10 December 2011

El Clásico Preview

Never before has a silence been so deafening. In the last 10 days José Mourinho has been in a self-enforced clásico media blackout. Lack of substance has never stopped the Spanish media wheel spinning, of course. But what we’ve seen spun this week has, largely, been a shit on a stick.

Mourinho Guardiola You could sense the editors of Marca and Mundo Deportivo shuffling in desperation through whatever material they could get their hand on. Shock horror! New Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, a Madridista, predicts Real will win 3-2! Not to outdone, the Catalan daily Sport delivered us the world exclusive that his Socialist predecessor, Zapatero – a Barça fan – reckoned the Champions would prevail.

 On Wednesday, the former Madrid stalwart, Guti- a man for whom the term ‘wardrobe malfunction’ must surely have been coined- popped up on the front page of AS looking like the offspring of some unholy union between Dennis Taylor and Martina Navratilova to proclaim a 3-1 victory for the meringue. It was all rather sombre, rather understated, rather… dull……...

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28 November 2011

Whisper it, but are Barcelona human after all?

Ever before the weekend's shock defeat at Getafe, Barca's play this campaign has looked laboured, and they have developed a worrying knack for giving up cheap goals, says La Liga blogger Joseph Sexton. [More]

22 November 2011

Malaga prove the Man City model doesn't always work

Monday night is the graveyard shift in the La Liga schedule- the games that nobody really wants to see, featuring the teams that no-one really cares about; except their own fans, of course. Barcelona hosted Real in this slot last December, but that was down to Catalan local elections taking place on the Sunday. That Málaga found themselves in this slot is probably a fair indication of their failure to capture the imagination this term. With their form underwhelming- three heavy defeats from their last five, during which they only picked up a solitary win- this project had failed to ignite. Their hosts, Racing Santander, meanwhile languished in 18th place.
Worse still, for Málaga, was the latest news surrounding Julio Baptista. The former Real Madrid, Arsenal, and Sevilla forward had almost kept the club up singlehandedly following his signing from Roma back in January. For a project that had seen such heavy investment in the summer, his presence remains key. When he plays, and when he plays well- as he had in Getafe- Málaga do well. Without him, they look probably what they are- an expensively assembled ensemble that has yet to fully gel. So, the news that he will be out now for some months and will undergo surgery naturally left coach Manuel Pellegrini with a lot to ponder....................

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07 November 2011

Two styles clash at San Mamés

Joseph Sexton

SUNDAY night, 7pm. As the teams entered the field, a feverish atmosphere engulfed the San Mamés. Any visit of Barcelona to Bilbao is a special occasion, and this is a special stadium.

Soon, Athletic will decamp to a new 55,000 seater adjacent to this cathedral. There is something quintessentially English about this ground. It’s not just the club’s colours, borrowed from Southampton. It’s not just that the crowd sits right on top of the action, forming a part of it. It’s not just that Bilbao are famed for their direct approach, the idolisation of the big, burly centre-forward, currently represented by the hulking handful that is Fernando Llorente. It’s all of this and more.

The rain, falling for some days continued to lash the pitch as kick-off approached. There is something unique about evenings like this. Put simply, to step into the fray on this sort of night is to enter the Spanish equivalent of a wet Wednesday in Stoke with all it entails......................................
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28 September 2011

La Liga: five talking points from the season so far

This article originally appeared on STV's Sports Blog

 The title race is underway and already the season's main narratives are beginning to take shape. What's being talked about at the grounds and in the bars? Here's our briefing on the main stories:

Atleti: a lot done, more to do 

In recent weeks, much attention has been fixed upon Atlético Madrid. New arrivals Diego, Anda Turan and Radamel Falcão García had settled in quickly- very quickly in the case of the Colombian forward.

An industrious display in his first outing against Valencia was quickly followed by goals galore in wins over Celtic, Racing Santander, and Sporting; the latter including a hat-trick, with another chalked off as an own goal following a deflection against Racing. In short, Atlético looked in good shape going into Saturday night’s showdown at the Camp Nou.

Sadly, it was a contest for all of two minutes. Once Thiago smacked the bar, you could smell blood. Within a quarter of an hour they were two down; by full-time it was five.

Lessons can be learned from this defeat. With hindsight, it was suicidal to sit to so deep, leaving Falcão isolated up top. He is more than just a physical presence, and needs players to link up with to be a threat. Instead, Barcelona were allowed to do as they pleased in midfield and Gregorio Manzano never sought to have his team test the home side’s three man backline as Valencia had done so boldly in midweek.

