Tuesday, April 24, 2012

V-E Day Turns Into The Alamo

Last year, Barcelona came home for the second leg of the Champions League semifinal having played three matches against Real Madrid, two on the road and one at a neutral site.  Barca had salted away a third straight La Liga title, lost a heart-breaker in the Copa del Rey Final, and then beaten Real 2-0 in the first leg of the Champions League semi.  They were like warriors coming home after winning the war, so a hype video using the theme from The Pacific made perfect sense:

This year, the Blaugrana enter a Champions League semifinal trailing 1-0 to Chelsea after a disastrous first leg in which Barca spurned at least six good scoring chances and allowed the Blues to score on their only shot of the match. Barca was described as "unlucky," after the match, but luck implies factors outside of their control. Barca's terrible finishing was within their control, as was the ability to mark Didier Drogba in the box when he was Ramires's only passing target.

Barca then followed that match by being beaten at home by Real Madrid in an entirely deserved fashion. Whereas Chelsea were timid and rode their luck (while Barca were not unlucky, Chelsea were most definitely lucky because they had nothing to do with Busquets and Cesc skying open-goal chances into the stands), Real were powerful, created more good chances, and won their La Liga title in emphatic fashion. In so doing, they ended all sorts of streaks: Mourinho having never won at the Nou Camp, not beating Barca in La Liga in four years, Barca not losing at home in La Liga in almost two seasons, Barca not having lost two meaningful games in a row since the beginning of Guardiola's time at Barca, etc.

So, when Barca deploy another hype video using the theme from The Pacific, this feels more like a last stand than a victory parade:

How did this come to pass for Barca?  I would point to the complete uncertainty up front.  In 2009, Barca won the Champions League with a set front three: Messi on the right, Henry on the left, and Eto'o in the center.  Those three combined to score 97 goals, including both of the strikes on that famous night in Rome when Barca started building their resume for being one of the best sides of all-time.  In 2010, Barca went out of the Champions League in the semifinals in no small part because they were in the middle of a transition away from Zlatan Ibrahimovic as a striker and towards Leo Messi as a false nine.  Ibra started both matches against Inter and was ineffective, in part because he was coming back from an injury and in part because Barca was realizing that he just was not a fit for their style.  By the end of the season, the Blaugrana were playing Bojan Krkic as a starter and Ibra was a very expensive substitute.  In 2011, Barca again had a stable front three: Messi in the middle, Pedro on the right, and David Villa on the left.  Messi dropped off of the front and created space for the other forwards to use.  Those three produced 95 goals and Barca won the Champions League again.

This year has been a lot more 2010 than 2009 or 2011.  I don't have any idea who is going to go on the team sheet and neither do most Barca fans.  Alexis Sanchez seems like a fairly likely bet, despite his pair of glaring misses at Stamford Bridge, because he provides Messi with a runner.  As for the other?  Cuenca because he plays as a true winger?  Tello because he is a dangerous dribbler?  Cesc because he combines well with Messi?  Pedro because he is a scorer of big goals (and was very nearly the hero last Wednesday)?  Dani Alves because he can play right forward?  Barca are 58 matches into the season and they don't know the identity of their front three.  Blame new signings, injuries, or a tendency to sit and watch the best player in the world if you like, but here we are.

The lack of certainty up front has made Barca weaker at the back.  Pep always says that Barca is not a very good defensive team when the other team is allowed to have the ball, so keeping the ball and then pressing hard when turning it over is essential.  If the front line isn't doing its job, then the back line gets exposed.  As Michael Cox explained, Pep has been forced to use quantity up front to make up for a lack of quality, which has created defensive vulnerability:
Whereas Real played their usual 4-2-3-1, Guardiola’s choice of formation was a surprise. He went for the 3-4-3, which meant Dani Alves pushed very high up on the right, Tello on the opposite flank, and Adriano on the left of a back three. This was an attacking gamble by Guardiola – he’s commented before on how dangerous it is to play a back three without controlling the whole game.

