Something Great

Arsene Wenger cobbled together starting lineups with spit and duct tape and Denilson and somehow the team dragged its ass over the finish line in third or fourth.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Fernando Llorente Saves Awkwardly Unlikable Spain

Iker Casillas’ girlfriend was the trigger. Oh you remember her. She reports for channel 5 and I’m not trying to hate, but she needed to retire after that moment.

No, there she was in Scotland, with those impossibly green eyes, reporting that Vincente Del Bosque was cold sitting in the stands. I suppose it’s a fair observation; Del Forest and his entire staff were violently shivering. This Spanish squad was so unlikable all of a sudden.

Perhaps it was the work rate of the Scots, Mr. Miller especially. Or maybe it was the counter-attacks sprung by beautiful long passes, as opposed to lucky hoove-ings. Those blue uniforms sure were pleasant in HD as well. Now, normally rooting for any team with Darren Fletcher on it would give me an ulcer so let me be clear, I was not rooting for Scotland. I simply found myself annoyed with Spain.

Spain used to be plucky and cursed - the blueprint for beautiful soccer. Tonight they were uninspiring. Sergio Busquets looked so bored that at one point I watched him jog in circles for 45 seconds straight. Santi Cazorla is not very good at soccer. And I still don’t understand how Capdevilla starts for this team every single game. I swear, every time some team scores on Spain, I can’t find him in the picture, though he’s not at fault either. Iniesta showed some effort I guess, and so did Villa, though neither of them seemed particularly fired up about anything. The team looked complacent.

I can’t blame them for being complacent, not when every beer commercial “salutes the winners of the World Cup!” and the announcers gush over a simple give-and-go from the world champs. And what’s with those World Cup patches on the Barcelona uniforms? I think the issue is that before, since they had no success, you couldn’t accuse them of going through the motions. Though that seemed exactly like what they did in Scotland tonight.

The first half saw a few typical half chances by Spain, generated by X.Alonso and Iniesta. But it was the Scots on the counter that gave the match some energy. On Scotlands most clear chance of the first half – a 2 on 2 break set off by a stunning, arcing pass to Miller – the announcers cried, “This is what we feared, what with 10 of them behind half.” I bet the booth didn’t realize the Scots could put a nice fade on that long-ball like that though. Well, Pique at least didn’t.

On the aforementioned break, Miller ends up doffing the pass and grabs his face in horror as the ball deflects out of bounds. A few minutes later, a very harsh handball awards Spain a penalty just before half. The keeper gets his hand on it, but Villa still scores. He passes (or ties) Raul for the all-time Spanish scorer record but you wouldn’t know from his expression because he barely celebrates it.

So here we are; a harsh penalty, Iker Casillas’ girlfriend, and a boring Spanish squad looking like they just need to show up these days to get a W. Surely Scotland wouldn’t let them get away with this, right?

The second half begins and the Spaniards look like they have a bit more pep in their strides. David Silva, who so far is on track for fraud status, redeems himself with a few menacing shots. Before you know it, Iniesta collects a fortuitous deflection inside the box and coolly slots it home, 2-nil to the best World Cup winners on earth. We haven’t reached the hour mark yet and the bartender, who asked me, “Who are we playing tonight?… Scotland… are you sure? Really? Scotland?… well, 3-nil at a minimum am I right hahahaha” is looking so fucking hahahaha right.

Oh wait! Scotland responds! The energizer bunny, Miller, finds his teammate with a lovely cross. Ramos doesn’t track back; you signed up for that though; and Pique doesn’t look over his shoulder. By the time Pique turns and sees the flying header, his facial expression is that of finding your own unflushed poop in the toilet bowl. 2 to 1, the home team is back in it. No matter who you root for, it’s nice to see the home crowd leave with something; those poor white faces were freezing!

Oh my goodness, Pique with an own-goal! You can’t even blame him either, that cross was going in the back of the net one way or another. I glance at the bartender and pretend to be upset. He looks genuinely concerned. Just like that is 2-2!

Well, you know how this story ends. The alarmingly handsome Fernando Llorente comes on for the awful Santi Cazorla, and everyone in the world knows he’s going to score. Llorente wins every header from a goal-kick that has ever come his way. He gets himself in position better than a center-fielder does a pop-fly. His footwork is amazing, period, not just for someone his size. Most importantly, he still has that hunger. If you haven’t heard of him, he’s the guy who was substituted on in front of Cesc Fabregas consistently during the World Cup. He plays for Athletico Bilbao… for now. And it’s Mr. Llorente who reads a cross perfectly, and volleys it past the keeper. He has yet to break a sweat and it’s his third goal for Spain in two games.