Atleti’s fans have seen too much in the past to get ahead of themselves, but this bruising defeat could help to focus minds and allow the team to make good of their promising opening to the season.

Betis fall but remain on top 

It had to happen some time; in the end it came away to Getafe on Monday night. After falling behind to Diego Castro’s strike half an hour in, Betis had no answer. Yet there is much to be positive about for the newly promoted pace-setters.

Incredibly, they remain top of the league with four wins from five. They have been anything but negative, and positively thrilled at times in getting past Bilbao on matchday three. It would be ridiculous at this early stage to start talking of grander ambitions, but the biggest imperative for this season would have been survival; a return of 12 points gives the Béticos an excellent chance now of retaining their top flight status.

We’ve seen evidence that they can continue to impress, with Jonathan Pereira up front looking a willing and intelligent player. Time will tell.

Bilbao improving but need to start picking up points 

Athletic played out a 1-1 draw with La Liga’s other “crisis” club, Villarreal. Both remain firmly rooted in the lower reaches of the table, with Bilbao just a point off bottom-placed Sporting.

If they need to start picking up wins, a good way to begin might be by keeping eleven on the field; here Borja Ekiza’s two yellows followed on from Venezuela international Fernando Amorebieta’s straight red the week before against Betis. As with the visitors, another side struggling to find their feet, there are signs of improvement.

That defeat the weekend before had been a riot of a game, with Bilbao certainly playing their part. In going down 1-0 to Málaga on Wednesday, they looked a lot more compact and secure in their shape; many sides will travel south and do worse this season.

For now, Marcelo Bielsa retains the trust and patience of the club and its supporters. But this needs to be backed up with some wins, and fast; a reverse in the Basque derby away to Real Sociedad this Sunday lunchtime could leave the emperor undressed.

Let’s talk about Cesc 

It seems like it could hardly have been any other way now. Yet many prophesised that it would be; some scratched their heads. Why would Arsenal’s captain and mainstay be so hell-bent on becoming an expense benchwarmer at Barça? Others still, clinging to a myopic moral high-ground and unwilling to remember just how he’d ended up at Arsenal in the first place seemed to be actively willing his failure.

Cesc Fabregas has shut them all up now; not that many in Spain had ever really doubted him, or his move. It’s not just the critics he’s been shutting up either; last week, he was awarded damages after Sport ran with quotes from an interview which apparently never took place, one in which he trash-talked about his former club. Cesc has far too much class to display such a lack of gratitude and self-awareness.

Whether at the base of the midfield, on the right- even as a withdrawn forward- he’s exuded class on the field. And not just on it. Because if his formative years at La Masia ensured that he would slot into this side with ease, he’s been at pains to remind everyone else of just why he’s excelled to the degree that he has- this he attributes to his years at Arsenal, and Arsene Wenger; his footballing father who gave him his first team debut at 17, and had him running the midfield on their road to the Champions League final at just 19 years of age.

Project Malaga is up and running 

There was moaning, accompanied by moral hand-wringing. There was genuine excitement too. There was even a grudging sense of respect, as real football men like Fernando Hierro and Antonio Fernández, erstwhile Sevilla sporting director, were installed to oversee matters. And who- other than certain odious elements at Marca- has a bad word to say about Manuel Pellegrini?

Then came the inevitable laughter as Málaga’s expensively assembled side came a cropper away to Sevilla on the opening day. But since then, they’ve gone about their business in an impressive, understated manner. This is still a side finding its identity, a collective looking to gel. And now after five rounds of games, they lie in sixth; level on points with Real Madrid, and ahead of Valencia and Atlético. Sunday’s draw against Zaragoza marked another bump in the road, but now attention switches the weekend when we’ll see if they succeed where Madrid failed; away at third-placed Levante.

19 September 2011

Jose Mourinho can moan but Real can only blame themselves

Joseph Sexton rounds up the weekend's Spanish action and finds that small team beats big team is the only tale in town. 
Read the original article here on STV

Mourinho may moan but Real were undone by an impressive Levante side. Pic: © SNS Group
It is preposterous; ridiculous, even. It’s also shocking, but certainly no shock. But Spain, as they saying goes, ‘es diferente’. Nowhere does that ring truer than in football at the present moment.