In a sense, it also hinted at Guardiola’s lack of confidence in Barcelona’s attacking department – he felt he needed two wingers to stretch the play on either side, yet also an additional midfielder to ensure superiority in the centre. This came at the risk of defensive stability, and Barcelona were particularly vulnerable to breaks into the channels/wings.
Today's match against Chelsea is no time to batten down the defensive hatches, as Barca need a two-goal win to progress.  (1-0 just gets the Blaugrana to extra time.)

So, here we are at the Alamo, Thermopylae, Bastogne, Rorke's Drift, Shiroyama.  Barca are struggling, at least relative to the standard that they have set for the last three years, but even a struggling Barca side can put together a great performance.  They are playing for history (first club to retain the Champions League), so it would figure that they will need a last stand to make that happen.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Hello Blueness My Old Friend

For the ninth time in the past decade, Barca and Chelsea will meet today in the Champions League.  In fact, one of the neat little facts about this year's semifinals is that they pit the two most commonly-played match-ups in European history, with Bayern-Real first and Barca-Chelsea second.  The Barca-Chelsea ties have always been very close, tightly-contested affairs, with each one settled by a single goal or less over 180 minutes.  A few thoughts in advance of the match tonight:

1. In 2009, one of the excuses that I and other Cules used to justify Barca's struggles against Chelsea was the fact that the two matches book-ended a La Liga-decider against Real Madrid.  The same issue will exist this year, although Chelsea is similarly conflicted in that they played an FA Cup semifinal on Sunday and they have a big match against Arsenal over the weekend.  Chelsea are currently fighting for fourth place, the last Champions League spot in England, and they know that attracting new talent to the squad is always harder when you can only offer the Europa League (and where your prior ability to dump bags of cash at the feet of new signings is constricted someone by FFP).  In 2009, they were set, with little chance of winning the Premiership and almost no chance of missing out on the Champions League.  The teams they played before and during the tie with Barca - West Ham and Fulham - were both cemented in mid-table places.  Thus, both teams will have significant distractions and the playing field should be even.

2. At least that's what I tell myself, because the second possibility is that Chelsea are just a very difficult match-up for Barca.  They have the defensive midfielders that Manchester United lack, so they can clog the middle and deny Barca the ability to play through them.  It would be nice to say to myself "this is the Chelsea team that struggled so much over the course of the season, so they are clearly inferior," but that would only be true if Andre Villas Boas were still in charge.  Roberto Di Matteo (or, if you are cynical, John Terry) has Chelsea playing in their more traditional, defensive style, which remains the right approach against Barca.  Two banks of four without the ball and then long balls to Drogba with Mata, Kalou, and Ramires as the runners?  That can work very well, as Cesc has fretted.  (Kudos to the English rags for turning a statement of the obvious into some sort of insult.)  Chelsea can pose a threat without taking too many risks.  It's not the way that an expensively assembled side should play, but I've been saying the same thing for six years.  The Blues are who they are.  They tried to play a more aggressive, attractive style, the patient rejected the transplant, and now they are playing the way that gives them the best chance to succeed.  It is what it is.

3. From the Barca perspective, I will be most interested in how the Barca front line stacks up against a tight, talented defense.  Three years ago, Chelsea were able to negate a front line that had Eto'o in the middle with Messi on the right and Henry on the left.*  Now, Messi will be drifting into the middle between the central defenders and the midfield.  Thus, John Terry and Gary Cahill will be confronted with the choice of whether to step out and follow him (thus leaving space for runs for the left and right forwards; that dynamic has led to Messi leading all players in the five big European leagues in assists) or stay back, leaving Mikel and Lampard to deal with Messi.  Assuming that Cesc and Sanchez are the forwards, they bring different dimensions as opposed to what Eto'o and Henry did.  Sanchez is faster and Cesc has a better ability to link up with Messi than any other Barca forward has had.

