YOU ARE LOOKING LIVE at the Nou Camp where the recently defrocked champions of Europe will meet up with the artists formerly known as Real Madrid. Pacing the sidelines will be Frank Rijkaard, who's been rumored to be on his way to Milan in the summer, and Fabio Capello, who's been rumored to be on his way by the Ides of March. This ought to be fun, as both teams desperately need this game.
I have not seen the Liverpool second leg. I was working ludicrous hours this week and DVRed the game, but after reading write-ups like this one that make it sound as if Barca were mostly toothless at Anfield, I deleted that one quickly.
4:02 - The Barca anthem is being sung. BARCA! BARCA! BARRRR-CA! At the end, the camera finds a very angry Catalan, followed by the Phil Schoen referencing Franco and the Spanish Civil War. Dammit, he beat me to the first reference to Madrid's fascist heritage. I feel shame.
4:05 - Barca's lineup seems a little unbalanced. They have three attackers - Messi, Ronaldinho, and Eto'o - and three relatively offensive midfielders - Xavi, Deco, and Iniesta - with three defenders at the back and Marquez presumably as the shield. The good news is Thuram and Deco are back. Thuram was poor at the Bernabeu, but he's the best option at centerback right now.
4:10 - Barca have the ball for the first five minues or so. Real take their first attack and score, as Barca are exposed at the back on the counter (hard to believe with only three defenders and six attacking players) and Thuram hits a dreadful clearance of a Higuain cross right to Van Nistlerooy, who buries it past Valdes. Just what the struggling Blaugrana needed.
4:19 - Flea! 1-1 as Messi is unmarked on the right side and slots it right past Casillas. Real come right back and the clumsy Oleguer sticks a leg out and trips Guti in the box. Brilliant. Guti stuck his leg out to ensure contact, but this was a good call and Oleguer's fault. Van Nistlerooy sends Valdes the wrong way and it's 2-1. Barca's defense is, to use Seamus Malin's term, shambolic. They have combined slumping defenders and a lack of numbers at the back. There is a vortex of tactical and personnel failings going on right now.
4:24 - Eto'o is sent free on goal and is thwarted by Casillas for the second time. Barca is throwing everything forward and creating chances on both ends. Messi set up the chance. Leo showing the goods today.
4:30 - There's been more action in the first 24 minutes than there was in 90 minutes of Man United-Liverpool. Then again, this is because of the insanity of Barca's deployment and the inability of any Barca defender not named Puyol to perform basic defensive tasks.
4:32 - Eto'o is set up by Ronaldinho at the penalty spot and scuffs the shot. Three good chances and he hasn't scored. His movement is excellent and it was his pass that set up the Barca equalizer, but the finishing is dull. And as soon as I type that, Ronaldinho jinks into the box (how many other players "jink?"), plays a great one-two with Eto'o and forces an amazing save by Casillas, but Messi nails the rebound into the roof of the net as Casillas narrowly misses making the double-save of the decade and three Real players on the line look on helplessly. This is electric stuff.
4:38 - Barca create two more great chances. Ronaldinho gets set up in the box, but can't control it, followed by Messi being sent free by Xavi and hits the side netting. Cue Alabama's PA announcer: this is Barcelona football.
4:44 - Every time Real come forward, it's four-on-four. On this instance, Higuain causes Marquez to fall over and whistles a shot just wide. He also had Guti open on the left side. Barca then come down to the other end and Ronaldinho gets to the byline and crosses, but Salgado clears just before Eto'o can tip the ball into the open net. I'm really not exaggerating here; there are more good chances at both ends than there were in the World Cup semis and finals combined. This is the '66 World Cup Final all over again.
4:50 - The Real defenders are just traffic cones for the Barca players. Eto'o slaloms past two from the left before getting stopped by the third. Deco then beats one on the right and sets up Iniesta for a shot from 23 meters that Casillas saves nicely. This is like a hockey game at this point, minus the sticks swung at heads.
4:52 - Oleguer picks a second yellow for a reckless challenge in the Real half. No one will notice his absence, although it might force Barca to play more defensively and decrease their numbers at the offensive end.