We should be talking about many things here. What about newly-promoted Granada popping up to claim their first win of the season against Villarreal? What about last night’s stupefyingly entertaining late kick-off at Betis’ Villamarín cauldron? What about Roberto Soldado, who simply can’t stop scoring (even if one of the four he recorded on opening weekend ended up in his own net)?

No, instead we are left with one topic, one which dominates all the dailies, all the chatter on the airwaves today; big team loses to very small team. In most other leagues in the world this would, of course, be news. But not all the news. And certainly not on a weekend like this.

Real Madrid lost to the club with the smallest budget in the league by 1-0. Their opponents, Levante, made the smart move of exercising their option to buy Man City loanee Felipe Caicedo during the summer for €1m. They then sold him on to Lokomotiv Moscow for a five-fold profit. Last year, in a team that had the third best record of any club in the division after the winter break, Caicedo had the best goals per-shots on target ratio of any player in the league. By far.

They also lost their talented coach Luís García to Getafe. And, barring the odd aberration, the maulings being dished out by the big two to the good, the bad, and awful seemed to dictate that Real ought to win this. Even though this was exactly the sort of ground where points dropped had cost them last season’s title. If not a hammering of the sort Barcelona administered to a hapless Osasuna the night before, then at least three points.

Real did not start with a full strength side. But when you have a squad that would make even Manchester City’s look less favourable, both in depth and in talent, this can be no excuse.
Nor can José Mourinho’s tiresome and hypocritical branding of the opposing team as cheats who instigated Sami Khedira’s sending-off. Yes, the sending off is what turned this game. But Real weren’t looking too hot when the Germany midfielder got his marching orders for a second yellow.

The truth is that Real played poorly, and that they can only have themselves to blame; not UEFA, not UNICEF, not the ref. Not one bit. The match statistics bear this out. Leaving aside Real´s hoarding of possession, all else was pretty much equal; remarkably so. Shots, both on and off target; fouls. Right down the list. Except for the only one that matters of course, the final score. And the red card count, obviously.

Real played very badly but Levante played extremely well. Even against 11 men they were competitive. Their breakaway goal from Arouna Koné was a joy to behold. On loan from Sevilla, he’s unlikely to fill Caicedo’s boots. And their new coach, Juan Ignacio Martínez has arguably bigger shoes to fill. But in a league that is likely to be every bit as tight from the European spots down again this season, if not more so than last, they look well equipped to survive; and- who knows?- perhaps even thrive.

Barcelona won 8-0, as you may have heard. Next.

Roberto continues to excel in goal for Zaragoza; he was instrumental in their surprising 2-1 home victory over Espanyol yesterday. This is all the more remarkable given the fact the keeper, whose ill-starred season at Benfica made him a byword for goalkeeping ineptitude of the highest sort at Benfica season; not to mention that, on paper at least, Zaragoza look to be an absolutely awful side. His arrival, on loan, was a particularly murky third-party deal, involving a Dublin-based consortium with Jorge Mendes, Peter Kenyon and Pini Zahavi all on board. If he keeps playing this well, not many Zaragoza fans will care.

Roberto Soldado scored. Again. That’s 5 in 3 for him now this season; his record over the last 17 games is simply obscene. That was enough to see them defeat Sporting, leaving them top of the table on goal difference ahead of… Real Betis.

Real Betis who beat Athletic Bilbao by 3-2 in a game that defied common sense at times. Not just in Marcelo Bielsa’s bizarre positional selections; at least for those who followed El Loco’s remarkably successful stints in charge of the Chilean and Argentine national teams, that is nothing new. But the manner in which the home raced into a two goal lead was exhilarating, leaving Bilbao still looking like a team getting to grips with their new coach’s idiosyncratic footballing philosophy. They were pegged back seven minutes before the break before regaining their cushion with a penalty right on the stroke of it.

A flurry of second half cards saw Alavarez see red for Betis a quarter of an hour from the end, before being joined by Bilbao’s Amorebieta in stoppage team. Both before and in between, Bilbao looked like they might steamroller their hosts. But a Lopez penalty inside the final five minutes wasn’t enough, and although a lot of goodwill and patience still exists for the Argentine coach’s remoulding project of Athletic remains now, one point from nine means that doubts are already beginning to pierce the surface.