* - Warren Barton hilariously claimed last night on FSC that Chelsea have always done well at denying Messi the space in between the lines.  That's where Messi plays now as a false nine, but previously, he was a right winger who attacked fullbacks at pace instead of floating in the middle.  Moreover, he was outstanding at Stamford Bridge in 2006, ripping Chelsea apart and drawing a red card that was a major event in the match.  In fact, that match is generally seen as the instance where Messi announced himself to the world.  Other than all that, you're totally solid, Warren.   

4. From the Chelsea perspective, I'll be interested to see whether they will be comfortable with a 0-0.  Milan got a 0-0 at home against Barca and then lost 3-1 at the Nou Camp, but Milan without Thiago Silva were also more defensively suspect than Chelsea.  0-0 wouldn't be a bad result for Chelsea, although as they showed in the second leg in 2009, they can play defensively and still create a ton of chances on the counter.  Conversely, of the three crunch games that Barca will play in the next seven days, this is the one for which they will have the most rest.  Do they view this as the chance to win the tie early so they can go for broke on Saturday and then have an easier time on Tuesday?  Or do they conserve energy and accept a 0-0 if it is tacitly offered.  (If Keita is in the lineup, then the latter is a distinct possibility.)

5. It's also worth watching Xavi's fitness.  He is the player who makes Barca go, but he has been struggling with a calf/Achilles issue during the second half of the season.  He was subbed after 45 minutes on Saturday with Barca trailing at Levante, a move that Pep said was strategic, but may very well have been to rest his fulcrum for the match today.  Real Madrid are suffering because their key midfielder - Xabi Alonso - is running out of steam.*  Will Barca show signs of the same?

* - It's interesting that Real Madrid are the deeper side than Barca, but Xabi Alonso has had to make 45 starts this year, whereas Xavi has made only 40 (and this is despite the fact that Barca played in two extra competitions and made a deeper run in the Copa del Rey).  If Real's season comes unglued at the end, it may be down to the fact that Nuri Sahin never broke into the lineup to give Mourinho a viable alternative to Xabi Alonso. 

Roy Kramer and Radical Change

I wrote a piece yesterday at SB Nation about how Roy Kramer expresses concern about anything more than incremental change when it comes to a college football playoff, but he had no such concerns when he reorganized the SEC in 1992 in a significant, swift fashion:

What's interesting about Kramer's rejection of "big change" (although I am quoting Barnhart here, so this might be more of a poke at Tony) is that he initiated one of the most radical and ultimately successful (as evidenced by how much it has been copied) changes in recent college football history: expanding the SEC to 12 teams, splitting into two divisions, and initiating the first conference championship game. Prior to 1992, the SEC was a ten-team league in which each team played seven conference games and the champion was the team with the best record at the end. As of 1992, the SEC was a 12-team league split into two divisions with protected cross-division rivalries and the champion was the team that won a game between the winners of the East and West divisions. Florida had to win seven conference games in 1991 to win the conference; Alabama had to win nine the next year to do the same, the last of which was a "neutral" site game against the Gators. Bama's highest SEC hurdle was its last, not unlike what it would face in winning its next national title in 2009.

Kramer's change met with resistance from the coaches in the league, but it was ultimately a complete success such that every major conference now either has a conference championship game (Big Ten, Pac Ten, and ACC) or would have one if it could keep 12 stable members (Big XII, Big East). In fact, the solution that Kramer suggests for the college football post-season - a four-team playoff comprised of three conference winners and then the highest-ranked remaining team - is made possible by the conferences moving themselves into a format where the league season progresses to a final game and then produces an ultimate champion. Kramer's solution for the college football postseason is an incremental change in the same way that the Bowl Alliance and then the Bowl Coalition were, but Kramer's career was not marked solely by smaller alterations. His best change was his biggest.
Upon reflection, the salient difference is that Kramer was in charge of the SEC, but not all of college football.  As the SEC Commissioner, he could expand the league and create the division structure, albeit with ultimately approval of the SEC presidents and athletic directors.  He was not in charge of major college football as a whole.  The SEC was merely one voice at the table when the BCS was created, so Kramer would have had a much tougher time implementing a playoff in 1995 and 1998 as opposed to simply creating a bowl structure to guarantee a #1 versus #2 matchup.  If that's the case, then he ought to identify the times where significant change is possible and the times where we have to move slowly because the SEC's interests are not wholly aligned with those of other major conferences.

