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Five Aside

Pep ponders the mix

Lots of people (and newspapers) have been talking about Pep Guardiola this week, mainly because last week's home draw with Villarreal was followed up by a home defeat in the King's Cup to Sevilla, prompting the wunderkind of football management to announce to the press that he was fallible after all. Rather than prompting comments of admiration for taking the responsibility on his own elegant shoulders, further criticism followed, one newspaper acidically suggesting that Guardiola was wrong to deflect criticism from the players because it let them off the hook. After each trophy won, the article added, Guardiola had insisted on making the players the protagonists, so when they lose, it should be the same.

This partly masked the fact that much of the Camp Nou's ire was taken out on the Ukranian centre-back, Dmitro Chigrinsky, as opposed to the whole team - and Sevilla playing rather well (as had Villarreral four days previously) was of course overlooked, but Spanish journalism is ever thus. When David slays Goliath, the victor's virtues rarely warrant a mention. The boy did well, but what was the giant messing around at?

Sevilla are hardly a David, of course, and their maddening inconsistency continued this weekend when they failed to win their third consecutive home game, losing 1-2 to a Canales-inspired Racing de Santander and looking longingly at the chance that the King's Cup (they will struggle to get much further in the Champions at this rate) has now given them to pick up a trophy this year and thus stay in the European reckoning.

Barcelona's 0-5 hammering of Tenerife, a tricky-looking match on paper given the week's events, came over as the players' defence of their manager. The cup this season has seemingly taken on a a new function - to test the ability of a manager and his players to weather the media storm created by a defeat, a phenomenon that has had three classic examples this season.

The first was the Alcorcon farce, where Pelligrini's managerial life seemed in premature peril and the media were calling for his blood (they're silent now), Recreativo's drubbing of Atlético Madrid in midweek - which prompted some sort of cathartic reaction from Quique "Doctor House" Sánchez Flores, threatening to hang his players from Madrid's lamp-posts and leave them as carrion for the vultures, and Barça´s above-mentioned defeat.

Atlético also ran out on Saturday night as if their backsides were on fire, and pummelled poor Valladolid 0-4 in the process, a reaction that also smacked of their respect for their new leader, and Real Madrid were reminded of their cup exit when their manager included Guti in the squad for the first time since that infamous October night, an evening during which the blond midfielder was alleged to have told his Chilean boss to stick it where it hurts. Guti even got a game, coming on for Xabi Alonso in the last ten minutes. It would seem that Bolton Wanderers will have to wait, and that the latest rumours of Guti's exit were as premature as the previous five hundred.

So if the consequences of defeat in the cup to a David or a sort-of-David are so serious, why mess with the team structure? Why put out a weakened side? There are surely various reasons, and why Guardiola should have deemed it necessary to apologise says a lot for the power of media-bullying these days. The best reason for putting out a different side (let's forget "weakened") is that players like Pinto, Maxwell, Milito, Thiago, Bojan and Chigirinsky, if they are not picked for the cup games, are really going to look at themselves and wonder what their manager thinks of them.

The King's Cup, like its FA counterpart in England, has become a useful competition for the bigger sides with their compulsorily bloated squads - bloated because in order to aim for higher things they need three players for every position, but that's the way the cookie crumbles nowadays. There's little point in pretending that the situation doesn't exist, and that we can all return to the romance of the cup as it used to be. The second reason is inextricably linked to the first, in that the fringe players need to compete from time to time, and to be seen to be competing. Sevilla was a useful run-out for several players, and the tie is hardly over, given the Andaluz side's home record of late. Barça didn't lose because they had a 'weak' side out but because the composition of these cup-cobbled line ups is inevitably a rare one, with players relatively unaccustomed to one another, at least away from the training ground.

The third reason is slightly more anti-Pep, in the sense that if you buy in a couple of players like Maxwell and Chigirinsky for a combined 30 million, even your admirers like Joan Laporta might raise an eyebrow or two if those players remain in the dry dock. Guardiola is clearly a great coach in the making, but Ibrahimovic excepted, the jury is still out on his purchases.

The final reason is the least convincing, but is nevertheless valid. Key players need a rest, and although the game was played during a relatively tranquil period after the Christmas break (the Champions League doesn't re-start up for a while yet) , there was still an opportunity to rest some and try others out. In the case of this specific game, Xavi, Iniesta and Messi were all playing anyway, so why the fuss? Barça didn't approach the game lightly either, and are still interested - in theory anyway, in retaining their six trophies.

Against Tenerife on Sunday, the game began as though it might turn into an endorsement of the critics. The home side were quicker out of the blocks, and the lack of muscle in the Barça midfield while their Africans are away began to show, with an alarming lack of cover for Puyol and Marquez in the opening twenty minutes. But they got away with it, courtesy of the crossbar and some poor finishing by Tenerife, and hit back with three simple goals before the break, which effectively killed off the game.

Sides like Tenerife need a high percentage of chances in order to convert. Barcelona don't. No Ibrahimovic, but Bojan was excellent, and Iniesta's run and pass for Bojan to set up the third goal deserves to be voted 'indirect assist of the season'. Messi's third goal wasn't bad either, executed with frightening nonchalance.

Poor Tenerife. They really didn't deserve to go home on the back of a hiding, but that is what they got, at least on paper, and if there was a mini-crisis at Barcelona, it should be solved easily enough with the return of Pique.

As Gregorio Manzano, Mallorca's boss admitted on the programme Estudio Estadio late on Sunday night, it would be a brave fool who stuck his neck out and predicted La Liga's eventual winner this season, although the fool is going to have a 50 per cent chance of getting it right.

Manzano had just caught a taxi from the Bernabéu where his side put up a disappointing lack of resistance to Real Madrid, who ran out comfortable 2-0 winners. The press had been talking up the game all week, since it was the most interesting looking fixture on the list and the one that threatened some sort of upset - Mallorca having climbed into the Champions League spots the weekend before. But of their 30 points, 24 have come from home games, and the islanders continue to be queasy on their travels. Must be all that flying they have to do. The poor dears were in Madrid in midweek too, when they lost 2-1 to Rayo Vallecano in the cup, a result they should put right next week in the return.

At least Valencia are keeping up third-place appearances, with Sevilla in woeful decline. Deportivo have hopped up into fourth place, but Valencia deserve a further mention for the fact that eight of their opening line-up were Spanish-born players. It might be force of economic circumstance, or a more conscious policy, but it represents a rare percentage these days. Their 3-1 win at struggling Xerez wasn't entirely unpredictable, but Valencia are making a good fist of confounding the runes and putting together a half decent season, despite them also losing at home in the cup in midweek (to Deportivo).

And with Man Utd reluctant to open the purse strings and Chelsea also reluctant, Silva, Villa and Mata look like being around at least until the summer, where a Champions League place would go some way towards reducing the club's debt and convincing the banks that a further stay of execution might be feasible.

Next week, oddly enough, Barcelona play Sevilla twice more, in the cup on Wednesday and in the league next Sunday, after which they will both be sick of the sight of each other - another reason for both managers to chop and change the line-ups.

It will be interesting to see, however, what Guardiola does. If he risks a 'weakened' line-up again and loses, he may come in for the most flak he has received since taking up the post. If he puts out a strong side, he may be accused of running scared from the press. Oh well, I'm sure he's paid quite well for his dilemmas.


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