Thursday, September 20, 2007

If my First Son is Samuel, Should my Second be Yaya?

Thanks to the Mediapro-Sogecable dispute in Spain that has prevented GolTV from showing Barca and Real Madrid matches this year, last night's replay of the Barca-Lyon Champions League match was the first time that I got to see the Blaugrana this year (other than an unexpected half against Athletic Bilbao). Barca came into the match on the heels of drawing its first two road games in the Primera 0-0. The opening to the game featured a translation of an ESPN Deportes reporter saying that Frank Rijkaard went on a six-minute monologue in the pre-game presser about how the team have had trouble integrating their new players and that some of the lapses in concentration from last year had returned. Rijkaard was almost certainly talking about Thierry Henry, since the other three signings - Yaya Toure, Eric Abidal, and Gaby Milito - have all performed well on the field and Barca fans have quickly taken to Toure and Abidal. Anyway, Barca's fine performance changed the story from this:

to this:

Leo Messi gets the cover and he deserves it for an outstanding performance. While Thierry Henry looks either rusty, washed up, or still injured and Ronaldinho is still off of his top form (although he still made several nice passes last night, none of which went to Henry because Ronnie and Henry don't [yet] know how to play with one another), Messi has picked right up where he left off at the end of last season. His control and pace make him almost unstoppable. The only criticism of his play is that he isn't a very good passer, as evidenced by one break last night when he should have released Henry and instead chose to dribble into no-man's land himself.
Collectively, the team looked excellent last night. With all of the pre-season concern on how Henry would mesh with Messi, Ronnie, and Eto'o, combined with a pair of 0-0 draws in Barca's first three Primera matches, the focus of criticism was on the offensive approach. However, Barca was let down by their defense as much as their offense last year. The team allowed two goals to Liverpool in the critical first leg, five to Real Madrid in two matches, and three apiece to Valencia, Sevilla, and Chelsea in two matches with each. The only clean sheet that Barca keps against any of those foes was in the second leg at Anfield when the Scousers were protecting a lead.
This year, the defense is outstanding. Barca have conceded one goal in four competitive matches and that was down to a Victor Valdes error. (With Gio gone and Marquez back in form, Valdes becomes the defensive question.) They shut out both Bayern and Inter in pre-season friendlies. Last night, Barca not only kepy a clean sheet, but they didn't allow Lyon a shot on goal. Lyon's chances were essentially limited to a header from the penalty spot and a tight-angle shot from a corner that was blocked. Barca's signings have resolved the team's weak spots from last year. Yaya Toure is an absolute revelation in the center of the midfield, as he combines defensive ability with solid passing and a surprisingly good shot. Gaby Milito is solid at the back and gives the team depth to cover for injuries so they don't have to rely on Lilian Thuram. Finally, words can't describe how much better Eric Abidal is at left back as opposed to Gio von Bronckhorst. Abidal was Barca's danger man for a significant period in the first half and he can actually play defense. Opponents can no longer attack Barca's left with impunity.
One other good note from last night was a real team goal:

The test for Barca's new defense will be this weekend when they face an angry Sevilla side that laid an egg at the Emirates. Shutting out Lyon (14 scored in seven Ligue 1 matches) was impressive, but doing the same to Sevilla would officially show that Barca are back from their 06-07 malaise.

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