The post also led to a little Twitter exchange with Blutarsky about Tony Barnhart. I will admit to having the same reservations about Barnhart's writing, a feeling that was crystallized when Barnhart was apparently aware of the SEC inviting Missouri to join the conference and participated in a Q&A about the subject that was packaged to run when the news broke, but did not share this information with his readers.  At this stage, reading Barnhart is like reading Pravda during the Cold War: he is more interesting as a gauge of what newsmakers (in this case, major players in the SEC) are thinking and what they want to disseminate.  If you accept his writing on that principle, it's worthwhile.  In this case, he is disseminating the opinion of Roy Kramer, who doesn't really have a stake anymore and is therefore an interesting analyst of the playoff discussions.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Chemistry is for Laboratories, Urban Meyer Edition

Here's my reaction to Matt Hayes' piece on Urban Meyer.  In short, I thought that the whole thing was overblown, mainly because Hayes was describing a time period in which Florida was remarkably successful.  In fact, the piece serves as an unintentional rejoinder to everything that Kirk Herbstreit says about the emotions and intangibles of college football:

To summarize the article, Florida's players engaged in various forms of bad behavior during the 2008 season. The highlights include Percy Harvin complaining about running stadium stairs and then choking his position coach, Janoris Jenkins getting into various scrapes with the law, Meyer applying laxer discipline to his best performers, and Florida players generally smoking a lot of marijuana.

And here's the punchline: it's an afterthought in the article, but Florida won the national championship in 2008. In fact, there's an argument to be made that 2008 Florida was the best team of the Aughts, as evidenced by the fact that their yards-per-play margin ranked up with those of 2001 Miami and 2005 Texas, despite the fact that the Gators played a tough schedule. The Hats Guys of the world (and there are plenty of analogs in the world of college football) want us to believe that teams win based on senior leadership, authoritative performances from quarterbacks in the huddle, and "everyone coming together as a team." According to this ideology, 2008 Florida should have been terrible, as their players should have been split apart by inconsistent discipline and a star player being permitted to commit a battery on a coach. Instead, they ended the season passing around a crystal football.
The piece then goes on to criticize both John Pennington for using the article as a platform to dump further praise onto Tim Tebow (Tebow being a great college quarterback just isn't enough anymore) and NFL personnel directors for letting the smoke surrounding Florida players cloud their judgment as to just how good those players are.  (Good lord, that was a terrible pun on my part.)

There are additional weaknesses to the piece that I'm sure have been noted by Ohio State fans.  For instance, the bit about Bryan Thomas falls flat for two reasons.  First, it makes it sound as if a football coach can make a unilateral decision to give a player a medical hardship letter without any involvement from a doctor.  Second, Florida wasn't a serial abuser of the hardship rule like their buddies in Tuscaloosa.  In fact, Florida has been one of the paragons in the SEC in refusing to engage in oversigning generally, a fact that refutes Hayes' argument entirely. 

