Graham Hunter: Why Barcelona have laboured lately, but things can work in their favour for El Clasico

El Clasico, Sunday 8pm, Sky Sports 1

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Those who thought, a couple of weeks ago, that this Clasíco was shaping up like a premium Mike Tyson versus an eight stone weakling may see no reason at all to change their mind.

It’s just a fortnight since Barcelona put in what must be their worst league performance since January 2003 (then it was a 3-0 away defeat to Racing Santander, this time a pathetic display in losing 1-0 to Valladolid) and the reigning champions have only 12 out of a possible 21 points in recent matches.

Set that against Real Madrid’s relentless treatment of every kind of rival, Copa, Champions League and La Liga and this was shaping up as a mis-match.

But not for me the hoary old chestnut that ‘anything can happen’ in a ‘derby’ or a ‘Clasíco’ – there are a clutch of specific, interesting factors which while Madrid may deserve to remain favourites, narrow the gap.

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Firstly the pride of the Barcelona players has been horribly wounded. Not, for once, by criticism from the media and fans but because they, as a group, fully realized that the level of commitment, attitude and effort they showed at Valladolid was totally unacceptable.

Both the victories since then, beating Manchester City 2-1 and thumping Osasuna 7-0, have been cathartic.

Key players performed with zest, concentration, energy and aggression.

Both, granted, were at the Camp Nou where Barcelona’s vulnerability has been dramatically less evident.

But tied with the recent wins at Sevilla and City there was evidence that the absolutely crucial remnants of Barcelona’s golden era are locked and loaded – Messi, Iniesta, Valdés in particular.

It isn’t quite stating the obvious as much as once would have been the case, but Messi is the key.

Mess-ter and Commander

His performances in 2014, since he lost the Ballon D’Or to Cristiano Ronaldo, have been a strange mix. When he’s played listlessly he’s either scored or assisted. When he, and the team, have hit top gear, he’s looked brilliant once more.

Historically he loves this match. The Argentinian has 18 goals in 26 meetings with Madrid, one more and he’ll pinch the all time record off his countryman Alfredo Di Stefano (30 Clasícos).

This calendar year in 17 matches, all competitions, he’s scored 17 times and made seven more.

This, just when people were beginning to question his appetite, his zip and his mood.

One might argue that Sky Sports bringing us the genius of Ronaldo and Messi every weekend has only taught the dullards to be quixotic and impatient rather than appreciative and wise.

But attentive Messi-watchers should have learned something else.

He always insists that no matter his prolific scoring, no matter that he produces lava-hot spurts of play which take a match away from any rival of any class he relies on a team performance.

He doesn’t think he produces one-man-wins, nor does he want anyone else to think that.

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Martino, just as against City, needs to be smart enough to unite Cesc, Iniesta, Xavi and Busquets in the same starting XI.

If he doesn’t, if he thinks that a three man midfield and three out-and-out strikers will suffice in a 4-3-3 v 4-3-3 battle then Madrid will win, I’m sure of that.

As Time Goes Bye …

More, I think there’s the ‘old showman’ factor.

This is guaranteed to be Victor Valdés’ last Liga Clasíco – already stubborn as a mule, he’ll give extra to ensure that it isn’t a defeat.

Whether or not Puyol makes the squad everyone around him will be conscious that this, too, is not ‘au-revoir’ but adieu. For good.

There’s an all for one one for all spirit to this squad. He’s held in reverential affection by those around him – again, there’ll be an extra effort.

Xavi has a deal until 2016 but there’s pressure on his services for next season. Perhaps he’ll stay, only he knows. But IF he knows this might be his final Bernabéu appointment then watch him attempt to switch his ‘passometer’ into overdrive.

None of these factors win matches on their own, but they narrow the gap.

Then there is the lack of the ‘fear factor’. Most of these Barcelona players have played in the majority of their club’s last ten visits to the Bernabéu.

Those matches have yielded five wins, three draws and two defeats. A remarkable record.

Real Improvement

None of this is to detract from Real Madrid’s status as favourites. They are four points ahead for a good reason. Carlo Ancelotti’s team haven’t lost in any competition since the 2-1 defeat to Barça back in October. The swing in their favour has been ten points since then.

For months now they have been pressing the ball with more co-ordination and energy than Barça, they have been quick and accurate in their use of the ball.

Thus far this has been Ronaldo’s season, not Messi’s. Not only is his goal tally outrageous – closer to fifty than thirty – he’s forming a wonderful partnership with Bale who keeps on serving him assists.

More, Ronaldo has long since learned to love ‘bullying’ Barcelona.

Having failed to score in his first five games against them for Madrid and Manchester United he’s subsequently hit 12 in 17 Clasícos.

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Headers, breakaways, subtle touches, shots from distance, penalties – the full repertoire. Barcelona’s only successful tactic against Ronaldo is, just as when Spain play Portugal, is to stop the ball getting to him. (Back to that four man midfield and trying to get a head-lock on possession) if they fail to do that it’s almost guaranteed he’ll score again.

Tired old excuses or a Real worry?

But if there’s a case to make that the gap between the two sides has narrowed then it might pay to heed the regular references over the last two and half weeks which Ancelotti has made to ‘tiredness’ and the ‘recuperation’ of his players.

Also to the fact that one or two Madrid players, Pepe and Di Maria, have been hit by high temperatures and allergies this week.

Last weekend in Malaga there was a drop-off in creativity and intensity and while some of Ancelotti’s key men were initially rested against Schalke on Wednesday Xabi Alonso (so vital), Sergio Ramos and Cristiano Ronaldo were not while Bale and Dani Carvajal were required to come on.

Should Madrid need a tiger in their tank, however, it’s the knowledge that they defeated Barcelona three times last season, twice at home once away, and three points this weekend will almost certainly put the defending champions out of the title race.

Some value? Well, Real Madrid scored four headers, spread between Rafa Varane, Sergio Ramos and Cristiano Ronaldo, in last season’s Clasícos.

Spare a thought for Barça’s defenders, too. Widely lambasted when the fault is often the lack of pressing by players in front of them it’s still the case that Carles Puyol, Eric Abidal and Jordi Alba have all scored Clasíco goals in the last couple of seasons and …. Dani Alves recently scored in each leg of the Champions League tie against Manchester City. Fancy it?

Ref justice

The referee: his decisions distinctly helped Barcelona last October (denying Ronaldo a clear penalty) but still Martino’s players absolutely distrust him. Their hackles will be up and they’ll be in ‘protest’ mode from the get-go.

This despite the fact that with Undiano Mallenco Barcelona has a lower loss % than Madrid do under him; their rivals see massively more bookings with him (Barça 98 yellows:opponents 125 yellows) than is the case when he refs Madrid (RM 133:134 opponents), his penalty ratio goes the same way (Barça 9:3 opponents while Real Madrid 9:7 opponents). But the Barça players think he’s too slow to book, too liberal with foul-play as a tactic .. and I’d say nobody will feel a fool for taking a long look at the odds for penalties and red cards.

But to make a long story short. If Barcelona control the ball they’ll go home with no worse than a draw … and still in the title chase. If Martino selects the wrong starting XI then sit back and watch Madrid boss midfield and pick off their historic rivals.

It’s dangerous picking a winner in a game of such tight margins, but all things considered, I’m going for Barca to win it by a single goal.

Graham’s bet

Barcelona to win by exactly one goal – 4/1
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Graham Hunter: Why, if Barcelona get their tactics wrong, Man City can punish them

It’s odd after the Catalan euphoria of a 0-2 win at the Etihad in the first leg that subsequent power-plays by the two Madrid clubs (Atletico 5-1 winners over Milan, Real Madrid 6-1 up on Schalke) that Barça somehow profile as the ‘weak’ man of the Spanish Champions League trio.

The aura which they re-established that night in Manchester, whispering reminiscences of better times gone by, has been dissipated by subsequent horror-shows in La Liga.

Add the fact that it’s now palpably clear that Mauricio Pellegrini should have dictated a faster-paced, high-pressure, high-up-the-pitch strategy in the first leg (patented in Barça defeats by Valladolid and Real Sociedad) and there’s the whiff of a shock drifting over the Camp Nou.

Manuel PellegriniTwitter

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Vincent Kompany, all seriousness and articulate football analysis in the press room of the Camp Nou on Tuesday, very evidently felt that football inherently provides great nights, great shocks like City will need but also warned that at the first sign of complacency from the visitors that Barcelona are easy meat and ‘the beast might awake’.

Those who favour City will talk about Barcelona’s defence. It’s not a false point but I think it also misses the key issue. It’s in midfield where Barcelona have begun to be over-run.

Attack is the best form of defence

When the Catalans were at their very best the defence began with the front three – perm from Pedro, Leo Messi, Samuel Etoo, Thierry Henry and David Villa.

For opposition defenders it was simply less hassle to get shot of the ball than put up with Blaugrana strikers, backed up by midfielders or wing backs, nipping and snarling around their heels.

By definition this meant that the midfield was almost always on the front foot.

Xavi, Iniesta, Busquets, Yaya Touré and Seydou Keita et al were constantly picking up the scraps of possession won by the front three relatively high up the pitch and immediately pressing the advantage the way that the forward line pressed the ball – with urgency and intelligence.

All of this meant that with predictable regularity the majority of the defending which Barcelona’s back line did was based on anticipating trouble coming, reading it, intercepting it and, more regularly than right now as teams score from set plays or shoot early, relying on Victor Valdes making one-on-one saves when the defensive line was penetrated.

Etoo Iniesta and Pique celebrate

Currently neither of the two lines in front of them are protecting the Barça defence the way they once did.

While I would argue that both Dani Alves and Javier Mascherano are making consistently flawed decisions on positioning and when/when not to  tackle, the impression that the roof is falling in on the Barcelona back four is exacerbated by: how much extra work they are having to cope with; what their role was originally constructed by Pep Guardiola to be (largely offensive) and how deep they feel obliged to play.

Which leads to the fundamental decision facing Tata Martino with regards to team selection, team formation and the philosophy of how to control this tie tonight.

tata martino

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By his own admission after the first leg against City the cluster of matches (Sevilla, Rayo Vallecano, Real Sociedad and the match in Manchester) not only had the Spanish champions played well, controlled matches won with style or qualified for the Cup Final (against Real Sociedad), Barcelona had managed to concede very few chances on goal.

Part of his success was to tamper with the outright 4-3-3 formation, where the front three are all pure strikers, and to ensure that as often as possible Andres Iniesta, Xavi, Sergio Busquets and Cesc Fabregas are united in the same team.

More, when either Iniesta or Cesc is named in the front three but, effectively performs like an (attacking) midfielder Barcelona’s shape is 4-4-2 or, when the full backs push on, 3-5-2.

Absolutely Fabregas – Cesc has to start

The centre of the pitch is well-worked, possession is circulated, the ball is dominated, Barcelona introduce a sense of calm and control, the defence returns to reading and anticipating (rather than dealing with the roof falling in over their heads) fewer corners are conceded (vital) and Tata Martino’s side become formidable once more.

Yet something in the Argentinian seems to dare him to ignore the obvious. In their two horror defeats, to Real Sociedad in the league and then Valladolid last weekend, he has opted for three out and out strikers, left the midfield denuded – and been whupped for his troubles.

If Martino gets his selection right – Xavi, Cesc, Busquets and Iniesta must all start – then whatever the result on the night you can bet your bottom dollar that the home side will qualify.

IF his tactical statement (as he postulated on Tuesday) is ‘we are Barça, we are at home, we play 4-3-3 as a point of principal’ then City can smack their lips and approach the match with relish.

Silva and Aguero celebrate

Martino has at his disposal a tiring, ageing, but nonetheless 24 karat group of footballers who are hugely stung by their recent losses and how they are being savagely criticised here in Catalunya (and Madrid) expect a reaction.

Note, please, that Barcelona limited City’s corners in the first leg. And that their marking scheme had Gerard Piqué free on the edge of the six yard box and Dani Alves paired with Alvaro Negredo.

I saw Negredo last week at the Calderon when a Brazilian-born striker, Diego Costa, relegated him to the Spain bench for the entire 90 minutes against Italy. He wasn’t chuffed. He’s found goals hard to produce in the last seven matches but is ideally shaped to end that here.

Negredo to notch a header, both teams to score but, if Martino isn’t stubborn and simply reads the runes correctly with four midfielders, Barcelona to do no worse than draw. And to proceed.

Mind you, as Kompany correctly points out, ‘football is great because it routinely provides remarkable nights when remarkable things happen’.

Stay tuned.

Hunter’s Punts

Negredo to score at anytime: 3/1
Both teams to score: 4/7
Both teams to score and Barca to win: 17/10 – or – Both teams to score and draw: 4/1

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Zidane loved running the show on the pitch but how will his influence pan out at the Bernabeu?

Two talents of which Florentino Pérez has never lost sight at Real Madrid are sleight of hand and the born-salesman’s understanding that you tempt the punters with the sizzle not the sausage.

The dream, not the reality.

Season ticket holders and media rumbling with discontent? Buy a Galactico.

Still not happy? Sack a manager.

Another scintilla of criticism? Then tell the great unwashed that the debt is negligible. Build a roof on the stadium. Offer loyal Madridistas free seats on the first charter flight to Pluto.

Or put a legend on the non-playing staff. Di Stefano, Butragueño, Valdano.

Anyone else available?

In the summer, the answer was, ‘yes’.

Therefore, as the Champions League resumed this week there was one participant, and only one, whose father herded goats, who has fallen towards earth at 200km per hour, who has suffered death threats, who’s been called “just a walking billboard who prostitutes himself” and who is as handy as pugilist as he is at football.

It’s not Lionel Messi but this man also once committed to his new club on the back of a serviette, he has played in three European Cup finals and two World Cup finals, scoring four times but only managing a win ratio of 40%.

He had a cinema movie made about his divine elegance, his family call him Yaz, you call him Zizou.

Or Zinedine Zidane. Legend.

ZZ-skills

Right now he is assistant coach to Carlo Ancelotti, the man who last week admitted: “Things are going to improve from now on because we really couldn’t play any worse.”

But Zidane’s time as a Bernabéu (track)suit has been just as full of uncomfortable wriggling as his first few months as a player here were.

The first Galactico

Zinedine Yazid Zidane was, you could argue, the first of Don Florentino’s Galacticos – the Emperor’s first set of new clothes.

Back in 2000 Luis Figo’s world record move shocked football, set a new transfer record and launched the ‘Galactico’ concept.