Follow Joseph Sexton on Twitter @josephsbcn

Granada 1-0 Villarreal

Mallorca 0-1 Málaga

Sporting 0-1 Valencia

Barcelona 8-0 Osasuna

Sevilla 1-0 Real Sociedad

Getafe 0-1 Rayo Vallecano

Zaragoza 2-1 Espanyol

Levante 1-0 Real Madrid

Athletic Bilbao 2-3 Real Betis

12 September 2011

Will Falcao appease the Atletico fans?

La Liga blog: Joseph Sexton says Atletico Madrid coach Gregorio Manzano has pinned a lot of hopes on his Colombian striker. [More]

28 August 2011

¡Hay Liga! La Liga – Season Preview 2011/12

So here we are and the first jornada of the new La Liga season is upon is; or is it? Well, as you all know, the season was delayed by the strike organised by AFE, the Spanish players’ union, and this leaves us starting with the second matchday’s fixtures. Which makes it fortunate for the league that the matter was resolved in time for this weeks fixtures. The LFP might be a travelling fan’s worst nightmare with their inability to confirm the exact time, or even day, that matches start in any given weekend, but boy!

They will not break-up a matchday and leave teams with games in hand; not even when Barcelona were in action in the European Supercup, nor when they take part in this year’s World Club Championships to win the title they snatched in dramatic style from Argentina’s Estudiantes two years ago. The former matchday 1 will be shoehorned in somewhere; shoeing-in two whole jornadas would probably have meant no winter break, and no turrones for the footballers of La Liga.
We won’t dwell too much on the strike, other than to go through some of the main points. Eventually on the Thursday, the league (LFP) acquiesced to the players demands. This had nothing to do with the conditions of superstar players, but they showed solidarity with those further down the chain. Given the unequal TV deal that sees Madrid and Barcelona take a huge majority of the league’s TV income for themselves alone (Third-placed Valencia, a big club in their own right made something akin to West Ham- bottom-placed West Ham- last season. Go lower down the league and many of the smaller teams are lucky to pocket €12m a season. And as for the second division…. forget about parachute payments.
There is no sporting penalty in Spain for clubs which enter into administration; for many, it’s a handy way of washing the club’s hands of debts brought on by their own hideous mismanagement. And who suffers from this primarily? The players. Players who have given their all even when going unpaid for months are then told, sorry, but your contracts are worthless; and then paid far less than they were owed. If they get paid at all. And bearing in mind that this hits the smaller teams more often, whose players are on very small money and might have trouble paying their mortgages, this was a farce that had to be ended. Finally, the league agreed to increase the pot held to pay players’ salaries in the event of clubs messing them about, knowingly signing players to deals they can’t afford. It’s a small stepping stone to introducing financial prudence in La Liga; a lot more needs to be done. This will be a point we’ll return to, no doubt, later on this season.
And what a mouth-watering prospect this season is. Ever since the spell where clubs like Valencia, Sevilla and Villarreal could make serious assaults on the title (Villarreal coming second in 2008 saw the end of that era), this is arguably the most anticipated season in many. Not because the Madrid/Barcelona duopoly will be broken- but that contest at the top could be very interesting indeed- but because the field below them, arguably even including Valencia, is as wide open as its been in years. The competition for Champions League football and the Europa League spots is going to intense, and hard to predict.
Yes, Málaga’s continued investment is a big part of it. But it’s not the only part; and, potentially, maybe not even the most exciting part either. But it’s impossible to ignore.
When Málaga were rescued from administration just over a year ago, their new owners’ vision was to build something. They didn’t splash silly money before the summer window ended, but brought in 5 players, some young and with potential, to supplement their squad. The problem was that under former Porto coach, Jesualdo Ferreira, and with several injuries they were floundering. So they ditched Ferreira, and brought in the ex-Villarreal and Real Madrid boss, Manuel Pellegrini. And some more players. Injuries were still an issue, and relegation still looking likely when they extended Pellegrini’s contract. Then Julio Baptista, signed over the winter, recovered fitness and started banging them in. Young Venezuelan striker Salomón Rondón was a revelation. Given the tight nature of the league, they finished eleventh in the end, and looking like a pretty good team to boot with their new additions bedded down and first team fit.
The amount of money they’ve spent this summer has caught the eye. No club in Spain outside the big two could make a netspend like that. But this looks to be something bigger than just money. Off the field, they have been equally impressive. With an excellent coach at the helm, they brought in former Sevilla sporting director, Antonio Fernández, This is the same Fernández who brought Sevilla to a level where they could realistically compete with the big boys for the title, to two Europa League titles, all this not long after they’d come up from the second division. It was Fernández who discovered Julio Baptista and one Daniel Alves, as well as Seydou Keita and Adriano, now also at Barcelona. He was the man who brought in the likes of Fredi Kanouté when Tottenham wanted shot, and Luis Fabiano when few in Europe would have touched him. This is a man who knows a thing or two about managing a project. Not only that- they also recruited Fernando Hierro from his post as technical director at the Spanish Football Federation. Hierro, Pellegrini, Fernández… these are all football men, with impeccable track records.
