Barca tries to avoid becoming the first defending Champions League winner to get knocked out in the group stages today. On the one hand, they have some ready-made excuses, namely the facts that: (1) this is an extremely difficult group containing, in all likelihood, the best teams in Spain, England, and Germany; and (2) Barca are struggling without Samuel Eto'o and Leo Messi. Messi is somewhat replaceable because Ludovic Giuly is a fine winger who played very well in the Champions League last year, but Eto'o is not because he's really Barca's only true striker and his understanding with Ronaldinho is not replaceable. Eidur Gudjonsson is going to have to play the game of his life today. I'm already trying to prepare myself for the possibility that Barca could go through on a Gudjonsson dive, although surely the UEFA refs are prepared for that possibility after seeing Eidur's performance for the past few weeks in the Primera. I would feel better today if Henrik Larsson was still in the side. I wasn't wild about him last year, but he came through when it counted against Arsenal and the game today is the equivalent of a Champions League Final. Ultimately, I think today comes down to whether Good Ronnie or Bad Ronnie shows up. Bad Ronnie showed up at Real Madrid and Chelsea in Barca's two losses this year and he didn't play especially well at the Weserstadion in the team's first meeting. He has shown signs of life in recent weeks and if his tail is up, Barca are going to score. Whether they can keep Miroslav Klose off the board
What do I know about Bremen? Well, they have outscored their opponents 36-10 since the 1-1 draw with Barca on September 27, including wins over Bayern Munich and Chelsea, and they have only lost once during that period of time. They're starting four members of the German National Team: Klose, Per Mertesacker, Torsten Frings, and Tim Borowski. They were minutes from knocking Juventus out of the Champions League last year until keeper Tim Wiese fumbled a ball under little pressure and Juve got an undeserved winner. They strike me a little as being similar to Lyon: a mid-sized club that are in a terrific up period right now and have been knocking on the door in the Champions League without breaking through. My gut tells me that they get a 1-1 draw today and go through.
2:42 - I'm not ashamed to admit that I've tried to find the Champions League anthem on ITunes. Sing it with me: La la la la la THE CHAMPIONS doo doo doo doo doo! Gives me chills every time.
2:45 - We're underway. Barca have tried to go down the left on their first two attacks to no avail. Klose has the beginnings of a mullet. Just feeling one another out right now.
2:49 - Ronaldinho is playing well. Barca are going to win. He played a pass with his back, then he found Giuly with a cross-field ball that gave Giuly the space to cross dangerously. Gudjonsson couldn't get to the ball. Come on, Eidur!
2:50 - Wiese just kicked the ball off his own defender and it came right back to him. Nerves, anyone?
2:51 - This is the Romans and the Christians right now. Iniesta and Giuly combine to free Deco for a shot that goes straight to Wiese.
2:56 - Life from Bremen as they threaten and Puyol snuffed it out. I love that guy. Then Giuly launches a drive from the head of the box and Wiese gets down to it. Everyone on Barca are playing well right now. Deco and Iniesta are linking up well, Ronnie and Giuly are dangerous...
2:58 - RONNIE!!!
2:59 - Ronnie knocked the ball under the wall as they jumped and inside the near post. Wiese had no chance. 1-0 to the Blaugrana. Wiese is screaming at his defense. I hope the word "ACHTUNG!!!" was in there somewhere. Ronnie also drew the foul to set up the kick about 22 yards out and slightly to Wiese's left.
3:01 - Zambrotta is holding his throat...and he did actually get hit there with an elbow. Whjy did I think that the replay would show him getting tapped in the ribs?
3:03 - LIONS AND CHRISTIANS!!! Ronnie sprays the ball right after drifting into the center. Giuly breaks the offside trap and Gudjonsson has a tap-in. 2-0 to Barca. Ronnie's World Cup slump is over and Giuly is rampant. He just knocked another shot just wide of the far post. Tommy Smyth is giving it to Pierre Wome for getting undressed by Giuly. Isn't Wome the guy who missed the penalty that kept Cameroon out of the World Cup. If so, then Sammy Eto'o is probably grinning ear-to-ear.
3:10 - Replay of the second goal and Gudjonsson was offside when the ball was played wide to Giuly. Passive offside? I'm not sure on the ruling.