But his was a buyout — once Figo’s head had been turned by wages and the exact buyout clause paid Barcelona had absolutely no means of preventing him leaving.

Zidane was the jewel in Juve’s crown. Their team was in transition, the Bianconeri were totally opposed to selling but Florentino seduced the player. Zidane gave his current club a ‘let me go’ ultimatum and Pandora’s Box opened.

Perez began to get a kick from picking the pockets of Europe’s elite clubs, and from the evidence that the process was a kind of football valium for most of those whose philosophies opposed his.

The leaving of Juve (which commenced when Zidane was passed a knapkin at a Monte Carlo banquet on which was written: Wanna come out to play? Hugs n kisses, Florentino) is partly why this is a week of ghosts for the Frenchman.

ZZ-Hamden

Madrid initially struggled to get the best from him, to fine tune the team and Zidane into a functioning unit.

Then came Hampden. Then came THAT goal (above) and a ninth European Champion Clubs’ Cup win for Los Blancos. The proudest of boasts.

In that balletic, ballistic instant in Glasgow, Zidane indelibly branded himself as the single most identifiable Madrid image in their European Cup history.

Di Stefano, Gento, Puskas, Hierro, Raul, Roberto Carlos may MEAN more, much more, but the extraordinary goal and the global saturation of the Champions League elevate impact over importance.

But, as with much of Florentino’s reign, it proved to be a sugar-filled snack, not a rich banquet.

Infamy awaits at the World Cup

Zidane had arrived with a yearning for the Champions League to love him, having lost two finals and a semi-final in consecutive years with Juve (to Dortmund, Real Madrid and then Manchester United having led 3-1 at home with an away goal advantage).

After Hampden there was only frustration and humiliation. Madrid were twice knocked out of this tournament, at the semi and round of 16, by a rejuvenated Juventus under Marcello Lippi then Fabio Capello. He bet on red and the wheel came up black. He bet on black and the little while ball landed in a red slot.

There was THAT head-butt. Infamy, infamy, they’ve all got it infamy Zidane may have been entitled to moan.

However, the Marseille street-fighter in him erupting in Berlin’s Olympic Stadium wasn’t the last evidence that he has rebel, anarchist, blood flowing in his veins.

When footballers metamorphose from racehorses to plodding clydesdales, player to ex-player, they do so in a wide spectrum of ways.

Zidane goes back to his roots

Media pundit, manager, drinker tend to be the top three. Instead, in 2008 Zidane decided to take his former goat-herd father, whom he loves and respects with mad passion, back to Algeria so that the elder could help the younger discover and value his roots.

He became so committed to the cause of muscular dystrophy that, to raise profile and funds, he flung himself out of a plane. Perhaps if that year’s task had simply been walking on water the surprise might have been lesser.

“I always appreciated our earning power and the first class treatment we received but there was an equal and powerful desire to learn, to discover and to be able to see what normal people are able to use their inquisitiveness about life to achieve.

“But I agreed to fight against the causes and effects of muscular dystrophy. Each year this charity asks famous people to overcome some sort of challenge – my year it was sky-diving.”

Free from responsibility he strapped on a parachute, closed his eyes, prayed … and then jumped.

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“I thought I would feel real fear but instead it was only apprehension and adrenalin. You are in the plane going higher and higher and you are concentrating on the instructions from someone who has jumped perhaps 8000 times. Yet in the back of your mind you know there is real danger.

“The moment comes, the door opens and instead of fear you just don’t have an instant to think… which is probably just as well.

“You freefall at 200 kilometres per hour for 50 seconds and during those moments you are truly alone with yourself – the adrenaline is magnificent!”

When Zidane was at Juve although he was paid a king’s ransom and forbidden to do so by contract he’d often need the challenge of street football.

Uncomfortable process back in Madrid

Marcello Lippi recalls: “Technically he is the best player I have ever trained. In training he used to do stuff that was 10 times more spectacular that anything he has ever done on the pitch. I used to watch him with amazement. I would go home at 10 o’clock at night and see him out in the streets of his own neighbourhood playing with his Algerian friends. I would stop and tell him that he shouldn’t be playing and he would reply that these were life-long friends and he couldn’t turn them down.”

Now, like then, his urge to be in contact with the ball is urgent.

Zidane with Ancelotti

That uncomfortable process of getting back into planet Real Madrid, which mirrors his initial months as a player, has included him experimenting with positions as Director of Football, Presidential advisor, scout, ambassador – and now assistant to Ancelotti (once his manager at Juve, pictured above).

But he’s earned his spurs, via the Uefa A license course and his role, now, is to smooth the transition from the Jose Mourinho era.

“I was always the leader of the game,” Zidane points out. It was something I loved, organising everything, influencing the game. Off the pitch less so. I’m naturally pretty reserved and in certain situations I can be pretty quiet.

“One thing I’ve learned is how little I know. When I was doing the coaching course sometimes my head would be aching by the time I got to bed. But that just made me all the more determined to keep at it and keep progressing.

“One of the biggest things I’ve learned on the courses is that I don’t have to be really close to someone for the working relationship to flourish. Obviously you need people you trust around you but first and foremost you must look for competent people with the right skills.

“I’ve changed a lot in this respect and nowadays am happy to work with someone I might not know well but who can do the job.

“Previously I worried about being betrayed by someone. It was a fear of putting my trust in someone who might then let me down.”

ZZ-featured

It seems clear Zidane is worried about how the squad will view him. The man who persuaded Rafa Varane and Isco to choose Madrid (and thus to have a vested interest in them succeeding)? Or ‘just’ Ancelotti’s coaching assistant?

“You can’t be a player’s buddy all the time. If you want him to give you 100 per cent you need to challenge him a bit, even manipulate him. It’s all about knowing when to use the carrot and the stick, when to reward and when to threaten him,” said Zidane.

“I don’t particularly like the word ‘manipulate’ but a coach has to get the best out of his players. At the end of the day chumminess doesn’t work. There’s no point saying to the guy, ‘Do it for me’.”

Tears, frustration and sleepless nights

Juventus, the ‘other’ love of his football life this week. Barcelona, where he scored an epic Champions League semi final goal for Los Blancos back in 2002, at the weekend in Ancelotti’s first Clasico.

Madrid have looked as if their teething troubles under Ancelotti are turning to colic. There have been tears, frustration and sleepless nights. But if 5/1 for the Champions League outright makes them ‘maybe’ winners then it’s fair. The squad is made up of rich fabrics, it’s just the knitting pattern they need now.

Equally IF La Liga slips away from them then their recent Champions League victories have often been accompanied by seasons when they haven’t had to apply all physical and attention to domestic work. They should be in the final shake-up and achieving the ‘Decima’ (their 10th title) isn’t outlandish.

This time at least Florentino is bringing us the real deal.

Zidane is back. Where he belongs.

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Graham Hunter: Brain freezes and a lenient ref will cost Barcelona in El Clasico

You probably know of Sir Isaac Newton thanks to his famous First Law which, if you discard the mathematical theorem, simply says: “The Clásico will be all about Ronaldo and Messi again.”

But he patented another important physical rule, lesser known, which is that ‘for every action there will be an equal and opposite reaction’.

Isaac was a big football fan, hooked on Revista de la Liga and a regular Paddy Power punter. Had he been around today he’d be telling you to look at the last five years of FC Barcelona’s play to find the proof of his scientific doctrine. Particularly ahead of Saturday’s Clásico.