In the end, the article just struck me as a kitchen sink approach.  Hayes took every single negative that he could find about Urban Meyer since Meyer moved from Utah to Florida and then threw them into a piece without providing context.  Some of the allegations are indeed pretty interesting, most notably the story about Percy Harvin choking Billy Gonzalez.  They reflect poorly on Meyer and well on Hayes' ability to obtain information.  However, Hayes then goes haywire when he moves from reporting the stories to claiming that Florida's weaker performances in the last two years are the result of a lack of discipline.  It's a fitting result that a guy named Hayes would write a column about the Ohio State football coach and then he would go nuts.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Barca-Milan: I Feel a Change Coming On

You know that I'm jaded by Barca's success when they close out a 3-1 win over AC Milan - the current leaders in Serie A - and my first thought is "well, that wasn't especially impressive."  Barca played well, created a bevy of chances, outshot Milan 18-3, and were able to take their feet off the proverbial pedal for the last 20 minutes of the match, but because their finishing was poor and they relied on two penalties - one of which was debatable - they didn't win with the sort of panache that one would expect from this team.

Then again, from a historical perspective, I'm probably asking for too much in wanting every home match to finish 5-0, regardless of the opponent.  Last year, Barca benefited a dubious red card against Robin Van Persie and a clumsy touch from Niclas Bendtner in order to see off Arsenal.  Three years ago, Barca slogged their way through 180 minutes against Chelsea before finally getting the break-through in injury time after having survived a number of penalty appeals (one of which was actually legitimate).  In 2006, Barca needed a late miss by Benfica in the quarters and then a favorable call on a potential equalizer in the semi against Milan in order to progress.  In all three instance, Barca won the Champions League.  It's not necessary to dominate every match and it's helpful to keep in mind that I always remember the opponents' close calls without accounting for those of my team.

The main issue that I had last night after watching the match was that Pep Guardiola still seems to be searching for the best combination with this team.  In his two previous Champions League victories, Pep had to shuffle players at the back to deal with injuries and suspensions, but he always knew whom to play in the midfield and forward lines.  In contrast, in 2010, he was dealing with the unraveling Ibra situation and so he didn't really know how to deploy a striker along with Messi and Pedro.  After Ibra flopped against Inter, Pep saw out a second straight league title with Bojan as the third forward.

This year is closer to 2010.  Pep has to deal with Xavi's calf/Achilles issues.  More importantly, he is constantly shuttling players in and out around Messi.  At times, he plays Cesc as a second striker because his interplay with Messi is so good.  At times, he uses Alexis Sanchez as a runner for Messi's passes.  At times, he uses Isaac Cuenca and Cristian Tello for width.  And then there is a Pedro, a fixture for the last two years and a reliable scorer in big matches, but also a guy who has lost much of his form this year, at least in part because of injuries.

With all of these questions swirling in the background, Pep used a new formation for the most important match of the season: a 3-3-4.  On the one hand, it's nice to have a manager who can tailor his team to the opponent and thus remain unpredictable:

The real interest here was Barcelona’s shape. Dani Alves was pushed up even higher than in the first leg, with (at first) no responsibility to get back into the right-back zone. He and Cuenca played on roughly the same horizontal line, with Fabregas in a free role and Lionel Messi as a false nine. It could be interpreted as a 3-4-3 with a diamond midfield, with Fabregas at the front tip, but he and Messi were often together, playing as a partnership and dovetailing – therefore, the unusual 3-3-4 notation makes sense here.

Barcelona have played that way briefly in league games at the Nou Camp against weak opposition, but this was probably the first time they’ve looked 3-3-4 in a truly big game. In many ways, it makes perfect sense against this Milan side. It allows a spare man at the back, and if Fabregas dropped back slightly, equal numbers in midfield against Milan’s diamond. The obvious problem with a 3-3-4, on paper, is the lack of cover on the flanks – but few sides are as narrow as Milan, so in theory it shouldn’t be an issue.

On the other hand, Barca are supposed to be a team with a set way of playing that says to opponents "we are going to play a certain way and we are so good at it, you'll know what's coming and you won't be able to stop it."*

* - Michigan fans will be familiar with this mantra.  It worked when Bo was the coach and was more problematic when Lloyd was in charge and had only 85 players on scholarship.

