Monday, June 8, 2015

Barça are Kings of Europe again while Benitez's Real reign begins

THE SPANISH WEEK IN REVIEW

Barcelona cruise past Juventus to win their fifth European Cup while Rafael Benitez starts work at the Bernabeu in dismantling their dominance.


BARCELONA COMPLETE THE TREBLE IN BERLIN


And lo it came to pass that Barcelona won the Champions League and the treble this season.

The 3-1 scoreline the history books will record suggests a comfortable win, and indeed the blaugrana never looked like losing, but at least Juventus had the cojones to fight back and equalise through Alvaro Morata instead of being taken apart like Barcelona's victims in the previous rounds.

Italians are famous for their watertight defences and Juve had won their national championship losing a game less than Barça and conceding only three goals more across 38 games. Yet it took less than five minutes for the blaugrana to unpick their lock.

Ivan Rakitic's opener came so early that Luis Enrique's men relaxed psychologically a little instead of terrorising Juve as they might have done. It also made the game a little flat, as Barça maintained possession without much penetration.

The Croatian's strike was a prime example of the triangular passing his team have used to such effect this season, a system they know so well that their thinking is a split-second ahead of their opponents.

After Morata equalised in the 55th minute, it briefly looked like we had an even contest on our hands and that the wily old Andrea Pirlo and the younger feet of Paul Pogba could rewrite the script. But before Juve's South American pair of Carlos Tevez and Arturo Vidal could make an impact, Barça's South American trio reminded us they are the world's best front line.

The second goal from Luis Suarez and the third from Neymar reiterated how effective their trident is at spreading the opposition back four and striking with rapier thrusts.

Juve, ironically, ended with two Spaniards playing up front - Fernando Llorente and Morata.

As a clash of league champions, it showed how Spanish football is still a nose ahead of Italy's, but also how much more buying power La Liga's big two enjoy. 

"They were extraordinary," admitted Juve coach Massimilliano Allegri of the MSN trident, "and we were not able to contain them."

The two sides were equal on shots but Barcelona finished with 59% of possession and less than half as many fouls committed as by Juve.

Xavi enjoyed his last and final hurrah in the maroon and blue, in contrast to two veterans on the other team, the tearful Andrea Pirlo and Gianluigi Buffon, whose combined age was 73.

Barça celebrated long and hard, including giving the bumps to a sockless Enrique, who has enjoyed a clean sweep of all three trophies in his first season in charge. Enrique and their fans sang along to their club's tuneless official song, 'El Cant del Barça', a 1974 number which is recognisable for ending "Barça, Barça, Baaarça!"

Andres Iniesta said it has been "a spectacular season in every sense of the word", and that it made his hair stand on end to think of how they had repeated the treble six years on from their last. Yet he added, "I don't think you realise how difficult it has been."

Barcelona fielded six players who won the cup in 2009 and eight from their 2011 win,  a remarkable longevity. This mutual familiarity has forged the system all the players know so well that they move the ball apparently telepathically, a machine as opposed to individual components.

But the real triumph has been the evolution from the world-beating tiki-taka to the trident, with diagonal, zig-zagging approach play instead of short passing through the middle.

The trident is made up of great individuals, but Neymar and Suarez have adapted to work within the rules while not compromising their effectiveness, as has Lionel Messi, the greatest individual of them all, still has plenty of scope for creativity and remains far deadlier within the Barça system than when playing for Argentina.

* Gerard Pique is not about to win any admirers in Madrid after citing Barcelona's comeback as being down to Cristiano Ronaldo's birthday party, where the Colombian DJ Kevin Roldan published selfies of the partying players and allegedly destabilised the club for a while.

"I'd like to thank Kevin Roldan," Pique told the Camp Nou victory party. "It all started with him."

Pique posted Instagram videos of himself with partner Shakira partying apparently worse for wear on a Barcelona dancefloor in the wake of the Champions League win.

* The Spanish TV audience was 8 million, the lowest yet for a Champions League final. Perhaps the large Real Madrid-supporting contingent in the country could not bear to look.

* Luis Enrique looks certain to continue as Barcelona manager after his clean sweep, but all is never rosy in the garden of the Camp Nou. 

"The truth is I am still not clear what my future is", he told journalists after the final.

"There is no reason for us to break our contract with Enrique," was club president Josep Maria Bartomeu's response to a question on the Asturian's future, a double negative instead of a wringing endorsement, but confirmation enough that they will not dispense with his services for now.


Enrique might have won all the silverware available but doubts over his position arose during the campaign, which was not all plain sailing. Barça lost the first clásico in October 3-1 to Real and the following match 1-0 at home to Celta Vigo and Enrique's new Barça looked flawed, with Luis Suarez failing to recapture his Liverpool form.


