidal could slot in the middle if Pique sits, or Mascherano could move to midfield if Adriano comes in. Maybe Thiago starts for Xavi if he isn’t quite ready, and quite possibly Pep will show his confidence in the cantera by putting in Montoya or Fontas somewhere at the back.
Madrid wise, I think it will be mostly the team of last season with the only possibly new player starting being Coentrão.
If we don’t lose tonight, we will break yet another record. Neither Barcelona nor Madrid has ever been undefeated away from home 5 times consecutively. A win or draw tonight will see us beat this record with 5 trips to the Bernabeu without suffering defeat. The importance of this game is on the whole rather marginal, and the loser will most likely just shrug their shoulders and claim it’s too early to draw conclusions. But, games between us always have meaning, and now more than many times in the past. Pep has made it clear that with a trophy at stake there are no excuses.
I am rather excited for tomorrow. Visca Barça!
Full list of 23 man squad:
Goalkeepers – Valdés, Pinto
Defenders – Piqué, Puyol, Alves, Adriano, Abidal, Maxwell, Montoya, Muniesa, Fontas
Midfielders – Thiago, Xavi, Iniesta, Mascherano, Keita, Sergio, Afellay, Dos Santos
Forwards – Messi, Villa, Alexis, Pedro