Jonathan Wilson, a student of history who has previously wondered if this Barca team is going to reach its statute of limitations the way that most great teams do after 3-4 years, thinks that Pep tinkering with his formations is a good thing:

What marks Guardiola out is his awareness of the future, not in the sense of positioning himself for a move to another club or even in terms of youth development Рalthough he is clearly acutely aware of that Рbut in terms of understanding the sweep of history, of recognising that what is good now will not necessarily be good in a year or two's time. Dress it as the lesson of Bela Guttmann ("the third year is fatal") or Karl Marx ("all that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned"*), but that awareness marks Guardiola as a true dynastician. Not for him the club-hopping of Guttmann or even Jos̩ Mourinho: he wants to erect an edifice for the ages, something, paradoxically, strengthened by his refusal to commit to more than a 12-month rolling contract; he will not become a weary leader, governing by convention, but leaves open a perpetual route to step down for a fresher man when the occasion calls for it. (As examples from Tony Blair to Abdoulaye Wade indicate, though, leaving the door open does not necessarily mean he will still be willing to step through it when the time is right.)

In football terms, Guardiola is clearly determined to prevent Barcelona ever becoming complacent or predictable, to make sure they always have a second line of attack. The signing of Zlatan Ibrahimovic was intended to give them height, the option of going aerial if the usual tiki-taka didn't deliver and, when that didn't quite work, he began experimenting with the back three.
What I am trying to accept in my head is the idea that change and uncertainty might not be a bad thing.  When a team has won as much as Barca has, it's natural for a fan to say to himself "keep doing what you've been doing."  The memories of Rome and Wembley are so happy and positive in my mind that I want Barca to avoid change at all costs.  However, opponents are constantly changing their approaches to playing the Blaugrana and Barca's personnel is changing in all sorts of ways, so sticking with what worked before isn't a realistic option.  Hard to accept as it might be, if Barca are to win the Champions League again this year, they will have to do it in a different way.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Zlatan, Please Remember that this is a Tuesday

I shouldn't be nervous about Barca-Milan today.  A draw on the road in the first leg of a Champions League knock-out tie is generally a good result, especially when one's team was denied an obvious penalty, outshot the home team 18-6, and took the only two corners of the match.  The only time when a Pep Guardiola-coached Barca team was knocked out of Europe, they lost the road leg by two goals.  Pep's Barca sides have drawn the opening leg four times - Arsenal, Lyon, Stuttgart, and Chelsea - and progressed each time.  In the three instances in which they drew on the road, they then won the home legs by a combined score of 13-3.  Additionally, Barca were hampered in the first leg by a suspect pitch.  At home, on a perfect, wide pitch, they should have no problem circulating the ball quickly.  Reason says that they won't have issues today.

And yet, I still fret.  Maybe it's a residual effect of AC Milan's famous red and black stripes, which remind me of the fact that only Real Madrid have won more European Cups.  Maybe it's the fear that Zlatan has been waiting for an opportunity just like this.  Maybe it's the fact that Milan played a good game in the first leg, pressing for the first 20 minutes and then settling into a counter-attacking style that works well with their personnel.  Maybe it's the fact that we're into April and Pep still doesn't know his best XI.  Whatever the case may be, this match has more menace than a win-or-go-home game at the Nou Camp should.

The prevailing sentiment in the lead-up to the match has concerned Barca's lack of width in the first leg.  The consensus is that Pep erred by deploying a left side of Puyol (a solid defender who isn't great going forward), Keita (a defensively solid midfielder who isn't as good a passer as others on the team), and Iniesta (a great midfielder who usually looks to come inside when deployed on the wing).  Barca had no width on the left and thus became a lop-sided team that didn't stretch a narrow Milan side.  Michael Cox spotted this flaw:

Maybe the pitch was to blame, but it was surprising how little Barcelona tested AC Milan down the flanks in last week’s 0-0 draw at the San Siro. Milan’s narrow 4-3-1-2 formation means the full-backs are often left free, and Max Allegri’s side can be vulnerable to a quick switch of play from one side to the other.