In the aftermath of the defeat away to Real Sociedad in January, reports followed that Enrique had fallen out with Messi and that the Argentinian had issued a "it''s him or me" ultimatum to the club president. The press spoke of the "crisis" in Catalonia.


Bartomeu swiftly brought forward elections for the club ownership to the end of this season and fired sporting director Andoni Zubizarreta, attributing his acts to the "tension" which was "out of proportion" at the club.

Happily for all at the Camp Nou, Messi caught fire again and only improved as the season went on, Suarez became his old self in front of goal again and Neymar completed an attacking trident which worked to near perfection in the last third of the campaign.

It all ended happily in the euphoria of the OlympiaStadion in Berlin but the smiles should not cover up the fact there is never uniform harmony at FCB.

Enrique is no fool, as his confident and considered answers at press conferences confirm.

His three cups in one season are the best reposte to any criticism which has come his way this season, but he also knows the white-knickle ride of being in charge of "more than a club" will begin again in August, or to be more precise, on the 12th of July when pre-season begins.

* Former Prime Minister Jose Luis Zapatero waxed lyrical about FCB this week, calling them "chess in the purest sense and the beauty which is music." He called Iniesta, Messi and Xavi, "the divine triangle" and concluded, "In football what counts most is intelligence, the brain, the sense of playing and being a film director."

* While the week belonged to the glory of Barcelona, in the capital, Rafael Benitez showed up to begin his reign at Real Madrid.

He is the tenth man in charge at the Bernabeu this century, following in the footsteps of Vicente del Bosque, Carlos Queiroz, Jose Antonio Camacho, Garcia Remon, Vandelei Luxemburgo, Lopez Caro, Manuel Pellegrini, Jose Mourinho and Carlo Ancelotti.

Given the much-travelled coach started life in Madrid and played for Real's youth system and reserves and coached their U-19, reserves and was first-team assistant manager, it is a wonder the 55 year-old has only just been handed the reins of Los Merengues.

Benitez's pedigree is excellent, with the Champions League, UEFA Cup, Europa League, World Club Cup and La Liga under his belt and experience in England, Italy and Spain.

He cried as he toured Real's training ground, remembering his youth there and admitting he felt he had come home at long last. So far, so good and full marks from the press.

Talk now turns to who stays and goes, with Chicharito apparently slipping out the back door unnoticed back to Manchester, and talk of Raheem Sterling being bought, although it is hard to see how he might slot into the side.

Benitez prefers 4-2-3-1 and it is believed he will move Ronaldo to being the sole attacker in order to get the best out of Gareth Bale by placing the Welshman in his preferred left-sided position. Bale's agent was in Madrid last week to demand as much.

James would play on the right with Isco the probable centre of the trident, which leaves Karim Benzema's position under threat.

Benitez's Real we assume would have Casillas in goal, Marcelo and Danilo as full-backs, Ramos and Pepe or Varane as centre-backs and Kroos and Modric in the middle.w

"Attack, score goals, win and if possible play well," were Benitez's only clues, more of a smokescreen. "I am not going to get into names," he insisted, when asked if David De Gea was a possible acquisition.

His five-man back-room team includes an Italian Fabio Pecchia, with whom he worked at Napoli.

Benitez's Real will be rolled out against Tottenham on the 3rd of August in Munich, with a possible final the following day against Bayern or Milan.

* Barcelona have extended Pedro's contract until 2019 and Jordi Alba's deal until 2020.

* Eibar have been miraculously saved from relegation after Elche, who finished 13th in La Primera, were forcibly sent down to the Liga Adelante instead for unpaid taxes. To confirm, the relegated clubs are


* Sevilla coach Unai Emery has agreed a one year extension to his contract. The Europa League winning manager was reportedly being head-hunted by West Ham and offered a three-year deal at Napoli.


* Spanish clubs' double trophy triumph means the European Super Cup will again belong to La Liga.


Barcelona will play Sevilla in the traditional curtain-raiser to the new season on the 11th of August in Tbilisi, Georgia


Spain are also top of UEFA's coefficient rankings, heading off England, Germany, Italy and Portugal. Barcelona are top of the club coefficiency table, which is calculated for the previous five seasons. Real Madrid are second, Atletico Madrid fifth, Valencia twelfth and Sevilla 23rd.

With five Spanish clubs in the Champions League for the first time it has indeed been a golden year for La Liga in Europe.

* Aymeric Laporte, Athletic Bilbao's French U21 defender, has signed a one-year extension at the San Mames with a release clause of €50 nmillion.

