2011 has come to an end, and during these 365 days there have been a lot of reasons to smile in the world of FC Barcelona. As another year of the post-Núñez/Gaspart era finishes, again we have been the luckiest of football fans, witnessing so much to celebrate and very little to lament. To close off this year, I (formerly blaugranaboy) have put together a summary of the highlights.
The football deities dictated that FC Barcelona clashed with their greatest of rivals Real Madrid 4 times in just 18 days. The first, being the return leg of the league, was on April 16, 2011. Having gone into the game 8 points up, it was clearly the least important in absolute terms, but one that could give a mental edge for the next three. We quite comfortably drew 1-1 and effectively ended the league there and then. Next was the Copa del Rey final, and Pep’s only defeat to Real Madrid in 12 Clásicos over his 3.5 year tenure. Barça lost 1-0 in extra time after Cristiano headed in a Di María cross during extra time. Despite the dreadful first half, the team bounced back wonderfully in the second half but thanks to a miraculous Iker Casillas performance and a misfiring Villa and Pedro, we could not convert a dominating second 45 minutes and then came up short in extra time. This game sparked a lot of negative comments, ranging from individuals, to Pep Guardiola, and the size of the squad. Looking back, not very valid complaints, as some pointed out at the time. The most expensive squad in history just had to win one eventually. But, it was the trophy we’d have rather lost, and it’s importance was underlined by the care Sergio Ramos put into celebrating with it.
It was now time for the Champions League. With the ill will already brewing thanks to Madrid’s rough, even assault akin tactics (Arbeloa elbowing Villa off the ball), this game exploded and had ramifications beyond the 90 minutes. We won 2-0 in the Bernabeu after slowly dismantling an uber negative park-the-bus tactic thanks to a brace from Messi, one being of his best goals to date (Click to relive it). The big moment in that match was on the hour mark when the always-rough Pepe was sent off for a high, studs up tackle on Alves that got nowhere near the ball. In the aftermath, there was a large scuffle and eventually Mourinho was sent off for sarcastically gesturing to referee Wolfgang Stark. Then a Madrid football show manipulated film to portray Alves not being touched in the tackle. Then we made an official complaint to UEFA after Mourinho’s pathetic and paranoid post-match claiming a Barça pro UEFA conspiracy. Madrid countered with a complaint that our players were feigning injury to encourage the red card. The return leg was a 1-1 draw we never truly had to worry about, securing our place in Wembley, and ending the cyclone of Clásicos.
Footballing wise we definitely triumphed, but these matches, particularly the first Champions League tie, had a negative impact on our overall football image. Likely out of jealousy of our success and domination over their teams, football fans of the Premiership in particular, jumped like hyenas onto this notion Barça “cheat” and are also masters of the “darker arts”. Thankfully, a vast majority of journalists, including those in England, were much more balanced in their views, recognizing the occasion and the brutal tactics we came up against. This stupid perception still persists and annoys me whenever it rears its head. Sure Pedro, Alves, and Busquets took some liberties in their reaction to tackles, but how people could pin the actions of so few in one game of hundreds before and extrapolate an overall image was myopic, irresponsible, and hypocritical. Thankfully, Pep and the team have since had the last laugh.
An undeniable superiority in players and tactics resulted in a historic 3-1 victory over Manchester United. Despite an opening 10-minute flurry that frayed blaugrana nerves, the remaining 80 were so dominant in our favor, Sir Alex Ferguson could do nothing but admit defeat to a much better team. I recently watched the game again and it is a display to marvel. That victory was our 2nd Champions League in 3 years, our 2nd versus Manchester United and 3rd versus English clubs. A victory to savor for many years to come.
In the 2nd Champions League tie, the final of the 4 above, Nic wished Abidal would make the Champions League final. In one of the most touching stories of 2011, Eric Abidal made a speedy recovery from a liver tumor to not only make the final, but start in it. Prior to his diagnosis, Abidal was playing the best he ever had for Barcelona. Covering at center back, he hit such a high level of excellence I had him as the star performer of the season till that point. Upon his diagnosis in March, Abidal pushed doctors to operate immediately, wanting to face it head on and recover as quickly as possible. Despite losing a lot of mass during his recovery, through sheer desire and effort Eric made it back to training in under 2 months, and on that May 28th, 2011 evening to most of our surprise but delight made the starting 11. Then, in one of my favorite moments as not only a Culé but a fan of sports, club legend Carles Puyol passed off the Champions League trophy to his friend Eric Abidal to lift as a success to not only the team’s victory but his own.
Several summer sagas over his return home finally ended in August with Cesc leaving Arsenal in a great bit of business for us. The club paid 29 million Euros up-front, and then contingent on 2 La Ligas and 1 Champions League in the next 5 years we owe another 5 million. Considering the time value of money, that extra 5 million is basically nothing. Cesc wanted to come back desperately, evidenced by the fact he sacrificed 1 million Euros per year from his salary to join, but not everyone was willing to welcome him with open arms. Nic was less enthusiastic, but I very much wanted him back, and his official presentation was very emotive for me personally.