Part of the problem was that Barcelona played Andres Iniesta in the left-sided forward position. Iniesta is a fine player, but he prefers playing an attacking midfield role, and when used as a forward he tends to come inside into his natural position anyway. Pep Guardiola probably played Iniesta there in order to give Barcelona more options in midfield – Milan have a four-against-three advantage in terms of pure formations, but it meant Barca were unable to stretch the play. With Carles Puyol used at left-back, they had no width down that side.
Ramzi from The Offside Barcelona also addresses width, but argues that the solution should be attackers who can play between the lines (read: Cesc):

Width is important for offense to be more lethal. However there is another factor needed hand in hand width – aerial threat. Without it, width becomes irrelevant. Even for a team like Manchester City, where you find Dzeko and co, teams made a well calculated risk and decided to defend narrow.

That’s something you can expect from AC Milan, a very narrow, tactically disciplined defense. The only setback for them will be fatigue impact where teams become increasingly prone to mistakes.   Messi’s dribbling quality will drag defenders toward him like magnets. That creates holes. Fatigue plays a role there in slowing down Milan’s players to reposition continuously and close the popping out gaps.  That’s where players capable of moving between the lines comes in handy.

If Cesc is fully fit, he will play. Unlike the first leg, the game at home is a perfect game for a player like the Fabregas. Where will he play? It depends.

There were some whispers that Xavi had a slight injury. If he is not able to play, Cesc may play in the midfield. Thiago is obviously a better alternative there, but he played a very physically demanding match against Athletic Bilbao. Even for a player his age, such games leave some bruises.

If he plays in offense, leaving Keita on the bench, it is important that he plays in front of Messi, not behind him. Alexis on the left and Alves on the right can provide the passing outlets on the flanks to breakthrough Milan’s press on ball holder. Messi on a free role accompanied with Iniesta while Xavi plays in a more conservative role closer to Busquets.
Personally, I'd rather see Tello play as opposed to Cesc.  Alexis Sanchez is coming on, but he does not strike me as a player to provide a lot of width.  I prefer the idea of Messi and Sanchez joined by Tello on the front line with Xavi, Iniesta, and Busquets as the midfield.  With Pedro's form having dipped, this is Barca's best front six and it ought to be the starting lineup today.  Then again, it's possible that Pep knows a little more about soccer than I do, so we'll see what he cooks up.

Is Hank Schrader Working at Butts-Mehre?

Though I generally view the focus on the off-field exploits of Georgia football players as a tired pursuit of sports radio hosts and Jeff Schultz, the suspensions for Bacarri Rambo and Alec Ogletree have caught my attention.  Georgia is now going to be missing at least four defensive starters for the SEC opener at Missouri, at least three because of apparent marijuana use.  The crusade by Georgia's football program against any drug use is going to have significant effects on the field.  The development has put me into rhetorical question mode:

Georgia's football program is in an interesting place right now. The Dawgs' head coach is a well-liked coach who is pretty clearly a B+ head man competing for titles against an A+ coach in the state to the west. The fan base is fiercely loyal and turns out for every game, but one has to wonder whether they will continue to make significant donations for the privilege to buy tickets to increasingly soft home schedules. How much do Georgia fans really want Mark Richt to play the role of Joe Friday when the conference is hyper-competitive? Do they really want to pay hundreds of dollars per ticket to see back-ups because the starters smoked pot on spring break?
The question that remained after I wrote that column was whether the current stance taken by the Georgia athletic department is the result of media attention paid to off-field issues.  Is Georgia overreacting to criticism from members of the media?  Or has this policy been in effect throughout the Richt era?  Is it just a function of the coach's personality and worldview?  I'm interested to hear from people who know more about the program than I do.