3:11 - Klose just kicked Puyol on the left leg for no apparent reason. Carles will have his vengeance, in this life or the next.
Don't screw with this guy.
3:14 - 1-0 Chelsea over Private First Class Levski Sofia.
3:15 - Gio clears over his own net. That guy terrifies me, a Sherman in a fleet of Tigers and Panthers. Then Bremen get off a header from the resulting corner. If Barca's defense keeps playing like this, then two goals won't be enough. That said, Gio just knocked in a dangerous cross, so he's a danger to both keepers.
3:19 - Bremen get a free kick on a non-existent foul on Ronnie, but Puyol heads away.
3:20 - This is hard to describe. Deco runs for about 70 yards after Puyol's header, then hits Gudjonsson on the right. Eidur beats Bremen's entire defense with a great piece of dribbling, then pings the ball off the post. The ball rebounds to Giuly six yards out with an open net and he hits the ball over. One of the easiest sitters I've ever seen missed, and from a guy who hadn't put a foot wrong up to that point. I repeat, though: Lions and Christians.
3:27 - Bremen have had more of the possession so far, which is very rare for a Barca opponent.
3:28 - Smyth is singing Puyol's praises as we spreak. Like nectar for my ears. Now just say that he's better than John Terry and I'll climax.
3:29 - Wome does a nice job of getting some space on the left and puts a low ball just past the back post as Klose is a second late pouncing. Klose did get free of Marquez there.
3:32 - Almeida tries his luck from about 35 yards with predictable results. 98,000 Catalans whistle at him for his efforts.
3:33 - The Swiss ref Massimo Busacca whistles for halftime. The game is going so well that I haven't needed to invent ethnic insults for the Swiss. Barca have looked excellent. They aren't as patient with the ball as normal. Instead, the midfield is getting the ball forward quickly and Ronnie and Giuly have been using every opportunity. Little wasted motion from the side. Everyone is performing their role. Motta hasn't been mentioned in the first half, which is often a good sign. Bremen has managed nothing through the middle, which means that Motta is doing his job. Puyol is cleaning up everything in the back. Zambrotta looks excellent supporting Giuly. I'm probably babbling at this stage, but this has been domination. Ronnie is stepping up on the big stage, unlike...nah, I'm not going to say it.
I gotta figure out what Carles is endorsing here so I can blindly buy it.
OK, just figured it out; it's Catalan milk and cheese. Good enough for Carles, good enough for me.
3:48 - Borowski sneaks in at the near post as the second half starts and manages a touch that doesn't trouble Valdes, who hasn't been troubled by much at all in this match. Barca start the half more patiently than they did the first half. This is starting to look like the last five minutes of the Champions League Final.
3:50 - Puyol gets a yellow for a foul committed by Motta. Swiss cheese-eating motherf***er! Gudjonsson heads the resulting free kick away, then Iniesta blocks the second attempt. Bremen get another cross in down the defensive left. Amazing how opponents find so much offensive space on Gio's side.
3:54 - The announcers are really going after Motta, who's been a fouling machine in the second half. Personally, I prefer Edmilson to Motta, but Thiago has been doing his job so far. Incidentally, the Bremen attacks are still coming down Barca's left. Would now be a good time to mention that Holland was knocked out of the World Cup by a Portuguese goal that came through the Dutch left?
3:56 - Zambrotta snuffs out Diego's run on the right. That's why Bremen prefers the left.
3:57 - Klose gets past Marquez and Gio to get a great chance, but misses the near post. Danger, Will Robinson!
3:59 - On the break, Ronnie takes the ball in his own half, rides a challenge, and hits a beautiful long ball to release Gudjonsson. Eidur's shot is deflected by Nando onto the keeper. Eto'o probably finishes that and then wheels to the corner flag with his arms waving wildly.
4:01 - Diego gets free and then hits a ball in front that Almeida touches right to Valdes. You'll never guess what side the attack came from.
4:03 - Jensen hits a cross from the left and it hits the junction of the post and crossbar. Almeida overruns the rebound. Valdes was nowhere to be found, as he clearly thought that the cross was going to head over.