Under Pep Guardiola Barcelona pushed so hard against errors that, particularly in the biggest games, they practically eliminated them.

Pep at Barca

Tiki-taka and clusterf***s

Despite playing the most intricate, most difficult, highest-paced technical football we have probably ever seen (and I do mean ever) Guardiola’s Barça consistently chose the right passes, pressed and robbed the ball in the right way, moved off the ball with unrelenting intelligence and alternated between killing off the opponent and killing the tempo of the match with computer-like reliability.

Moreover, particularly in Clásicos, Barcelona displayed a shark-like hunger to wait for and then exploit even the most minor miscalculation or slip in concentration Madrid showed.

The last year of football at the Camp Nou, without Guardiola, has evidenced the equal and opposite reaction pushing right back. And often pushing harder.

From the first Guardiola-free Clasico, which was August 2012, until now there have been six Barça-Real Madrid meetings of which the Catalans have won one.

More importantly for fans of Newton, and those who like a well informed punt, Barcelona have committed a series of catastrophic goal-errors.

Ronaldo celebrating Portugal

Barcelona brain freeze

From the moment in the first post-Guardiola Clasico when Iker Casillas makes an extraordinary save face to face with Xavi, which would have left the home side 4-1 up, it starts.

Madrid chase a ‘lost’ ball all the way up the pitch, Victor Valdés has a brain freeze, Di Maria nips possession off his toes and scores for 3-2. You wouldn’t see it in a primary school playground.

Mascherano and Piqué succumbing to the long ball to concede twice in the return game and Adriano getting himself sent off for a last man challenge – a series of positional errors. They lose 2-1.

In the first Liga Clasico last season, a belter of a match in the event, Dani Alves doesn’t mark Ronaldo, and Valdés is surprised at his near post for Madrid’s first goal. At the second Adriano lumberingly plays Ronaldo onside for 2-2, Barcelona having protected their lead for all of five minutes. Ahead twice, no better than a point.

When Madrid stroll home 3-1 at the Camp Nou last January to win the Copa semi final Piqué dives into a penalty tackle, Puyol falls over in front of Di Maria’s dribble for the second goal and Varane is unmarked for the header which adds salt in the wound.

Then in the second Liga Clasico, when Barcelona play and behave as if they know their goose is cooked, Morata goes completely unchallenged down the left to cross for Benzema who’s unmarked at the back post to score.

Pique in action for Spain

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Errors, errors everywhere

Eleven horrible errors which all either allow extremely avoidable goals or bring a red card – in the space of just one year and six Clasicos.

What  they mask is that during considerable periods in the Supercup ties, the first league Clasico and particularly the 1-1 first leg Copa semi final tie, Barça played some top quality, creative, inventive football  which carried threat and seemed to indicate that their collective confidence against Madrid was undamaged without Guardiola.

But their ferocity, their attention to detail and their intensity was.

Piqué explains it best.

“Historically Barcelona has been behind Real Madrid. During the last 10 or 15 years there has emerged an extraordinary generation of players without whom we couldn’t have inverted the situation as we have regularly. We can’t spend what they do. Then there is Pep. The best coach I’ve had, particularly in terms of analyzing an opponent.

“It felt like he’d been watching videos of them for 24 hours every day. Before a match he’d say, ‘look, they play like this, or like that and we’ll have to shift a little to the left or the right in order to blunt them .. and then we’ll attack like this…’. He created a defined identity in how we thought and we played. It was the same away to Granada, away to Malaga or on a pitch covered in puddles. Pep really created this team.”

His absence created a vacuum into which Madrid strode.

But signs that things are changing under Tata

These last few weeks while the Catalan press has been scratching around for things to complain about there have been signs that while Tata Martino is no Guardiola, nor pretends to be, he’s been true to his word in what he wants to restore. Greater concentration, better pressing (albeit less high up the pitch) exploiting the occasional long diagonal pass aimed at Neymar and more regular shooting from distance in order to vary the attack.

He goes into this game with some doubts.

Is it simply because Messi has missed a couple of weeks with a thigh problem that he’s looked subdued during his minutes on the pitch against Osasuna and Milan this week?

Will Piqué, who has played with consistency, good judgement and strength this season, be fit to start having felt hamstring pain on Tuesday in Milan?

Should Pedro or Cesc start up front with Alexis allowed to play as an impact sub when the game is stretched?

And, importantly, what kind of game will referee Undiano Mallenco allow?

referee Undiano Mallenco

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Real Madrid have won all games under this ref

Without a hint of suggesting he might be biassed it remains a fact that Barcelona’s players think he’s allowed Madrid too much freedom to play physically, allowed them to gain an intimidatory edge in the recent Clásicos he’s taken charge of – all of which Madrid have won. (1-0 in the Copa Final of 2011, 1-2 in Guardiola’s final Clásico and 1-3 in the Copa semi-final last season)

In signing Neymar, but nobody else, Barcelona effectively made one of two statements: Either they think that they already ‘own’ the remedy to the embarrassing run of one win in six Clásicos or they think that the Liga, Copa and Champions League can be won irrespective of how they perform against Los Blancos.

Recently they’ve been victims of Madrid’s greater height, power and athleticism plus street-smarts, concentration and cutting edge. Quite a list.

But, despite Madrid both cutting the points gap in the league this week (a win would put them equal top) and registering a third straight Champions League win they do not yet look as error free as they became against Barça in Mourinho’s last 18 months.

Gareth bale on Wales duty

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Some ‘dark horse’ betting tips

At the time of writing the sides shape up like this…

  • Real Madrid: Diego, Carvajal, Ramos, Varane, Marcelo: Khedira, Illarramendi, Modric: Bale, Ronaldo, Di Maria.
  • Barça: Valdés, Alves, Puyol, Bartra/Piqué, Adriano: Xavi, Busquets, Iniesta: Pedro, Messi, Neymar.

Hopefully the football will be glorious. Hopefully the side you back wins.

Some ‘dark-horse’ ideas? Tata Martino asking his side to shoot from distance more often does offer a chance of Busquets or Alves being a high-odds anytime scorer. Bale is by no means sure to start but in his intermittent time on the pitch he’s put shots on target, created a penalty and scored from Dani Carvajal’s cross.

Neymar will start as favourite to garnish his Clásico debut with a goal … but it’s feasible that Bale might end his rather frustrating start to life in La Liga, and making himself a bit of a Madrid legend in the process, by putting one in the Barça net.

To me it looks like another Bishop Desmond game. 2-2.

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Graham Hunter: Ronaldo v Zlatan – regardless of who prevails, we are dealing with true greats

Even using the most basic Abacus skills there are a handful of contests taking place in Lisbon on Friday night – despite the world simply wanting to call it ‘Zlatan v Ronaldo’. Just like ‘The White Album’ was actually titled ‘The Beatles’ this event also has a ‘real’ name – Portugal v Sweden for a place at next summer’s World Cup. And there are other interests at play.

In the white corner, Real Madrid. They just renewed their greatest star, the striker who looks set to eclipse every club record, Puskas, Di Stefano, Raúl, and they committed close to €100m in salary in doing so. One of the yardsticks used by Ronaldo’s management company in negotiating the deal was that he should receive more than Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s €17m annual salary with Paris St Germain.