Then of course there are the players. I said that they already had a pretty decent team in the offing. But not with depth. Now they have potentially a very good team at hand. More importantly, they have a squad, and it’s a strong one. All of their purchases look sensible too. They’ve bought youth, one a full Spain international already. They bought experienced old heads. They’ve players at their peak, none more so than Santi Cazorla from Villarreal. Once, a player of his calibre would have ended up at two places- either at Madrid or Barça, or in England. Young Isco of Valencia arrives fresh from underage success with Spain this summer, and Macho Monreal a promising left-back with 5 senior caps came from Osasuna. Argentine Diego Buonanotte is a talented attacker who arrives at a good age, 21, for his first crack at European football. Then of course there are the likes Jérémy Toulalan and Joris Mathijsen, at the peak of their careers; along with one Ruud Van Nistelrooy in the twilight of his, but a player who continues to score goals wherever he plays. Pellegrini has form from his Villarreal days of managing comings and goings of players, and finding the perfect blend of youth and experience. This can only bode well.
Valencia made some shrewd moves in the market, and if at one point it looked likely that Juan Mata was going to stay, his purchases will lessen this defection. Dani Parejo from Getafe was a smart signing, and Pablo Piatti excelled at times for an Almería side who were little other than awful on their way to relegation. They’ve strengthened their goalkeeping options and, crucially, central defence with Adil Rami of French Champions, Lille. Then of course there is the loan signing of Sergio Canales after his year in the wilderness at Real Madrid. This kid has real talent, so it will be interesting to see him getting game time in a good side (even if he can’t play against Real).
Villarreal were definitely weakened by the loss of Cazorla and Joan Capdevila, who departed for Benfica. But, despite serious interest at times from both Barcelona and Juventus, they’ve kept hold of Giuseppe Rossi, along with his strike partner Nilmar, and Borja Valero. Coach Garrido will have to rely again this year on an intake of youngsters from the cantera, but with Villarreal’s B team the only playing in the second division (along with Barcelona), there is much promise to be mined there. Their only two money signings of the summer were Javier Camuñas from Osasuna and they pacey Colombia central defender-cum-right back Cristian Zapata of Udinese. Despite enduring a nightmare competitive debut where he gave away a winning goal at Odense in the Champions League qualifiers, his pace, power and technique should be a boon in La Liga after impressing for several seasons in Serie A.
But, outside of the top two and Málaga, the arrival that has generated most excitement isn’t a player. No; it’s the arrival of former Chile and Argentina coach Marcelo Bielsa at Athletic Bilbao. It looked like he might have taken the Internazionale job earlier this summer, and despite the intrigue of seeing what he might achieve at a club with big resources, this could prove to be a much better fit for El Loco.
He arrives at a good moment for Bilbao. Long famed for their direct style which their last boss Juan Caporrós was happy to abide by, they are also blessed with a generation of young technical players to support the excellent Fernando Llorente up front, including the wonder Iker Munain. Ander Herrera, another promising underage international arrived from Zaragoza. There are pros and cons to this job for Bielsa. The biggest pro is that, in many ways, his rigorous style is far better suited to club management; something which makes his international achievements more impressive. The one black mark on his CV was the failure of 2002 with Argentina which can largely be attributed to the poor physical condition of many of his key players, which mitigated against his high-energy style in a big way. Going down 1-0 against an England rearguard action following a penalty won through a blatant Michael Owen dive didn’t help either. Blessed with the players at his disposal day in day out, and young talented minds to mould, he can realistically achieve a level of cohesion that would take a year- or even a couple of years- with a national side.
The downside, of course is that Bilbao’s policy makes bringing in new players a challenge, and fatigue and injuries could take a toll as they compete on two fronts. As for his much beloved 3-3-1-3 formation, Bielsa remains a pragmatist. Three at the back is very useful against the twin-striker formations common in South America, but he has shifted to playing a back four when faced with more European-style 4-2-3-1s, and has used four at the back for the most part in their preparation matches and in training. With his emphasis on playing a high-tempo pressing game camped in the opposing half, there could even be echoes of Sevilla at their peak if they manage to hit the ground running.