4:54 - Halftime. Ray Hudson is breathless. He might deplete his arsenal of metaphors by the time we reach 90 minutes. In the realm of amusing ads, if I text "Win B" for Barca to some number, I can win a five-day vacation to Orlando...the city in which I just spent five days billing a century. Personally, I'd prefer it if GolTV ran one of the Spanish-language infomercials for sex enhancement pills that they usually run during the morning and could double as soft-core porn. Mas Sexo!
5:10 - Eto'o off for Silvinho. Barca needed a defender after Oleguer's madness and Eto'o probably can't play for the full 90, but why not take off one of the offensive midfielders and retain the attacking three? Eto'o's passing and movement were terrific in the first half and Barca will now lack a true striker.
5:17 - We're seven minutes into the second half and the big highlight so far has been a dreadful "clearance" by Marquez (who has had a Spears-ian devolution this year) directly to a Real player on the left wing. The cross comes in and Puyol, the one Barca defender who hasn't embarrassed himself, forces the shot wide.
5:21 - I've been impressed by Guti, which is something new. Real have suffered this year because they've had no one to replace Zidane as an offensive midfielder to set up the frontline and Guti is doing a good job in that role today. I'm also impressed by Higuain. He looks like Real's first good purchase in ages.
5:25 - Ray Hudson has figured out that Barca have no protection for the back four and they are exposed as a result. This is what happens when Iniesta, Deco, and Xavi all play at the same time. Rijkaard made the same mistake at the Bernabeu and hasn't learned that he needs to play Edmilson or Motta in front of the defense.
5:27 - Robinho on for Raul, who has been anonymous despite Barca's frailty. The Madrid team on the pitch really worries me.
5:32 - Van Nistlerooy has had three great shots and Valdes has answered all three times. The first comes off a move started by Robinho taking the ball off Ronaldinho in his back right corner, then Higuain sends Ruud clear on goal and Valdes makes an epic save when Ruud tries to chip him. Valdes either guessed that Ruud would try to chip him or he has the quickest reflexes ever. The next two saves weren't quite as great, but they're still impressive. It's all Real now. The red card and resulting withdrawing of Eto'o have castrated Barca. As usual this season, Rijkaard has gotten his tactics and subs wrong and Barca have been toothless in the second half.
5:37 - Belletti on for Deco. This is a good move. Barca can now have four in the back with Marquez as the screen. Plus, Deco had a yellow and was throwing himself around recklessly, so this will prevent Barca from having to play with nine.
5:38 - And as soon as I say that, Guti serves up a free kick from the right and Sergio Ramos heads it in. Barca's defense on a set piece lets them down again, although in this instance, there's almost nothing that can be done on a glancing header this good. Real have dominated the second half and they deserve the lead. That was a great goal.
5:49 - Casillas just beats Ronaldinho to a loose ball after Gudjohnsen heads a free kick towards goal. Casillas has been excellent, as usual.
5:53 - This is the same game I've been watching for the past month. Barca play well in the first half, something goes against them late in the first or early in the second, and then they get dominated in the second half. It happened against Valencia (sorta), Liverpool, and Sevilla.
5:55 - REVERSE JINX!!! FLEA, MUTHAF***ER!!! Messi is an absolute magician, taking a pass from Ronaldinho (that was probably intended for Gudjohnsen), beating Helguera, and then slotting in at the far post past Casillas at full stretch as Ramos came over. And he kisses the team crest for good measure. Ramos's was a great goal, but that was even better. And then Ronaldinho gets run over in a dangerous position in the box by Diarra in a moment of stupidity, but the ref swallows his whistle. Why didn't you swallow your whistle when you were sending Oleguer off, you Francoist Puta!?! (I doubt that's a good Spanish construction, but I'm mad and can't be expected to make proper grammar.) And he gives a foul against Ronaldinho for good measure.
3-3 at the final whistle. The Catalan white hankies are out for the ref. A terrific game, marked by great play from Barca in the first half and Real in the second. Barca will be three points down tomorrow if they don't get any help from 'Nastic, but they've finished their murderer's row of Valencia, Sevilla, Real Madrid, Liverpool twice in the Champions League, and Zaragoza on the road in the King's Cup. The schedule is more manageable the rest of the way and as Eto'o and Thuram round back into form and Sevilla feels the pressure of going for a title they haven't won in ages, Barca still have a great shot at a third straight Liga title. If Rijkaard goes back to last year's structure (with more protection for the defense) and gets better with his in-game tactics, the season is salvageable. It would have been hard to get back up without that strike from Leo.