Madrid want their returns in victories over Barcelona, Liga titles, victories over Manchester United and Bayern Munich, Champions League titles. But they also need Ronaldo to be an advertising and sponsorship magnet. They need him to draw money to the club. Success in Brazil next summer, albeit for Portugal, embellishes those chances – it will be a significant and extremely painful loss to his club if Ronaldo fails to make it to what remains football’s biggest global impact.

Then there is something more nebulous – Zlatan’s off field worth to the Qatar Investment Authority and his club President Nasser Al-Khelaifi is huge and it’s prestige-based. They want trophies, they are a genuine Champions League contender but they want much more. Their aim is visibility, credibility, awareness – for Qatar. Zlatan, whether he likes it or not, is one of their salesmen and were he not to make it to the World Cup with Sweden it would sting his paymasters. And there’s a little side match which you’d imagine may influence matters.

Up-sepp-ing the applecart

When Sepp Blatter stood up and did his Captain Mainwairing on magic mushrooms act at the Oxford Union last month he unwittingly put Italian referee Nicola Rizzoli under huge extra pressure. This was the ‘Blatter-moment’ when he also asked his audience if they thought he was: “… a ruthless parasite sucking the lifeblood out of the world and out of football.

The godfather of the FIFA gravy train. An out-of-touch, heartless schmoozer?” Answering a question about Leo Messi and Ronaldo he called the former a ‘nice boy’ and the latter a ‘commander’ before standing up, sucking in his girth and stomping about the stage to imitate a pompous military presence when demonstrating his view on the Portuguese.

He also committed the folly of pointing out that one of them ‘spend more on hairdressers’ and admitting a personal preference for Messi. NB: Just so that we are all clear the voting for the Ballon D’Or ends on November 15. So these two play offs can’t influence the vote positively in anyone’s favour – unless a handful of journalists and international team captains wait until the very last minute to email their votes and one or other of Zlatan or Ronaldo cut loose with a hatful of goals tonight.

Anyway because of Blatter’s words and deeds Madrid instantly sent off a communique stating their ‘repulsion’ at the ‘unjust’ actions and words and they stated, explicitly, their concern that Blatter had done enough to ‘condition some voters for the Ballon D’Or’ Ronaldo went further. On Twitter ‘he’ wrote: “This shows the respect and consideration that FIFA has for me, my club and my country. “Much is explained. “I wish Mr.Blatter health and a long life, with the certainty that he’ll continue to witness the successes of his favourite teams and players”

It reads as if there was legal advice before he posted it. But it also reads as if he suspects bias. In Portugal, ahead of a FIFA World Cup play-off there was furore. Every columnist, every news reporter, every fan will now become football’s version of the Witchfinder-General. They’ll sniff and hunt for any hint of bias and, worse, they’ll howl and roar for every decision to go their way with that passion of the unjustly wounded.

When Signor Rizzoli [or his mama] packed his whistle, notebook and hair gel for the Lisbon trip I hope he included a tin-hat and thick skin. Expect there to be penalty calls to be made by the officiating team. You just know it.

Zlat’s what you’d expect

ZLAT'S MAGIC - The ball isn't coming to earth due to the force of gravity, Zlatan is actually controlling it with his mind (pic: Inpho)

ZLAT’S MAGIC – The ball isn’t coming to earth due to the force of gravity, Zlatan is actually controlling it with his mind (pic: Inpho)

Obviously enough the two stars approach the main contest in sublime form – arguably the best each of them have ever played. Zlatan made that very point about his own game this week admitting:

“I evolve all the time and even if I’m 32 now, I have the feeling that I keep improving and that I’ve never played this well”.

Each man is carrying his team on his back, each is showing new levels of leadership and maturity. Both of them signed-off for their clubs with hat tricks at the weekend. If you have a long memory it takes you back to 2006.

Prior to the German World Cup Nike launched their Joga Bonito advert campaign in which Eric Cantona sticks a ‘tablet’ in front of the young Ronaldo, shows him his opponent’s tricks and says: “This is Zlatan. Can you beat this?” The two footballer’s show their divine technique, arrogance. confidence and elegance until, at the end of the extended advert, Cantona admits: ‘Ooo weens? I dohn know…’

Who you WANT to win depends on whether or not you like marmite players. Neither of them are exactly the houswives’ choice. They divide opinion via the way they look, how they act, what they say .. and their perceived arrogance. To my eyes they are both extraordinary and we are privileged to live in an era when they, plus Messi, adorn our television screens.

Who would the tournament miss most? That’s subjective and the picture can be clouded a little by lies, damn lies and statistics. For example – Ronaldo is in his plenitude, he’s scoring at his highest every rate in club terms and he’s consistently produced goals in semi finals or finals for Real Madrid plus a flood of Clásico goals too. Yet the World Cup finals themselves tell lies with their CR7 stats.

Those stats make him look like a dud. In ten World Cup final matches Ronaldo has scored precisely twice. Against North Korea and a penalty against Iran. You have to admire his stance against totalitarian states though.

Ronaldo’s Korea low?

IT AIN'T HALF DIFFICULT - This goal against North Korea in 2010 represents precisely half of all Ronaldo's World Cup goals (pic: Inpho)

IT AIN’T HALF DIFFICULT – This goal against North Korea in 2010 represents precisely half of all Ronaldo’s World Cup goals (pic: Inpho)

Zlatan’s general tournament performances, if you take Euros into account, ain’t bad. A couple of ‘Best Goal’ winners one of which, the backheel against Italy in 2004, is amongst the most remarkable you’ll ever see. So, things to look for.

Before even trying to separate out whether Ronaldo or Zlatan might turn the tie in Lisbon it might be worth confronting the fact that goals are far from guaranteed. The last two meetings of these sides were nil-all draws, Portugal have fewer than a goal per game in the fifteen meetings with Sweden – let’s not go looking for champagne football here.

If one of the two Titans is to turn things it actually profiles as Zlatan. Ronaldo’s four goals in the last eight qualifying matches came against Luxembourg and Northern Ireland (a hat trick) whereas the Swede produces more regularly and against better opposition on current form. Where, perhaps, there might be a curveball is his notorious temperament.

Domestically, in Serie A, Signor Rizzoli likes a red card as much as the next man. One every three matches. Internationally he’s sent one player off in last 23 ties.

However Zlatan facing Portugal’s likely centre backs of Pepe and Bruno Alves (robust bucaneers the pair of them) looks like it might test the Italian’s liberal temperament.

Sepp Blatter will be watching events with anxiety. We can relax and pray for goals.

MATCH BETTING: DESKTOP | MOBILE

WORLD CUP 2014 ODDS: DESKTOP | MOBILE

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What the signing of Juan Mata means for Manchester United fans and the future of the club

Take away the names Juan Mata and Manchester United and simply describe the bare bones of what just happened in the Premier League transfer market and it becomes hard, not to say impossible, to understand why the business David Moyes has just conducted isn’t being heralded with ‘oohs’ and ‘aahhs’ of appreciation.

Gary Neville and Paul Merson each made it clear that they doubt either the need or the wisdom of this move, admittedly without specifically putting Mata’s quality in doubt.

But this is what’s just happened.

A rich, hugely competitive rival with a deep, immensely talented and experienced squad has just been maneuvered into selling a reigning world and European champion player who has played exceptionally since moving to England, winning six club, country and individual trophies in those two years, and selling to a rival which desperately needed a leg up.