* Sporting Gijon join Real Betis in La Primera next season after winning 3-0 at the Liga Adelante winners and gaining second place and automatic promotion from Girona, who conceded an injury time goal at home to Lugo.

Joining Girona in the playoffs are Las Palmas, Real Valladolid and Real Zaragoza. Ponferradina fluffed their chance to get into the playoffs by drawing 1-1 at home to Alcorcon.

Leaving the Spanish Segunda for the third tier are Barcelona B, who finished bottom, Racing Santander, Recreativo and Sabadell.

* Real Madrid and Liverpool legends cross swords at the Bernabeu on Sunday. Zinedine Zidane and Roberto Carlos will be among those playing for the merengues with Ian Rush and Robbie Fowler for the Reds. Steve McManaman will apparently be playing for Real, but might swap shirts at some point.

* Spain remain tenth in FIFA's World Rankings. The seleccion take on Costa Rica on Thursday night in a friendly in Leon before flying to Belarus for their Euro 2016 qualifier on Sunday the 14th of June.

* Spain's women make their World Cup debut in Canada this week. They are in Group alongside Brazil, Costa Rica and South Korea.

* Spain and Real legend Raul was in Cuba with Pele this week for a friendly between his New York Cosmos and the Cuban national side. The Cosmos won 4-1 in front of 25,000 in Havana.

TRANSFER RUMOURS

*Alvaro Morata's exploits for Juve meant Real Madrid are regretting selling him for €22 million last summer. 

Rafael Benitez is reported to have told Florentino Perez to buy him back, even if it would cost the club €30 million, the Spanish international's release clause. Perez however, is said to prefer Manchester City's Sergio Aguero.

*Benitez could send two Real youngsters out on loan to Premier League sides this season. Norwegian wonderkid Martin Odegaard and winger Sergio Asensio, who spent this year at Real Mallorca, could be heading to England to gain playing time.

* Another leaving the Bernabeu, but for good, is Javier Hernandez. Chicharito played a major role towards the end of the season when Karim Benzema was injured but told the press this week the club had not exercised their option to buy him and that he was returning to Manchester United.

* The Italian press reported Real had offered €40 million to PSG for midfielder Marco Verratti.

* Barcelona president Bartomeu confirmed Paul Pogba is on their radar. "It is true that Pogba is a leading target of ours and obviously we are interested," he said. "But I can't say anything more."

* Brazilian midfielder Casemiro has returned to Real Madrid following his year-long loan at Porto. Another Real loanee, Russian winger Denis Cherysev, has returned from his loan to Villareal with Liverpool offering between €15 and €20 million for his signature.

* Carlos Tevez could be heading to Atletico Madrid this week to hook up with compatriot Diego Simeone, who personally telephoned him last week to ask him to come to Madrid, but the 'Apache' also has a megabucks offer from PSG, Liverpool are also interested and his old stamping ground at Boca Juniors is said to be his first choice.

* Atletico are trying to sign Jackson Martinez from Porto but have had their first offer turned down. The Colombian has a €35 million release clause. Los Colchoneros are also said to be after Paraguayan defender Gustavo Gomez of Lanus, as are Valencia. Their bid for Turkish midfielder Ozan Tufan of Bursaspor is at an advanced stage.

Milan's bid for Atletico's Uruguayan midfielder Diego Godin has been rejected.

*Chelsea denied reports Diego Costa is unhappy and asking for a move back to Spain, but Vicente Del Bosque left him out of Spain's latest squad citing fitness concerns.

*Liverpool were linked again with Karim Benzema and Man Utd with Carlos Bacca

*Besiktas were reported to be keen on signing Iker Casillas

*Atletico Madrid were linked with a swoop for Argentinian marksman Luciano Vietto of Villareal.

Vietto is also catching the eye of Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United.

*Antoine Griezmann's suitors have narrowed down to Bayern and Chelsea

*Ilkay Gundogan confirmed he was in talks with Barcelona but reports later in the week said the transfer of the Borussia Dortmund midfielder had broken down.

* Real Madrid have offered 22 year-old Spanish centre-back Derik Osede to Watford, Nottingham Forest and Wolves.

THIS WEEK'S BIG GAMES ; kick-off times GMT

Tue 9th June
Women's World Cup: Spain v Costa Rica  21:00

Wed 10th June
Liga Adelante Playoff 1st leg: Real Valladolid v Las Palmas  19:00

Thu 11th June 
International Friendly: Spain v Costa Rica  (Leon 21:00)
Liga Adelante Playoff 1st leg: Real Zaragoza v Girona  19:00

Sat 13th June
Women's World Cup: Spain v Brazil 21:00

Sun 14th June
Euro 2016 qualifying: Belarus v Spain 20:45

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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