With Spain safely qualified for the World Cup and their upcoming qualifying matches reduced to nothing more than friendlies, interest may remain on the club game during La Roja's forthcoming games. Special attention will be paid to "el virus Fifa", which tends to strike players down while on international duty, when your players go away for a week, sometimes longer (and sometimes quite far away). When they come back some of them are unable to play the next match for your club for a variety of reasons: serious injury, aggravated niggles, excessive fatigue, late flights, jet lag, need to rotate, and even too high or too low spirits, depending on the results, especially in this particular, decisive round.
Of course, any of these can occur while a player plays for his club, but somehow, when it happens on international duty, the grinding of teeth tends to be more pronounced, and even more when nothing is riding on the result, as it is the case for Spain this time. Who will catch the virus this time? All the club managers (and the fans too) will be praying it’s not one (or more) of their stars.
Besides, this international break comes at a quite interesting moment in the league season: Barcelona and Real Madrid have just played their most testing match to date, and conclusions are beginning to be drawn.
On Saturday, Hugo Sánchez’s Almería went to the Nou Camp trying to boldly do what everyone else knows they have to do but haven’t been able to: smother Xavi Hernández and Andrés Iniesta in midfield and thus disrupt Barcelona’s stream of play at source. Xavi was man-marked by a 22-year-old defender, José Manuel Flores ‘Chico’, who played for a few months in Barca’s B team, helping them to achieve promotion to the Segunda División B (Spain’s third tier). After the game Xavi said that he had never been so obsessively marked and that he had to try very hard not to ‘desquiciarme’ (become unhinged).
It almost worked, as Barcelona won only 1-0, with yet another wonder goal from striker Pedro Rodríguez, who is building up a healthy tally in spite of being fourth or fifth in the pecking order for playing time. He has now scored in four different competitions for Barcelona this season (both Supercups, the league and the Champions League). Josep Guardiola has said that he is expecting other teams to follow suit now in pressing his midfielders hard.
While Barcelona navigated their first rocky patch, Real Madrid weren’t able to do the same. As anticipated in the last post, their visit to Sevilla was a very important game. The meeting with a rival of stature and ability coincided with the absence through injury of Cristiano Ronaldo, and although Real have plenty of other star players, he was sorely missed. Ronaldo is a player who can score goals, or create them, in many different ways. he’s worth all the money paid for him, he’s hungry to demonstrate that he can be the best player of his era and maybe beyond. In his matches with Real so far, he’s shown that he’s not there to retire prematurely, but to achieve even more than he did with Manchester United, if that’s possible. Nine goals in seven matches is an awesome return even by 1930s standards.
Real’s only goal of the game did come from a header, but it was scored by Pepe, a central defender, from a set piece, when he had the time to go upfield. Besides, the runner-up for player of the season so far is being Iker Casillas, some of whose saves against Sevilla have to be seen to be believed. He isn’t called ‘El Santo’ (The Saint) for nothing.
What Real really dream to play is the kind of game Arsenal inflicted on Blackburn Rovers last weekend, with all those goals scored after quick and brilliant interplay, cutting right through the middle of the opposing defence as if it wasn’t there. Against Sevilla there was no wing play and many efforts were wasted trying to find breaches in a wall that didn’t leave any. It’s not a surprise that every now and then covetous glances are cast in Arsene Wenger’s direction, but I’m sure than neither the Frenchman nor Real would have the patience to bear each other’s peculiarities for long. So Real’s plan will probably be to try to sign Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie and expect them to do that thing they do, only wearing all white. As they’ve always expected their bought stars to do.
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