What’s that eternal hard-nosed saying about ‘never give a sucker an even break’?

Moreover, and this is the key theme, the player being sold to a direct rival embodies all the elements which that rival desperately needed — both in match-winning terms and just about every single other facet which makes a ‘great’ footballer in today’s horribly inflated market.

Ed Woodward’s difficulties

Long before it’s important to begin to say ‘how will he fit if Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney are both fit?’ or, the still more inane, ‘they needed a central midfielder or a left back as a higher priority?’ the key thing to look at is what made the purchase a phenomenally good piece of business.

Firstly, and no matter whether United fans who are suffering extreme pain at the team’s current performance give this any credit or not, the market has been an extremely difficult place for United to do business once it proved that Ed Woodward was only cutting his teeth in the summer.

  • In the lead-up to this market United’s scouts have done detailed work on up to 35 players. Mostly with a view to signing the right player at the right age for the right money this summer, but also to try and address the club’s current deficiencies.
  • David Moyes gave the go-ahead for a direct club to club enquiry for Marko Reus (below) of Borussia Dortmund but the idea got tangled up in what price it would take to get the player now and what price when a contractual clause kicks in this summer.

Marko Reus

So, who else is on the shopping list?

Alex Song was another player the United manager rated highly and was willing to move for but, like Diego Costa and left back Felipe Luis, the possibility of completing a deal isn’t something Barcelona or Atlético Madrid are willing to contemplate until the summer, at least.

Edinson Cavani, too, is potentially buyable, not being hugely impressed at having to play wide in Laurent Blanc’s Autumn-instituted 4-3-3 formation in order to accommodate Zlatan at centre forward. But, again, the potential for that to happen when PSG are tilting at a league and Champions League double is next to zero right now – different come May/June.

United are, right now, trying to make a deal for Luke Shaw happen irrespective of the player’s affiliation for Chelsea. Whether Shaw thinks he wants to work with Moyes right now or jockey for position when there might be a queue of clubs in the summer is an interesting dilemma which might not favour the reigning champions.

All of this is to emphasise that if anyone was confused that Mata was bought, instead of a ball-winning, organising central midfielder, a centre back or a left back then it’s important to understand that when quality becomes available you snap it up — even if that means a rescheduling of priorities.

So, back to Mata.

United need more ‘cojones’

I don’t think that anyone, not even United’s harshest critic this season, would say that the squad is without talent.

But they’ve lacked edge, flair, confidence. ‘Cojones’ they’d say in Spain.

The Ferguson-United ethos that ‘no odds are too great’, ‘no team will desire the win more than us’ — they seem to have evaporated to a great deal.

Rafa

At this early stage I judge it harsh to be laying culpability for that at the door of David Moyes. I’ve seen it happen twice before here in Spain.

  • Once when Rafa Benitez (above), an immensely demanding task master and someone who was inordinately attentive to every single detail of daily work, departed you could hear the collective sigh of ‘we can let our belts out now’ from the Valencia squad. Those who had chafed under his yoke, those who gave more because he demanded so much from them every hour of every day (yielding the most productive trophy spell in Valencia’s history) relaxed. Consciously or subconsciously.
  • The same happened when Pep Guardiola left Barcelona. Ask any of his players, any single one, and they’ll admit that he was ‘pesado‘. It means he could be a right pain in the backside. On their backs all the time: over diet, over intensity in training, over lifestyle, over how early they went to bed at night — he even swore crudely at Alexis Sanchez right in front of live TV cameras at match when the Chilean broke down injured right after coming back from international duty.

Standards have slipped

When Guardiola left, burned out, this fabulous group of players also let standards slip. Very marginally, but it had an effect. Just for comparison, Guardiola was at Barcelona for four years, Benitez for three — Ferguson, you may recall, at United for 27.

There has been a patently evident relaxation. More than one squad and staff member at United has mentioned it to to me.

Juan Mata in 2009

Mata (pictured above in 2009 with Valencia) brings a great deal beyond his evident playing skills.

Knowing him, having watched him train day in day out for two months with Spain at World Cup 2010 and Euro 2012 I can tell you that his work ethic is voracious.

Whether he’s in the team or not each training session is treated like life or death. Whether he’s in the starting XI or not every colleague is to be helped, encouraged, chided — made better.

Mata is a team player.

Sometimes, particularly when there is a ‘losing’ dynamic confidence, arrogance, self-belief, luck… evaporate more quickly than snow in an oven.

Mata’s purchase holds a key to re-establishing some of those.

Depending on whether David Moyes retains his preference for 4-2-3-1 Mata can play in any, and I mean every one, of the front four positions.

Might that mean Wayne Rooney having to move left on occasion if Mata plays int he No10 role? It might.

Would that be the end of the world? Hardly.

Is Mata more likely to play wide left in that formation? Yes.

But if Moyes moved to 4-3-3 Mata could also play in any of the front three positions if, tactically, that was required of him.

RVP desperate to win Champions League

Moreover, what I fail to understand about those who first carp about the need for Mata based on the presence of RVP and Rooney is the following: how often have the two of them been fit together this season? How guaranteed is it that United can seal this new contract which, admittedly, Rooney has indicated he’s interested in? Also, Van Persie told me how centrally important it is for him to win the Champions League. In all good faith, if he sees that as being a distant prospect with United then is he at Old Trafford for the remainder of his career… or not?

Now the fans. They don’t win matches but they can certainly help to contribute to a ‘malaise’ at a club which is starting to drift… or to challenge, no DEMAND, more from players who have begun to coast.

What’s needed for the positive side of that equation is something to rally round, to believe in.

Mata gives them that. Instinctively, I guarantee, he’ll give the most loyal and passionate United fans a work ethic, a commitment to winning, a style and a sporting aggression which they will recognize as what they’d apply if they were playing. He’s a rallying point.

Others, around him, will need to respond and work harder.

Another positive facet of this deal centres on David de Gea. Excluding that horrible fumble in the League Cup semi final against Sunderland last week the Spanish keeper has been a success. Last season he’d have been assessed as a central part of the title win.

Right now there are sufficient rumours circulating about how happy he is to renew his deal at United, rather than perhaps replace Thibaut Courtois back at Atlético Madrid, that it’s worth the club focussing hard on him.

If he’s content, if his development continues and given the other re-building priorities at the club it would heavily suit United not to have to start thinking about buying a new keeper.

De Gea and Mata played together in a winning European U21 Spain side and the striker’s arrival will clearly signify to his countryman that the club mean to respond to the current slump.

The two men get on, it’s a positive step and you’d not bet against another Spaniard joining them.

Jose Mourinho wink

Of the U21 squad which won their Euro in 2011 De Gea, Ander Herrera, Thiago, Javi Martinez and Juan Mata made Uefa’s All-Star squad.

United have now bought two — bid for Ander and Thiago while Javi Martinez remains the absolute stand-out player United missed when Bayern nipped in to wrench him away from Athletic Bilbao. IF he doesn’t get sufficient game time in Pep Guardiola’s midfield, don’t rule out an offer from Old Trafford for the fabulous ball winning midfielder.

So, all of this. All these myriad reasons why the Mata deal is super business plus the basic fact that this is a fabulous footballer who will, when United are in a penalty shoot out against Sunderland or when they are poised at 1-1 at home against Cardiff in the FA Cup, produce winning goals and assists.