Nic wrote on his signing, “Welcome Cesc, I’ve never much liked you in the past but I recognize you are a very good player. I hope you do great things at Barça and make us all fall madly in love with you.” And thus far, Cesc has done great things for Barça and I think squashed any doubt or negativity once felt. (Nic has since not only been very objective and fair with Cesc, but praised him) He was crucial in many big matches, sealing the UEFA Super Cup and putting the final dagger into Madrid just a few weeks back with a header. Cesc has added a lot to this squad. He has always been a more natural goalscorer than Iniesta and Xavi, which has been on show again with his 11 goals thus far, 2nd in the team. He is very adept at moving forward and finding space behind the defense, but also, he is one of our taller players, which has seen him score a few neat headers. He isn’t too shabby on the ball either, and has assisted 6 goals this year, 4th in the team. Cesc spoke candidly about his departure, saying it was the “hardest, but easiest” decision he has every made. But being back home with his friends and family has not been the only advantage. In his time abroad, he won a solitary trophy in 8 years at Arsenal, an FA Cup. In 6 months back home, he has 3.
Un, Dos, Tres
Winning our first trophy of the 2011/12 season was nothing short of a battle. A 5-4 aggregate (2-2,3-2) victory over Madrid was the ideal way to start the season, but it was hard-fought. Under prepared due to the pre-season, Madrid were better in the first leg, but Messi (mentions for Mascherano and Iniesta too) stepped up in a big way in both legs to lead us to victory. Over the two legs Madrid may have been better, but Pep’s motivational talents and the team’s spirit and abilities saw us through.
However once again the victory was tainted by Mourinho and his team’s antics. Marcelo tried to break Cesc’s legs near the end of the second leg and a massive brawl exploded. In the midst of that bedlam, calmly yet almost maniacally, Mourinho coolly walked over to Tito Villanova and essentially gouged him in the eye. Never have I seen a more despicable act by a manager. Then he topped it off with the “pito” post-match comment. Mourinho has never apologized, yet the fall out from this was interesting. Reports were that many Madrid players, Casillas specifically, were feeling very uncomfortable with his antics and it’s said Iker spoke to Mou saying the team is not enjoying the animosity and hatred he is breeding between the clubs. Since, to his credit (I suppose), Mourinho was vocally kind to Tito Villanova during his medical absence and specifically greeted him during the Clásico in December. There was also very little of his paranoid, victim (PORQUE) act after that match.
Barça brushed off those ugly scenes just 8 days later by winning trophy number 2, and Pep’s 12th overall, making him the most successful coach in the clubs history. A deserved 2-0 victory over Porto was celebrated with some gusto by the team in another display of the honest friendship between the lads.
A walloping of Brazilian club Santos in Yokohama Japan just weeks ago made it a perfect 3/3 in terms of trophies up for grabs. The team was seriously good in this match. Some say Santos didn’t turn up, but how many times can reporters lazily use that rather than admit Barça create that. Man United didn’t turn up (twice), neither Bayern Munich (Lyon, Arsenal), nor Real Madrid (and Cristiano Ronaldo) on countless occasions.
I could go on and on, but will show some restraint. 2011 has been near perfect. Sure we lost the Copa, but sports is a business of winning and losing, despite some forgetting that. Barça have done so much winning, maybe we needed a bit of losing to relight the fires and bring things into perspective.
At the midway point in the league we find ourselves 3 points behind Real Madrid, a consequence of collecting 10 points less on our travels than Madrid (22 points versus 12). The players aren’t footballing robots and we’ve seen evidence of that this year against Getafe, Bilbao, and Santander. Still, in the big games, the team has stepped up in such an impressive way, no less so than the 3-1 victory in the Bernabeu this month. A whole lot of people, fans and journalists, had Madrid winning that game. It just made sense: they were at home and on blistering form, while Barça hadn’t won away from the Camp Nou in the league since October. Well, Pep and the team showed the world who the best team in Spain and Europe is. His often under appreciated tactical nuance was a major reason for the victory, with the 3-4-3 showing it’s potential devastating effects. The league is still far from over.
It’s been a breakout 6 months for the likes of Thiago and Cuenca. Some felt Thiago would be undone by Cesc’s arrival, but this has been far from the case. Having matured in the eyes of Guardiola, mainly by putting a lot of his unneeded showboating aside, Thiago has become an efficient player without (thankfully) totally sacrificing his natural flair. The result has seen him become an integral part of the team, playing 1, 435 minutes thus far, 9th overall, around 200 more than Cesc. Isaac Cuenca has also stepped up during our injury issues and despite Pep not being a fan of his looks, this lanky winger has shown natural pace and skills on the right wing, helping us to several results this season. Two more local boys on their way to stardom, making the city proud (at least with Thiago I’d say). Alexis was hampered by that early injury, but in Madrid we saw his ability to finish with the best of them as well as a gritty fighting spirit.
Happy New Year everyone. I hope you’ve enjoyed the season thus far, as I have taken pleasure in reporting it back. Please for 2012, let us get the comments section flowing a bit more. Other blogs may have more content, but we have a special personal feel here at Barçacentral, and we need everyone to contribute to keep that alive. Have a safe New Years and see everyone in 2012.
¡Visca Barça! ¡Visca Catalunya!