But there was, of course, one big name and very exciting signing made late this week. Atlético Madrid finally invested some of their windfall from Kun Aguero and David De Gea to bring in Radamel Falcão García and the promising attacking midfielder Rúben Micael for a combined €46m from FC Porto. Earlier moves saw them bring in the highly rated Arda Turan from Galatasaray and Sílvio of Braga, alongside Gabi of Zaragoza. Finally, former underage starlet Dani Pacheco was drafted in on loan from Liverpool, although they missed out on Espanyol’s Pablo Osvaldo, who joins Luís Enrique’s BarçaRoma revolution in Italy.
The picture suddenly looks a lot brighter for new boss Gregorio Manzano. As a man who believes in building team unity, the departure of one superstar in Aguero and likely move of another (Diego Forlán looking set for Inter), he has a great opportunity to construct anew here. Much will be expected of Falcão, and fortunately here there is much more to the forward’s game than we saw at Porto; where he was asked to play a limited game, holding his position up front to showcase his finishing and sublime heading ability while the rest of the team harried and pressed. With the excellent José Antonio Reyes approaching something close to his Sevilla and early Arsenal form in recent years, they have potential.
Of the others, we expect that bottom half of the table to be just as tigh t- if not tighter! – than last year. The promoted sides all look set to struggle, although Granada continue to benefit from being a dumping ground of promising, young Udinese talent farmed out on loan for development. Sevilla made a smart move in buying Martin Cáceres outright from Barcelona and also good (and decent signings) like Emir Saphic (Montpellier); Piotr Trochowski (Hamburg); Manu de Moral (Getafe); and Coke (Rayo). Under new coach Marcelino, and with last season’s revelation in the run-in, Ivan Rakitic here for his first full season, they can benefit from their early exit in the Europa League.
And that leaves us with the big two. Most of you will already know the comings and goings here, and many more will have caught the enthralling Supercopa clashes between the two over the past fortnight. Several simple things we can say, some of them rather obvious; Real are looking to be a far more coherent unit as José Mourinho enters the second year he always asked to be judged upon. Poor finishing let them down against an understrength Barcelona side they absolutely battered into the first leg, but against a full-strength side they were scarcely less impressive with their aggressive pressing and willingness to attack. That the starting line-up in the first leg (and, bar one change, the second) was the side which were torn apart at the Camp Nou last Autumn tells you a lot about how they are progressing. And Karim Benzema is fit, lean, and looking like the stellar prospect we knew at Lyon.
They have bought little but bought smartly; adding depth to an already impressive squad. Fabio Coentrão came in for big money from Benfica and had an excellent preseason, but not in the roles where most expected him to be tried; instead, he found his home largely on the left of a three man midfield. Raphael Varrane of Lens, stolen from under the nose of Manchester United, is one for the future but physically built for now if called upon. Nuri Sahin of Dortmund is a fantastic passer of the ball from deep, and will make up for the amount of points dropped against lesser sides anytime Xabi Alonso was missing last season, but can also be expected to play alongside Alonso at times. Hamit Altintop and José Callejon, excellent at Espanyol last season add endeavour, purpose and yet more depth.
Depth too has been the watchword at Barcelona, and an acknowledgement of the extreme good fortune they’ve enjoyed with injuries having had such a light squad under Pep Guardiola. It’s no coincidence that their one European failure under Guardiola came when Andrés Iniesta was absent against Inter in 2010. Some observers, mostly in the British isles, have scoffed at the idea of Cesc Fábregas warming the bench. Don’t expect him to; the same was said of Javier Mascherano last year too, yet he played a key role in midfield, centre half, and even at left back as Barcelona claimed a double. Cesc is likely to play a similar amount of games, 35-40, in a season where we can expect Barcelona to exceed the 60 game mark once again. The emergence of Thiago Alcantara makes what was the lightest area of their squad look frighteningly well-stocked. Alexis Sánchez will be bedded in more slowly, and has already show signs that he’s a perfect fit for the Guardiola style. He too will get plenty of action, and his ability to play right across (and indeed, behind) the front three means that Lionel Messi can be rested too.
The gap has narrowed and it’s going to be an epic encounter between these two sides. Don’t bet against them going all the way in the Champions League either.
Jornada 1
Sporting Gijon 1-2 Real Sociedad
Valencia 4-3 Racing Santander
Granada 0-1 Real Betis
Atlético Madrid v Osasuna (13:00 GMT)
Athletic Bilbao v Rayo Vallecano (15:00 GMT)
Getafe v Levante (17:00 GMT)
Mallorca v Espanyol (17:00 GMT)
Zaragoza v Real Madrid (19:00 GMT)
Sevilla v Málaga (21:00 GMT)
Barcelona v Villarreal (20:00 GMT)
This article originally appeared in Back Page Football