Whether Jose Mourinho (above) and Chelsea go on to deeply regret the sale is, given their squad, a moot point. But all of United’s rivals from this week forward most certainly will.

Good business.

    • Agree with Graham’s view on Juan Mata? Let us know in the comments section…

 

 

 

 

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Make your Saturday night Messi with Graham Hunter’s La Liga acca

Atletico Madrid v Real Valladolid

  • Saturday, 15.00

Some might be tempted to follow the creaks in the Atletico system over the last three games and try to identify a San Andreas Fault. I’d say that’s wrong.

Raul Garcia

Defeats to Real Madrid and Almeria were hugely embarrassing and a dramatic swing away from their robust, hard-to-beat form of the last two seasons. But the likely return of Thibaut Courtois in goal and Diego Costa returning from suspension are hugely influential. Equally, Raul Garcia (above) playing second striker, as he’s likely to do, rescues him from a much less comfortable area of operation – wide on the flank, which he’s not been enjoying. There are injuries, tension (with the Milan Champions League tie almost upon them) but oodles of character, tenacity and scoring potential to bank on. Atletico Madrid to win.

Barcelona v Rayo Vallecano

  • Saturday,19.00

While it’s feasible that Paco Jemez’s tremendous, ‘bold’ proposition in terms of front foot play home and away, ball possession and buccaneer spirit might well get them a goal or two it’s not easy to see beyond Barcelona winning and scoring three or four. Messi is a split second or two faster over the last couple of games than he’s been since returning and that’s led to a splurge of goals.

Messi 2013 Ballon D'or

Perhaps even more importantly Andres Iniesta is not only restored to midfield but looking fresh and able to ‘boss’ things. Pedro and Alexis, too, look sharp, sharp. Entertainment, yes. Some thrills, yes. But a two-goal win and a goal total to make this a game worth watching. Barca to win (by two goals if you fancy this bet).

Levante v Almeria

  • Saturday,17.00

Two things seem to scream out about this fixture. One, it profiles as a lovable chance of a score draw and two – if Levante get their noses in front they’ll present Almeria with a tough uphill battle.

Joaquin Caparros

There’s little to choose between these sides in terms of goalscoring, quality and if anything the absolutely superb boost in morale for the Andalucians in defeating a docile Atletico last week will have mended drooping confidence and sore limbs. Joaquin Caparros’ (above) side is more vulnerable due to the absences of Nikos Karampelas, Loukas Vyntra, Andreas Ivanschitz e Issam El Adoua. Neither side will be unhappy with a draw. 1-1 is the bet.

  • Rock the Casbah on Saturday night with Graham Hunter’s 5/1 acca with Paddy Power here

Villarreal v Celta de Vigo

  • Saturday,21.00

Everything hinges on how Villarreal cope with the absence of injured keeper Sergio Asenjo. They play fast, attacking football and give up chances. But thanks to the top form of the ex Atletico and Valladolid goalie they’ve only conceded three more goals than second placed Madrid. Juan Carlos takes over and will need to excel.

Villarreal Juan Carlos

Celta play a very similar attacking, risky football – but possess significantly less quality in all departments than the Yellow Submarine. Should Villarreal control the midfield through Bruno and if Gio has his day then a) this should be fun to watch and b) it profiles as a 3-1 home win … IF Juan Carlos (above) doesn’t have stage fright. Villareal to win (3-1 if you fancy a scorecast).

  • Will it be death or glory with this bet? Take Graham Hunter’s 5/1 acca with Paddy Power here

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Graham Hunter: Sit back and soak it up – how the Premier League’s attempt at Barça Mk II can hurt Martino’s vulnerable team

Manchester City v Barcelona, Etihad Stadium, Tuesday 19.45

The north west of England is a place of beginnings and endings for FC Barcelona and some of their players. Pep Guardiola’s last, inglorious, European game as a player for the team he’d supported all his life and let to European Cup glory at Wembley in 1992 came at Anfield.

Gerrard

There’s this utterly superb picture of a young, exuberant Steven Gerrard (above) chasing over to Guardiola to roar triumphantly as the Catalan trooped, dejectedly off the pitch back in 2001. Out of the Uefa Cup, out of the club six weeks later.

Guardiola’s time as coach was ushered in by another ‘ending’ this time at Old Trafford when Paul Scholes (fan footage below) crashed that semi-final winning goal past Victor Valdés in United’s Champions League winning season of 2007/8.

That truly was that for Frank Rijkaard, Ronaldinho and Deco their reign as European Champions already having been rudely stripped away from them by Liverpool in 2007, just a few short months after victory over Arsenal in Paris hinted that Barcelona, with Ronaldinho the best player in the world, might be starting a golden era. Not the case.

And Andres Iniesta freely admits his brilliant volleyed goal for Spain against England at Old Trafford in 2007 was an exponential leap forward in confidence and robust self belief because, until then, La Roja viewed the hard-running, aggressive English as one of their most threatening and intimidating rivals.

  • Match betting: Can the ‘new Barca’ beat the ‘old Barca?

Yes, it could now be the end of an era

If Tuesday night’s game against Manchester City is a defeat, and one which is the gateway to elimination in three weeks, then it will be a categorical ‘end’ to the current golden era.

Not the end for Leo Messi, Pedro, Cesc, Busquets, Iniesta and Alba as Barcelona players but a punctuation point at the end of an era which has seen the bulk of this group reach 13 knockout finals (Champions League, Copa del Rey, European SuperCup or World Club Cup) in the last ten years (more than Manchester United and Real Madrid combined).

If this group were to follow their 7-0 humiliation by Bayern Munich last season with their first elimination at this stage since 2007 it will be time for the kind of ‘re-start’ which began in summer 2008 with Guardiola’s arrival, the sale of Ronaldinho and the promotion of a clutch of young bucks.

What do the Spanish champions require to do to avoid all that happening?

One of the biggest compliments to that era of Camp Nou dominance is that a great deal of what City (and Bayern) do is simply a re-branding of Barcelona’s 2008-2012 football but with younger, bigger and more athletic players than the Catalans currently have in their squad.

Barça reboot? Barça Mark II. Call it what you will.

 

Barca vulnerable from corners

It obviously means that Tata Martino’s team will be vulnerable from corners, free kicks and open play if Vincent Kompany (above), Yaya Touré, Álvaro Negredo, Fernandinho and their ilk are allowed to compete for headers on goal.

The Johan Cruyff diktat, which was copied by Guardiola when he became coach, was:

‘Do NOT give away corners or free kicks anywhere near our own penalty area’

Can this team become that disciplined again? Switch back on the good habits which have been switched off for a couple of seasons?

The fundamental cornerstone of the ‘great’ Barcelona eras was always to create numerical superiority in midfield. Via the full backs pushing forward, via the centre half wandering as far forward with the ball as he dared, using the ‘third-man’ move, via the wingers dropping back into midfield if necessary.

Xavi and Zied Jaziri 19/6/2006

Father Time waits for no man

Now, because of a drop in the efficacy of Barcelona’s pressing high up the pitch, because Father Time and his debilitating effects wait for no man.

Often the shakiness which has become apparent in Barça’s defending (the goals against stats are clear in Europe but almost unchanged domestically from Guardiola’s time) has its root in the midfield either being over-run or not adequately chasing back when possession is lost.

