Barcelona start dreaming again
Things are looking up Barcelona way.
The sheer practicality of their wins for much of last season and for much of this so far is beginning to look like a policy difficult to sustain. Whilst Barça were knocking in 5 goals again (their favourite number this season) on Wednesday night in Basle and on Saturday night against Almería in the Camp Nou, Real Madrid were losing to a Juventus performance that was in itself a classic example of practicality, to be followed by a nervy performance at home to Athletic Bilbao.
Madrid won it in the end (3-2) but after a struggle. At no point did they ever seem in real control of the game, and that will be worrying for Schuster. Higuaín scored a couple and played well yet again, but without Van Nistlerooy things don't quite gel. Without the Dutchman's unerring ability to score from every opportunity that comes his way, the team seems to lose some self-belief.
The phrase to end the last paragraph is significant. Barcelona lost a lot of that last season, and seemed in danger of continuing in the same vein after a less than impressive start to this campaign, but you always felt that the quality would emerge, once the egos had calmed down and Guardiola's vision of things had communicated itself to all and sundry.
What was most impressive about Barça's win - against a plucky Almeria side who started the game well - was the sheer speed and physical presence of the 'pressing' game they have adopted in the last month or so. It's interesting that a side with so much quality on the ball should feel the need to do this, but its effect is ultimately demoralising on the opposition. It's hard enough to get the ball off Barça even on a bad day, but when you suddenly find yourself surrounded by a pack of home players every time the ball comes into your vicinity, and you are given absolutely no time to do anything with it, it's a double whammy of depression.
Atlético Madrid were similarly cut to pieces a fortnight ago, such that after 15 minutes it was game over, and the Almeria game followed a similar pattern, Eto'o scoring the third after a mere 20 minutes. As any pro will tell you, at 2-0 you feel you still have a chance. At 3-0, you just want to go home to your mum.
Barça knocked in five by half-time, with Eto'o scoring a hat-trick and Dani Alves getting off the mark. The full-back is beginning to look like his former self at Sevilla, now that his role is becoming clearer. He's not a full-back at all, and prefers to be given licence to roam.
Well, you can't roam when you play for Barça (unless you're Messi), but you can play 'high' if the manager's instructions have been to attack Almería in their own half, when they are in possession. That's exactly what Alves did, and it simply contributed to the tsunami of quality attacks that swept over the visitors' heads for most of the first half.
Everywhere you looked there was a sort of controlled creativity that came from almost always having the ball moving at speed, and almost always having three options available - such was Barça's movement off the ball. The fulcrum of the movement was, as ever, the interplay between Iniesta and Xavi - a classic combination of static and dynamic. Lampard and Gerrard, allegedly incompatible in England's midfield, would do well to study the theory, or watch a few Barça videos.
The secret lies in the fact that Xavi (the more 'static' of the two) never loses the ball. He dedicates himself to staying in the spaces that are created by the movements of the opposition in trying to mark the more dynamic or fluid players. He never really goes anywhere else, and he rarely runs with the ball. He simply dedicates every second of the game to retaining possession and making sure that the 'fluid' players get a constant stream of passes coming their way in territory that threatens the opposition.
Iniesta, a player who seems to be getting better by the minute, revels in the possibilities that this affords him, particularly given the fact that other players in his team (like Messi) are capable of retaining possession even when they decide to run with the ball - so to give it to them is not necessarily a risk.
Steven Gerrard, a 'fluid' player if ever there was one, benefits from having a Spanish player (Xabi Alonso) who is more static, and a forward like Torres who will always offer himself up to retain possession. In the England side, Gerrard lacks these luxuries. But Barça have them in abundance. In the second half against Almería, they took the foot off the gas and allowed their ten-man opposition to get their breath back - a gesture that may not have gone down too well with their manager or with their supporters, but there seemed to be no more desire for blood. Next week Barça travel to Málaga, who surprisingly beat Sevilla 0-1 in the Sánchez Pizjuan, making it four wins on the trot and a UEFA position.
The whole Eto'o debate, should he stay or should he go, seems to be finally buried (or at least until the next crisis), and the idea that the interesting but profligate Adebayor could have taken his place seems almost inconceivable now. The public of both Arsenal and Barcelona seem to have forgotten and forgiven, but the footballing truth remains.
In the same vein, Xabi Alonso scored for Liverpool and ended Chelsea's 86-game unbeaten home run, when only three months earlier Rafa Benitez was trying to sell him off and replace him with Gareth Barry. Eh? Don't worry Rafa. We all make mistakes.
Arsène Wenger might yet regret his decision to allow Alexander Hleb to go to Barcelona, but perhaps he felt that he had enough 'fluid' players at his disposal. Hleb came on for Touré in the second half of Saturday's match, and is a frightening reminder of the depths of quality in the Catalan squad.
Valencia remain top, and are doing a great job, but for how long? The only sand in Barça's current Vaseline is the relative apathy of their supporters. 63,000 turned up for the Almería game, which is hardly a reason for panic in most quarters, but in a ground that holds 99,000 it's cause for concern. Maybe it's the credit crunch, but if they keep scoring five every week the culés' bums should return to the seats.
The problems that plagued Barcelona last season, more off the field than on it, also seem to be finding their way back to the Bernabéu, with rumours that Sergio Ramos is the centre of a new dressing-room faction, against whom the older Pretorian Guard of Raúl, Salgado and friends are forming vocal opposition.
Ramos isn't playing well either, but the reasons for that seem to be more linked to the devotion of his alleged harem than to any sudden discovery that he is not such a great player after all. It's the human side of things again, and Ramos, after being key to Real Madrid's resurgence, now finds himself in the eye of the storm.
Like Ronaldo at Manchester United, the body language is all wrong. It only takes one to upset the apple cart. Ask Frank Rijkaard. Now Pep Guardiola seems to have that aspect of things sorted and his team are playing the football of which we always knew them capable.
Of further interest this week was the sacking of the other Ramos over at Tottenham, after he failed to prove himself the new Benitez. As mentioned in this column at the time, there was no reason to assume that Juande Ramos would cut the mustard in England, given that his record in Spain was a dubious one, apart from his time at Seville.
How about Osasuna? Juan Antonio Camacho, brought in to manage the ailing Pamplona outfit a fortnight ago, usually tends to do a runner after a month or so, which would mean that you'd only get long odds on that one. He's already lost his first two games, so the countdown's already started.
Over at Atlético Madrid, Javier Aguirre cannot feel entirely safe, and despite his team's comeback in a wonderful 4-4 draw at Villarreal, the usual disappointing start means that he might be gone if things don't pick up soon. López Muñiz at Racing Santander can't be feeling too comfortable either, after the euphoria of last season. Place your bets now, and I'll claim 10% commission if anyone out there wins a decent amount.