martes, 1 de septiembre de 2009

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And they're off. Spain's was the last major league in Europe to start. And, as if done on purpose to build expectation, the European Champions, Barcelona, were the last team in the continent to get a game under their belt, having had their match displaced to Monday due to the mounting number of Supercup matches they had to play (three, the Spanish version being a two-legged affair). Add to this the 10pm kick-off time, and you have a game that started in August and almost finished in September.

If any team had their whole spine absent, they'd worry, and that was what happened to Barcelona, playing without Rafael Márquez, Andrés Iniesta and Thierry Henry. However, they couldn't have asked for more accomodating rivals than Sporting de Gijón. Last season they were the team that conceded the most league goals in the Primera División (79) and Barça beat them 3-1 at home and 6-1 away.

Barcelona manager Josep Guardiola looked so unconcerned that he even gave Lionel Messi permission to miss the game and fly early to South America, where Argentina play a crucial World Cup qualifier against Brazil this weekend. Argentina are not particularly well placed in the qualifying group, and it would be worrying for them to lose this game. Plus, the Argentinian FA put their bit of extra pressure on the player by deciding to move the game from the usual Buenos Aires to Messi's home town, Rosario. Curiously enough, Barça right-back Dani Alves, who will be in the Brazil squad, stayed, played, provided two goal assists and will join his team later.

Barça won the match 3-0 (and they only miss top spot in the league due to Getafe's 4-1 away victory over Racing Santander). The game featured a 19th consecutive goal scored by a home-grown player, in this instance by Bojan Krkic, before Seydou Keita and Zlatan Ibrahimovic broke the string and joined the party. Ibra's first ever goal for the club came in the 82nd minute, and you could feel the Nou Camp exclaiming "¡Por fin!" (Finally!) at the Swede. Barcelona's intricate passing didn't really click, and all three goals were headers, two from dead ball situations. Future defenders beware. Besides, Barcelona finished the game, as they had done on Friday in Monaco, with eight home-grown players on the field. And that was when they scored the winning goal, with no Henry, Touré or Ibrahimovic on the team.

Over at Real Madrid, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Millions and millions spent on new stars, and the guy who made the most telling contributions is still Raúl González, starting his 16th season at the club. He scored the first and provoked the penalty for the second, scored by Cristiano Ronaldo. Raúl is an absolute idol at the Bernabéu, and he's been resisting calls for his removal for years now. A staunch defender of his on Spanish radio salutes every new goal he scores with an ironic "Otro gol del que nunca hace nada" (Another goal by He Who Never Does Anything). His lurking style, scoring most of his goals not out of brilliance, speed, strength or dribbling ability, but out of concentration and a sense for the loose ball might have never made him particularly popular, but it has always been extremely effective. This season he's only 22 matches and 10 goals away from being able to jump from fifth place to second in the all-time appearances and goals scored charts in the history of the Spanish Primera División. He is 27 league goals below the absolute record of 251 set by Telmo Zarraonaindía 'Zarra' in the 40s and 50s. With opposing defenders too worried by the constant movement of Kaká, Ronaldo and Karim Benzema, Raúl will bag a few more for sure this year. His goal on Saturday epitomises it: Kaká feeds Benzema, the Frenchman shoots and hits the post, and Raúl taps the rebound in. Easy, yes, but if you're not there, that goal doesn't go in.

As it is, Real are going to need plenty of goals to win their matches (that's the other thing that hasn't changed). This time, less than three goals wouldn't have allowed them to take the three points home. Fortunately for them, even if all the aforementioned attacking players are not enough, in pops Lassana Diarra, a nominal defensive midfielder, with his second thunderbolt in two matches from outside the box. And we all know Xabi Alonso can score them from his own half if needed. Again, defenders beware.

The transfer window closed on the Big Two without much movement. Ukrainian centre-back Dimitro Chygrynskiy had enough time to lose the Supercup against Barça before joining them, but he will be cup-tied for the Champions League. At Real, the question was shedding weight, not adding more, and as predicted two entries ago, the identity of the Madrid's Flying Dutchmen depended more on having nerves of steel than on any other thing. Rafael van der Vaart blinked last, and he'll stay. The question is now how much will he play. By the way, people can complain about Real's player-hogging policy all they want, but teams who sign players from them can't really complain about the quality of what they receive: Arjen Robben scored two much-needed goals for Bayern Munich after just one training session with them in a 3-0 victory over defending German champions Wolfsburg. Wesley Sneijder shone for Inter in hammering Milan 4-0. Juventus beat Roma 3-1 away with Fabio Cannavaro marshalling the defence. Benfica beat Vitória Setúbal 8-1 with contributions from Javier Saviola and Javi García. And in Spain, Getafe are the first-day leaders featuring Daniel Parejo in midfield and thanks to a hat-trick by Roberto Soldado, who spent four years in Real's B team.

As for the rest, forget about them. The press were remarking that among all the fuss about Barça and Madrid, at least four other teams have an excellent attacking third: Seville, with Luís Fabiano, Kanouté and Negredo; Valencia, with Villa, Silva and Mata; Atlético de Madrid, with Forlán, Agüero and Simao, and Villarreal, with Nilmar, Rossi and Cazorla. This is true, and there had even been some talk from other teams of "we can also win the league", but the two who said it loudest, Seville and Atlético de Madrid, slumped to 2-0 and 3-0 defeats respectively against Valencia and Málaga. Villarreal only got a 1-1 draw away to Osasuna de Pamplona. First day only, and already chasing it.

And another thing...

I need a bit of statistical feedback from kind readers, if possible: After seeing Real's result on Saturday, a 3-2 victory, it seemed to me that Real had won lately quite a number of matches by that score or a similar one. Researching, I have found that in the last three years and a bit, from July 2006, Real Madrid have won as many as 15 competitive matches (that is, friendlies not included) in spite of conceding two or more goals, that is, winning by 3-2, 4-2, 4-3, etc. Does anyone know of another team who's done this so much in the same amount of time? Because it takes a lot of scoring and also a lot of conceding, which seems to be a continuing trend for Real.

And now that we're into asking for help, for a future piece I'd need to know the results of the last two competitive matches played between Chelsea and Real Madrid (whenever these were), between Chelsea and Inter, and between Liverpool and Bayern Munich. Thanks in advance.

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