Martino is going to try to ‘flood’ the midfield in Manchester. Often Barcelona’s shape will look like 3-5-2 – two central defenders and one full back with one full back pushed into a middle line already staffed by Busquets, Xavi (above for Spain), Iniesta and Cesc.

“Whover has the least possession is going to suffer,” was Martino’s ominous prediction.

 Samir Nasri

City deserve to be favourites

City’s left hand side, probably Samir Nasri (above), will have fun. Xavi finds it hard to press and harrass as effectively as he once did and Dani Alves loves to go for a wander upfield. The return journey is often conducted via a guilty trot while others attempt to put out the fires.

City, it seems to me, deserve to be favourites (15/8) to win this leg of the tie particularly given that since losing 1-0 to Wisla Kraków (UCL third qualifying round second leg) back in 2008 Barça have played 15 further away knockout ties in the competition proper – only winning three.

The other results comprise seven draws and six defeats. But there are distinct plus-points for Barcelona.

Martino pledged, from day one, that his training and squad rotation would be aimed at having his players fighting fit for the business end of the season. That starts now.

Messi 2013 Ballon D'or

  • Fancy Graham’s tips? Dive into the latest Manchester City v Barcelona odds here

My tips for this game

Fabregas has never been more prolific for goals and assists, Leo Messi (above) has 10 goals and seven assists in eleven games this year and, above all, Andres Iniesta is playing with livewire fizz and energy right now.

If Barcelona take your eye then perhaps Iniesta or Jordi Alba are succulent outside bets for a goal. Another would be to look at Javier Mascherano’s tendency to be caught the wrong side, to have to lunge in… a penalty for City isn’t a remote probability (10/3 with Paddy Power).

Overall, Europe is lucky that so many club and national sides now want to emulate the brand of football which the Blaugrana exhibited so exceptionally over the last six years.

Shame if it were to end now. But at least they face the Premier League’s attempt at Barça Mk II. Sit back and soak it up.

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THIRD footballer to be charged as part of match-fixing probe

A third footballer has been charged as part of an investigation into alleged match-fixing.

Moses Swaibu, 24, a former Conference South footballer from Croydon, south London, is accused of conspiracy to defraud and will appear at Cannock Magistrates’ Court in Staffordshire on Tuesday.

He is the fifth person and third player to be charged in connection with the National Crime Agency probe into an alleged illegal betting syndicate.

The other two players who are facing charges are Michael Boateng and Hakeem Adelakun, both 22, who are footballers with Conference South team Whitehawk FC. They are also accused of conspiracy to defraud.

Chann Sankaran, a 33-year-old Singapore national, and Krishna Sanjey Ganeshan, a 43-year-old with dual UK and Singapore nationality, are charged with the same offence.

It is alleged that they were all involved with an international betting syndicate that tried to fix matches that members would gamble on.

The allegations emerged following an investigation by the Daily Telegraph during which undercover reporters discussed the possibility of influencing the scores and outcomes of lower-league English games for sums from £50,000.  Read More

Graham Hunter: What Celtic must do to get a result against Barcelona (and my 12/5 tip)

Graham Hunter byline

Spanish football expert Graham Hunter previews the Champions League game between Celtic and Barcelona. Here’s what Celtic must do to get a result tonight…

There was once a bit of the Dr Bruce Banner about FC Barcelona. Ok, not the green skin and the tendency to overturn cars, but the ‘Don’t make me angry, you wouldn’t like me when I’m angry’ bit was true enough.

Over the last few years when teams had the temerity to catch Barça on a bad day and push them around, or to deny them the joy of skipping around the pitch with the ball by choking their space and thinking time then, sooner or later, there’d be a pay back.

Immediately within that game, next time they met, sometimes over and over again: ‘That’ll teach you.’

But it’s to Celtic’s great advantage that while that spirit is still central to the ‘Cogigo ergo sum’ – I play therefore I am – attitude of this team, the mind is willing but the physique is weak.

You don’t take points off players like Xavi, Iniesta, Valdés or Busquets in the manner Celtic did last season without it rankling.

Revenge? No, that’s not their guiding thought process. But, like big Jack Charlton used to have a little black book of accounts pending, for bruises and late tackles, so the Barça boys still remember where they need to address issues from a previous meeting – just to try to restore their football feng shui. Getting the three points is of supreme importance, but putting things back in order will be in their heads too.

SOCCER: Champions League Day 2, Tuesday Oct 1

Barca brutes no more

While Barcelona have been the dominant European team over the last seven years it’s natural that a great deal of focus has been on their technical excellence, their attacking flair, their playing system and also on the fact that two of three of these players, Ronaldinho in his day, Xavi, Iniesta and of course Messi, will rank amongst the greatest that any of us can expect to see in our lifetimes.

What sometimes gets pushed aside is the fact that they used to be a brute to play against. Physically very strong, ferocious in their pressing and constantly working at an incredible rate of knots.

That’s not so true any more. The gradually frittering away of players like Yaya Touré, Seydou Keita, Thierry Henry, Edmilson, Rafa Marquez, Samuel Eto’o and the injury damage age is doing to Carles Puyol means this is a more delicate Barça side. In body if not in mind.

Gerard Pique

TALL ORDER: Gerard Pique (seeing off the challenge of Conor Sammon at the Euros) is raring to go vs Celtic

Tata carries same issues as Tito

This is still an exceptional team. It is still very hungry, it still has a cobra-like ability to pounce on moments of inattention or error.

But even though the new coach, Tata Martino, is an extremely interesting football student, has clear and well articulated ideas and even though he’s showing a very firm hand in rotating the team with absolutely no fear of resting the biggest names, he carries some of the same problems into this match that Tito Vilanova did.

Gerard Piqué is on athletic, hungry form and didn’t play for the large part of the defeat here last year but, around him, Barcelona haven’t added any height to deal with the aerial problems they have at set pieces into the box and the diagonal ball in from open play.

Under Martino the Catalan defence is man-for-man rather than zonal and, perhaps, that will make a difference in due course. At Celtic Park they’ll be tested.

Celtic simply must score first

Another part of Barcelona’s repertoire which was like a pair of steely jaws clamped on your ankle but which is now showing rust is how  they do (or in fact often don’t) close games off once they are leading. Saturday’s 2-0 win at Almeria being an interesting exception.

It’s still absolutely vital for Celtic get the first goal if they want a chance of repeating last year’s excellence. But there was once a time that if Barcelona scored first they almost never released the choke-hold in a game that mattered to them. Not quite so true any more.

The pressing has changed, too. It’s beginning to work under Martino but there is geographical alteration. Under Pep Guardiola, in the golden years, the pressure began on the edge of the opponents’ box. Martino’s idea is that the central maelstrom of pressure on the opponents should be about three-quarter of the way up the pitch with strikers and wing backs pressing vertically, like a pincer, and midfielder moving in horizontally.

Right now, notwithstanding Messi’s absence, Barcelona are sharper, firmer and better prepared for this test than they were 11 months ago. They shape up as single goal winners (12/5), I think.

But invulnerable? No, not that.

  • Celtic v Barcelona betting: Fancy Barca to win by one goal at 12/5? Crunch into the latest odds here >

Graham Hunter is the author of the award-winning book, Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World. There’s a new book on Spain about to drop. Graham is a regular contributor to the Paddy Power Blog on football and an all-round good guy. Follow him on Twitter here

Dive into Hunter’s archives on the Paddy Power Blog here


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