The number 3 doesn’t quite stack-up for Barca
LA LIGA is over for another season, somewhat belatedly, and it has been an intriguing one, perhaps more for the evenness of the competition than its quality.
While Spanish football is invariably easy on the eye and the teams right across the board can play, the standard this season was been a bit of a let-down (and I’m not just talking about the refereeing, which has to be among the worst in the world), particularly in comparison to the past couple of seasons, where Barcelona had dished up some of the most delightful football you could imagine.
More of the same was expected this season. Surely a team so stacked with attacking superstars would make it a hat-trick of titles, the pundits predicted.
And they started reasonably well, skipping away to an early lead on the back of some decent early form from Ronaldinho, keen to prove he hadn’t lost his powers after a disappointing World Cup. Only the Dani Alves and Freddie Kanoute inspired Sevilla seemed likely to challenge. But then it all went pear-shaped for the reigning European Champions.
Much was written and said about the absence of Samuel Eto'o and Lionel Messi for large periods in the middle of the season, and there is little doubt they were both missed, Eto'o goals in particular.
But what became more obvious during this period was Frank Rijkaard's inability to deal with these losses and in particular is blind-insistences that Xavi, Deco and Andres Iniesta should all be in the starting 11.
This had in part been forced by the brilliant form of Iniesta in the first half of the season. Frankly, his excellence demanded his picking, and Rijkaard had no choice but to start him.
But is was his unconvincing attempt to incorporate him into the first 11 that, for me, brought Barca back to the field and gave Fabio Capello and his Real Madrid outfit the sniff they were looking for to get back into the title race.
When Eto'o and Messi were out, one of the first things Rijkaard did was to play Eider Gudjohnsen or Javier Saviola up-top, through the middle, and shift Iniesta out to the right, in the Messi position.
It immediately turned Barca into the world's greatest ball-to-feet mob. Suddenly the drive and penetration of Eto'o and Messi, especially off the ball, was gone. Not content with Ronaldinho, Deco and Xavi wanting the ball to feet, suddenly Iniesta, Gudjohnsen and Saviola were also demanding it.
The possession was good, the football easy on the eye, but the goals dried up. The balance between on-the-ball and off-the-ball players had been lost.
The mystery from Rijkaard was that he had one of the squad's best off-the-ball drivers, Ludovic Guily, warming the bench for long periods.
It was all about rewarding Iniesta, and as I wrote above, he deserved his reward. But it had to be at the expense of either Xavi or Deco. Most evidently it should have been the later. Deco, up until this season, has been one of my favourite players, most notably because of his ability to keep the ball and create openings under the most intense pressure. He has been a winner wherever he has gone.
But this season was his worst by a long way. Seemingly uninterested, he appeared to be a passenger in games he once owned. Yet Rijkaard persevered with him, arguably on reputation ahead of form.
A little later, when Messi and Eto'o were back, the Dutchman still had a decision to make in order to accommodate a holding midfielder along with Deco, Xavi and Iniesta.
So what did he do? He went with a 3-5-2, playing Iniesta in a defensive left-sided position, half as a defender, half as a midfielder. Suddenly the fullbacks in the squad were rendered superfluous, so out went Van Bronkhorst, Sylvinho, Zambrotta and Belletti.
Instead he used a combination of three at the back from Oleguer, Puyol, Marquez and Thuram. Cue for disaster.
It was a far cry from the Rijkaard that barely put a foot wrong on his way to the domestic and European double last season. It was at about this time I had one of those great football dialogues with a close friend, a La Liga and Barcelona fanatic, and a knowledgeable one at that, who noted that much of 2005/2006’s tactical success had been attributed to one of Rijkaard’s assistants, Dutchman Henk ten Cate, who departed in the off-seas0n to take up the head-job at Ajax, only to be replaced by ‘our own’ Johan Neeskens.
Clearly something had gone amiss at the Bernabeu this season. Whatever it was, it allowed Real, who themselves looked all over the place in the first half of the season, back in.
Capello and Real seemed a miss-match from the beginning, the pragmatic Italian hoping to guide a club that prided itself on the flowing and beautiful game. In came grafters like Emerson and Mahamadou Diarra, an Italian ‘rock’ in Cannavaro and a Dutch goal-sniffer in van Nistelrooy, all very un-Real…
But the master-manager kept chipping away.
Eventually Ronaldo disappeared, van Nistelrooy profited from the extra attention and someone – was it Capello or the player himself? - finally worked out that David Beckham is a right midfielder and a right midfielder only.
Take Beckham away from the right and you take away his greatest weapon, his right peg, the best in the business, and pretty much all he has.
Eventually the Englishman rekindled his Manchester United knack for creating goals for Van the Man, this year’s Pichichi. Add the odd piece of off-the-bench brilliance from the tragic enigma that is Guti and the pressure was back on Barca.
Only the strongest squad would win, and in the end there were enough cracks in the Barca squad to encourage Real to grow stronger with the season. How else could you explain the last minute capitulation at home on the penultimate day to Catalan rivals Espanyol, or Real’s comebacks on both the second last and final day (or any other day in the past three months for that matter)?
Sevilla continued to linger without every really convincing they could grab the title. Every time they needed a win they could only muster a draw. Kanoute appeared tired or injured for the last three months and even Alves proved in the final few games that he is human after all.
Indeed, none of top three ever really set the world on fire. Most of the enterprising football this season came from the impressive Real Zaragoza, lead by two wonderful Milito brothers, Gabi at the back and Diego up front, or surprise packet Recreativo Huelva, inspired by their manager Marcelino Garcia Toral and their former Liverpool man Florent Sinama Pongolle to an eight place finish.
Villareal flew home thanks to the goals of Diego Forlan (surprisingly after Juan Ramon Riquelme went home), while Racing Santander caught the eye, as much for their short and tall combo up front, Pedro Muntis and Nikola Zigic.
While the overall standard was a little down on last season, the competitive nature of the league (there was only 21 points between sixth placed Zaragoza – Europe - and the drop – 18th placed Celta Vigo), made the task of choosing a team of the season even more difficult. Soccernet’s man on the spot, Phil Ball, has, as always, done an outstanding job in covering the season and the players that have caught his eye, but for the sake of some debate, I’ve gone for a more traditional 4-4-2 with the versatile and dependable Raul Albiol at the base and Andres Iniesta at the point of a diamond in midfield;
Goalkeeper; Andres Palop (Sevilla)
Back four (r to l); Dani Alves (Sevilla), Sergio Ramos (Real Madrid), Gabi Milito (Real Zaragoza), Antonio Puerta (Sevilla).
Midfield (r to l); David Beckham (Real Madrid), Raul Albiol (Valencia), Andres Iniesta (Barcelona), David Silva (Valencia).
Strikers; Ruud van Nistelrooy (Real Madrid), David Villa (Valencia)
Reserves; Iker Casillas (Real Madrid), Ezequiel Garay (Racing Santander), Julien Escude (Sevilla), David Albelda (Valencia), Renato (Sevilla), Jonas Guiterrez (Mallorca), Diego Milito (Zaragoza), Nikola Zigic (Santander), Freddie Kanoute (Sevilla), Lionel Messi (Barcelona), Albert Riera (Espanyol).
A couple of interesting ones to keep an eye out on are Ezequiel Garay, a 20 year old Argentine defender who chipped in with nine goals for Racing, and David Silva, who scored an absolute bomb against Chelsea in the Champions League.