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25 July 2011

The Copa America: the Tabarez legacy

Joseph Sexton reflects on a tournament that saw the emergence of the underdogs, and underperforming super-powers.

Luis Suarez has been one of the great successes of Tabarez's tenure Pic: ©SNS Group
This 43rd Copa América will be remembered for several things.

Some will point to the low goals per game tally, and justifiably highlight some poor games, particularly in the opening two rounds of fixtures. Others will point to the inexorable rise of the continent’s erstwhile underdogs. Nobody epitomised this more than Venezuela and Peru.

Venezuelan football has come a long way in the last 5 years; once the San Marino of region, a country where baseball has long been the national sport, they’ve now shown they have the talent and nous to mix it with the big boys.

Peru came into this tournament off the back of a disastrous World Cup qualifying campaign in which they finished bottom of the pile without a single away point, were shorn of two of their stars and troubled by injuries to those present.

Both will feel confident now of making a real go of qualification for Brazil in 2014, and both embodied the merits of good coaching. For this was also a tournament about the coaches, and fittingly it will go down as one of the crowning glories of Uruguayan boss, Oscar Washington Tabárez’s illustrious career.

Argentina and Brazil both suffered to varying degrees from poor management. Tabárez, on the other hand, has proven a master of maximising the resources at his disposal. It’s worth nothing where Uruguayan football was when he took the helm for a second time in 2006. Uruguay failed to make the World Cup that year; just as they’d failed in 1994 and 1998. The burden of their glorious past weighed down on them, seeming to suffocate the players. Since then Tabárez has revolutionised their youth development. Victory last Sunday proved that last year’s fourth place finish in South Africa was no flash in the pan, and their recent successes at under 17 and under 20 level gives indications that their future is equally secure.

Here was a team that was tactically flexible, that recovered after a slow start to the tournament, and improved game by game. It is this unity and sense of purpose that allowed their superstars, Diego Forlán and Luís Suárez, the platform they need to showcase their brilliance.

Not that either of that pair are work-shy; Forlán got the goals his performances had merited in the final, but is a genuine leader. Suárez is every defender's worst nightmare. A true livewire, gifted with an exceptional ability to play in tight spaces and display sound decision making, he also chases down opposing players as if his life depends upon it. In a summer where some Liverpool fans have been left puzzled at their club’s transfer strategy, here was further confirmation that John Henry’s first signing is a true gem.

Indeed, so evident has the rise of standards been that not even Uruguay- and certainly not Argentina- will take qualification for the World Cup as a given. Tabárez was quick to point this out on Tuesday. “Winning the Copa América has no bearing. We prepared well for this tournament and won it, but now it’s time to look ahead to future challenges”.

“We will remain faithful to our approach. Our scientific studies reflect well on the work we did here. In the qualifiers the travel and different climates present challenges, and when you add to that the determination of fans and teams to make the finals.... this makes it even more competitive than a Copa América. We cannot just say to our rivals ‘Look, we just won the Copa’. The qualifying series is a new chapter”.

For Diego Forlán it was especially sweet. Off the back of his poorest season to date in La Liga, with his club future undecided, and having failed to find the net since South Africa last year before the final, the win and his brace were a vindication. To claim a record 15th Copa América on Argentine soil, become his country’s joint all-time top scorer, and follow in the footsteps of his father and maternal grandfather- both Copa winners in their own day- only added to his delight. “It makes me so proud to follow them, to continue their tradition. It’s not something that happens every day”.

The continent’s two superpowers have been left with much soul-searching to do. Arguably Brazil came consistently closer to getting it right over the course of the tournament. A lack of competitive games to come remains a worry, but Mano Menezes is secure in his position. His commitment to reverse a quarter century-long shift in Brazilian football by introducing a structured passing game in midfield is both admirable and correct, but more work remains to be done.