Ho-hum, another victory for Spain; I wonder what the headlines will read.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Musings on Spanish Football and Bojan Krkic

There is no player right now in Spanish football in a bigger slump than Bojan Krkic. Bojan’s slump reached its trough tonight, somewhere in Croatia, for the U-21 Spanish squad. Let me begin by clarifying that Bojan is a Spanish national; he does not play for some eastern European country like his last name might indicate. I was quite surprised to find this out, but I digress. Do you remember last year when Nicklaus Bendtner missed twelve gilt-edged scoring chances in one Champions League match at the Emirates, and when he was finally substituted the crowd gave him a standing ovation? That happened tonight for Bojan. After an hour of heavy touches, stray passes and shots that might endanger a spectator unprepared to ever see a match-ball flying at them, Bojan reached his low. The play is a deft give-and-go near the 8-yard box, Mata shot low and to the corner only to have it blocked by Bojan on the goal line. The ball hit off his heel, deflected off the goalie, and somehow it came back to his feet as he fell down. He poked it in from his back, an ugly goal at best, but was whistled for offsides. If he weren’t in such horrible form, he might have had a laugh about it. Three minutes later he walked off the field, pulling at his hair and staring blankly at the ground. One of his teammates ran 30 yards to hug him and whisper something in his ear before he was substituted.

This all started a few weeks ago in the stands at the Camp Nou. Barcelona was on a romp in the second half of a Champions League tie against Panathinaikos and Pep signaled to Bojan to get loose. Some of the crowd in my section noticed him warming up and started a chant, “Queremos la marica! Queremos la marica!” That means, “We want the gay kid! Put in the gay kid!” This surprised me because it’s unusual for any citizen to criticize Barcelona FC. A video could surface that showed Leonel Messi setting fire to kittens and the Catalunian papers would claim the kittens were spreading the plague, so naturally, Messi had done the right thing. Pep Guardiola has a book, people buy this book; again, I was a bit surprised that Bojan was heckled by the home crowd. But why were they on edge?

This has many roots, one even stems back to Zlatan Ibrahimovic and his struggles last year, but the main cause for tension was the Hercules – Barcelona game. Barcelona opened their home campaign against wet-behind-the-ears Hercules, and lost 2-nil. They lost one La Liga game all of last year. And this was a flattering 2-nil loss; Hercules having missed a sitter and Trezeguet hit the bar. For reasons I don’t understand yet, it is a special kind of insult to bring up losses to a team that has spent time in the 2nd division. The old, surly, drunk men at the bar that accused me of being a Merengue (“Eres Merengue!” they would say in their scratchy voices, decaying from emphysema) had memorized all the ties or losses that Real Madrid suffered to newly promoted teams in the past few years. They listed them off as if reading some secret document at a court hearing. All of this is to show that the Hercules loss was not just an unexpected thorn in their side, but rather a permanent scar that is no longer spoken about. And it was that game that reopened the small nagging wound Barcelona FC fans have chosen to ignore the past two seasons; they don’t have enough finishers.

Keita has not panned out, Ibrahimovic was practically a bust, not to mention trouble in the locker room, and Bojan has not developed as fast as some would like. Yes, they have David Villa, with his dreamy dark eyes and neat haircut, and yes, they have Leo Messi, with his witchcraft and sorcery. But when Villa got a red-card, and Messi nearly had his ankle snapped in two, guess what happened? The next game domestic game, Barcelona dropped points, again. The game before that, in Russia, they drew zero-zero. The papers the next day read, “Ruin Kazan”. Awkwardly, the passes that Xavi and Iniesta complete per game by the fifties, produced no end product. Four points gone and Barcelona isn’t even seven games through La Liga. Let me repeat; they lost one game last year and won the league by three points. One!

Obviously, that game Bojan missed a sitter (he was subbed off at half!) and Keita was/is/may always be abject. Even Dani Alves might be in a mini-slump as he too has missed open nets. Pedro, another untouchable, who has been bailed out with a groin injury, causes some grumbles here and there. And just as an aside, since this is a delight to report but has nothing to do with their finishing woes, Javier Mascherano fits into that team like Ron Jeremy does in a porno. It’s a smart crowd here in Barcelona, and I think they are starting to realize.

Now that Cristiano Ronaldo appears to be out of his funk, and Real Madrid survived it and leads them in the table, Pep’s 5 o’clock shadow grows in a little grayer. There is a feeling around city that Barcelona may not be the treble winning team they once were. When you’ve spoiled your fans as much as Barcelona has, there are surely going to be some moans with any sign of decline. But this is different. The domestic league means more here in Spain than the Champions League – or at least a lot more than it does in England. I hear all the time EPL players and their dream of winning the Champs League, but not here, at least not yet.

The key is that Real Madrid has emerged from their dark ages with their German midfielders and their Portuguese manager. This is to the horror of Barcelona fans. They won’t admit it, but Real Madrid actually scares them this year, unlike previous few years. And they should. I think Real Madrid wins La Liga this season. Just don’t tell anyone I said that.