4:05 - Thuram on for Motta, which likely means that Marquez will play the defensive midfield role. I was just thinking that Thuram should come on, but I would have put him on the right defensive flank (where he used to play for France and Juve) and moved Zambrotta to the left with Gio coming off. With a 2-0 lead, Barca doesn't need offense from the outside of defense.
4:07 - Wome hits a terrible backheader that Wiese has to clear before Gudjonsson has a breakaway. Wome won't be sending this tape to Bayern Munich anytime soon.
4:09 - This is why I love Puyol. Iniesta gets kicked in the heel by Frings (Dirty Kraut!), but the ref (Dirty Banker!) sees no foul and Bremen come forward. Puyol then tackles the ball from two different Bremen players and kicks it out while gesticulating wildly.
4:13 - I just took a brief detour to take a picture of the 11-week old son in his new cowboy jacket. Did I miss anything? Probably not.
4:14 - Did Tommy Smyth just say that we haven't seen much from Ronaldinho tonight? No, nothing other than a perfect free kick goal, a pass to set up the second goal, a pass to free Gudjonsson for a breakaway, and a pass with his back. Ronnie has clearly set the bar too high when a performance like this isn't enough.
4:16 - Keeping track of the players on the pitch: Iniesta off for Xavi, Almeida off for Klasnic. Iniesta was a little quiet, but he did his job. Almeida will rue the touch that he directed at Valdes, as well as the fact that he wasn't in the right place (though no fault of his own) on the ball that came back off the woodwork.
4:18 - Barca have been stouter defensively since bringing Thuram on and moving Marquez into the defensive midfield role that he fills for Mexico. This might be the best line-up for Barca going forward. Essentially, it means trading Thuram for Motta; who doesn't make that trade? I know that Rijkaard would like to keep Thuram in reserve as a third central defender behind Marquez and Puyol, but for the Champions League games, all three should be on the pitch.
4:21 - As soon as I sing Thuram's praises, Klose gets around him and centers, but there's no one trailing to finish the play off. Aaron Hunt on for Wome, who was crap all day.
4:23 - Here's why Ronnie is great. He leads a break after a Jensen turnover. Gudjonsson makes his run too soon and goes offside, so Ronnie finds Giuly on the right and frees him for a breakaway. Wiese is off his line quickly to knock the ball away at the top of the box. Great play by Wiese, but all set up by Ronnie's pass that isn't mentioned by Tommy Smyth (whom I like, by the way).
4:26 - Puyol finally makes a mistake on the left, but his buddies clean up for him. Carles then makes up for it by deflecting Diego's shot away for a corner.
4:27 - Smyth says more nice things about Puyol. Santi Ezquerro comes on for Giuly, who has been outstanding other than missing a chance that my 85-year old grandfather would have knocked home with ease.
4:29 - Tommy Smyth now says that Bremen have dominated the second half like Barca dominated the first, but Barca scored when they dominated. Uh, yeah, if you ignore the two breakaways that Barca has created in the second half, as well as the fact that I don't recall Bremen getting two shots at open nets in the second half. This has been a rout with occasional chances for Bremen in the first half of the second half when they played well and Barca's defense was a little unsettled.
4:33 - "You'd be hard-pressed to vote for Ronaldinho as FIFA player of the year on a performance like this." Tommy Smyth is still rooting for Arsenal in the Champions League Final. One goal, one pass to set up the second, two breakaways created for teammates, and one bitter Scot.
4:35 - Valdes spills a rebound right in front and Thuram beats Klasnic to the ball. Well done. Valdes hasn't been 100% safe in this one.
4:38 - On cue, Valdes makes a nice save on a stinging shot at his near post.
4:39 - You have to feel for Bremen. On their current form, they would qualify from just about every other Champions League group, but they bumped up against the two favorites to meet in the final. They failed to make it out of the group despite taking four points at home against Chelsea and Barca. They lost 2-0 in both of the road legs while creating chances in both. That said, Tommy Smyth's attempt to make it seem as if they were undone only by 20 bad minutes is rich, as they didn't create anything in the first half and gave up an open net chance 35 minutes in.
4:40 - And we're done. The Barca anthem is ringing out and the players look very relieved. I'm anxious for the draw for the round of 16.
I'm not giving it up just yet. Now drink your milk!