At times they were crying out for the passing ability of someone like Lazio’s Hernanes, who was again overlooked yesterday in Menezes’ squad for the coming friendly against Germany. Both Paulo Henrique Ganso and Neymar have a lot to learn at this level, but their progress over the last year shows us they are capable of better than we saw, and we can justifiably expect further improvement.

The machinations in Argentina began in earnest at the weekend. Public anger at the coaching structure, at the AFA and its boss Julio Grondona was palpable. Initially it looked like Grondona would brazenly stick with Sergio Batista; indeed the coach wrote in Clarín before the weekend of his desire to continue his ‘project’.
With the rumour mill in overdrive and elections looming, Grondona made an about turn to quell the unrest. In the early hours of Tuesday morning, it emerged that he’d thrown Batista to the wolves. The same delegates who had rubber stamped his appointment by a margin if 19-1 just months ago voted 16-4 in favour of rescinding his contract. Alejandro Sabella looks set to take the reigns, a choice that would be both shrewd and popular.

The other move was as cynical as it was intriguing. It was announced that the first division would expand to 38 clubs spread across several groups, breaking off into separate promotion and relegation sections in the latter stages. This of course guarantees that fallen giants River Plate will return to the top flight next year, and increases his power base amongst the regional sides. The upside to this is that in the ongoing decentralisation of Argentinian football will gain further impetus, and it’s fair to say this will be the country’s true legacy after a Copa where only the final was staged in Buenos Aires.

Team of the tournament (3-4-3)

Justo Villar (Paraguay); Osvaldo Vizcarrondo (Venezuela), Diego Lugano (Uruguay), Sebastian Coates (Uruguay); Maicon (Brazil), Tomás Rincón (Venezuela), Arturo Vidal (Chile), Álvaro Pereira (Uruguay); Luís Suárez (Uruguay), Paolo Guerrero (Peru), Sergio Aguero (Argentina)

Player of the tournament: Luís Suárez

You can follow Joseph Sexton on Twitter.
This article originally appeared on the STV Sports Blog

20 July 2011

Paraguay or Venezuela for Uruguay showdown?

Uruguay are 90 minutes away from their 15th Copa America title [More]

19 July 2011

Grandees of Uruguayan football go head to head

Joseph Sexton says the exits of Brazil and Argentina are not the real stories at the Copa America [More]

The Copa America wrap: giants fall to master tacticians

Oscar Tabarez was the brain's behind Uruguay's elimination of hosts Argentina. Pic: © Reuters
The rising standard across the South American continent was a theme touched upon in our preview of this year’s Copa América, but nothing could have prepared us to expect what happened over the weekend.
Argentina exited on penalties to their fierce rivals from across the River Plate. A day later, Brazil exited through the same route against Paraguay. Nobody would have predicted that neither the hosts nor the holders would be present as we enter the semi-finals. And yet it speaks volumes that, in the greater scheme of things, those outcomes were the least shocking that we saw.

Tonight, Peru- the same Peru that finished bottom of the heap in World Cup qualifying without a single away point- will face Uruguay, who finished fourth in that tournament. Tomorrow, Paraguay will take on the vinotinto of Venezuela, who had won just two Copa América matches in their history prior to this years edition. Four very different teams, from very different cultures, hailing from all across the continent. Yet one strand united them all hear; superb management..................

Read the full article here on STV

18 July 2011

Brazil bow out in turgid affair, Venezuela pip Chile

Joseph Sexton on quarter finals shocks and penalty cock-ups in the Copa quarter finals [More]

16 July 2011

Falcao looks to add to burgeoning reputation

Joseph Sexton's Copa America blog: looking ahead to Saturday's first quarter finals [More]

15 July 2011

Uruguay mull over Messi conundrum

BRAZIL went back to the future on Wednesday night to secure their passage to the quarter finals of Copa  America.
Mano Menezes reverted to the attack which underwhelmed against Venezuela in their first outing, and finally we some spark. In an open attacking game they were pegged back twice by an adventurous Ecuador
team but claimed a 4-2 victory, and with it the top spot in Group B.
Dani Alves making way for Inter’s Maicon was no surprise, given the chasing the Barcelona man had been on the end of against Paraguay. Crucially, Alexandre Pato and Neymar opened their accounts, bagging a brace apiece; in behind, playmaker Paulo Henrique Ganso exerted a greater......
Read the full article here on the Irish Examiner Sports Desk Blog