Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Catching up with the Primary Catalan Football Collective

Barcelona, Real Madrid, and Sevilla are heading down the stretch in the Primera for a classic finish, with Barca and Real tied with two matches to play and Sevilla only two points back and hoping for a slip-up. Barca have a massive advantage over Real in goal difference, but that will not matter a hill of beans in the event that the teams finish knotted, as the first tie breaker is head-to-head results and Real have a win and a draw against their arch-rivals. I'd like to be annoyed by the possibility of Barca not winning the title despite being even on points and way ahead on goal difference, but Barca have been weak this year against top quality opposition, so it would be fitting in a way if that was their undoing. To wit, Barca have a loss and a draw against Real, Valencia, and Chelsea, a win and a loss against Sevilla, and an extremely pyrrhic win and a loss against Liverpool. The interesting problem is that the conventional explanation for this season is that Barca have lacked the passion and commitment that they showed en route to winning the Champions League last year, but if that were so, wouldn't we expect Barca to play well against top opposition when the players are motivated and then poorly against the Osasunas of the world when they aren't paying attention?

In any event, that gets me to Saturday's 1-0 win over Getafe. The game was interesting to me because, for a red hot minute, Barca and their oft-complacent crowd got their passion back. Barca needed a win to keep pace with Madrid and they were playing a team that recently handed them a humiliating exit from the Copa del Rey and whose owner is an open Madridista who wanted his team to win to spoil Barca's title challenge. 40 minutes in, Getafe defender Belenguer baited Ronaldinho into retaliating for a series of kicks and pulls that Belenguer directed at the Brazilian and Ronnie was promptly (and almost certainly correctly) sent off. What followed was really entertaining, even if there were no follow-up goals. The crowd was roaring for much of the second half, pretty much up until the final ten minutes when Getafe finally starting making their man advantage count and put great pressure on Barca. Barca were creating chances on offense and they were sticking in a series of kicks to their opposition on defense. For once, Barca stepped down from their "we're better than that" pedestal and responded to dirt with dirt. It was terrific fun to watch.

One other thought on the match: I've killed Rijkaard and Neeskens in this space this year for poor tactical decisions in the second halves of matches, but they deserve total credit for a great one on Saturday. They sent Oleguer on for Belletti an hour into the match to shore up the defense on the right-hand side. When Manu skinned Puyol late in the proceedings to get to the byline and cross across the face of goal, thus creating one of Getafe's two great chances in the match, who was there to beat an attacker to the ball and nudge it to safety? Oleguer. I'm pretty confident in saying that Belletti, never known for his defense, would not have made that play. This was an instance of a substitution saving a match.

Now, we're down to two matches and La Liga will likely be decided by Real's trip to Zaragoza. Fortunately, Zara has plenty to play for an a bone to pick with Madrid. Phil Ball, take it away:

Added to the drama, Zaragoza must win to maintain their UEFA spot, since Villarreal have now steamed up the league into seventh place, and are only two points behind them. And Zaragoza are annoyed with Madrid for obliging them to sign a non-playing clause for Diogo (loaned out to them but one of their outstanding players this season) and for reneging on an alleged agreement in January whereby the promising young Rubén de La Red was supposed to be sold to them. In short, Madrid can expect a hostile reception. It's going to be a tricky game to win, but if they don't...

No comments: