Sunday, March 11, 2007

It was a wild one last night at the Camp Nou, where FC Barcelona and Real Madrid drew 3-3 in what is always the biggest game of the season. Certainly an exciting game--anyone who thinks soccer is boring should have seen this one. Neither team was disciplined, and both showed huge holes on defense. Leo Messi scored a hat-trick for Barcelona, and Ronaldinho had an excellent game. Here are the highlights from the match, along with a Spanish radio commentator's voice-over.

Madrid started the scoring with a goal by Van Nistelrooy off a defensive error by Thuram in minute 5, but Messi tied it up right afterward off a pass by Eto'o. Later in the first half Oleguer committed an obvious penalty, and Van Nistelrooy converted the penalty kick. Then Ronaldinho took the ball into the area from the left, shot, Casillas stopped it, but Messi volleyed in the rebound for 2-2. Near the end of the first half, Oleguer was sent off after two yellow cards, and Barça was left with ten men. Rijkaard substituted Sylvinho for Eto'o in order to set up a four-man defensive line, and nobody managed to score for most of the second half. Then Guti centered a free kick from the right of the area, and Ramos somehow knocked it in with the top of his head. It looked like Madrid was going to win, but in the last minute of regulation Ronaldinho got a through ball to Messi, who beat Casillas to make it 3-3. Three minutes of injury time, and Ronaldinho gets it into the area once more and Ramos knocks him down. It's a penalty, but the ref doesn't call it, and the game ends 3-3. There was only one more really dubious call by the ref; he warned Ramos for a brutal takedown of Ronaldinho from behind, and even the TV announcers agreed it should have been a red card.

So where does that leave Barça? Probably still in second place after today's matches, but within easy striking distance of Sevilla. Valencia is likely to make up points on Barça, too.

I now think Barcelona has a 60% chance of winning the League, down 20 points from a couple of weeks ago, with Sevilla and Valencia at around 20% each. They haven't been eliminated from the Spanish Cup yet; they came back and eliminated Zaragoza to go on to the quarterfinals, so they still have a chance to win that, too. The Cup is a comparatively minor trophy, but it would be nice to win it, and a League-Cup double would definitely salvage the season. That's still possible.

There's some debate around here about what to do with the squad for next year. Elements of the local media are talking about selling off a sizable number of players. I imagine that if Barça does not win the League, there will be even more calls for change in the clubhouse. That, to me, is nuts. This team has won two Leagues and a Champions, and you don't break up the squad over a second-place finish.

I think there are three groups of players on the club. The first is your group of core players from your own youth system. You want to keep every single one who's good enough to play in First Division. For the Barça, that would be Valdés, Puyol, Oleguer, Xavi, Messi, and Iniesta, all of whom still have upside to their careers. The second is your group of international superstars. You want to keep these guys, too, until they prove they're not superstars. Ideally, you sell your superstars one year before their performance begins to decline. That would be Ronaldinho, Eto'o, Saviola, and Deco. This might be a very good time to sell Deco. The third group are your solid professionals who you bring in to fill out the team. These guys are replaceable. They are Belletti, Márquez, Van Bronckhorst, Sylvinho, Edmilson, Gudjohnsen, Zambrotta, Thuram, Giuly, and Ezquerro.

I would: a) keep all the core players from the cantera, except for Motta, who I would ship out to anyone who will take him b) keep Ronaldinho and Eto'o no matter what c) keep all your pros who are under 30, which would be Márquez, Gudjohnsen, and Zambrotta. Sell the rest; their careers have entered the decline stage. Possible exception: Sylvinho, who is in great physical shape though he's about 33. Most players (except goalies) are done at about 30.

That would leave you with a basic lineup next year of Valdés; Oleguer, Puyol, Márquez, Zambrotta; Iniesta, Gudjohnsen (who played holding midfielder at Chelsea), and Xavi; Ronaldinho, Eto'o, and Messi. Saviola is your 12th man, the striker off the bench.

Now you need to sign some players; I'd bring in a right fullback, a left fullback, a central defender, a holding midfielder, a left winger, and a right winger. Olmo, from the youth squad, looks like he might be ready to step in as a central defender, and Dos Santos, also from the youth squad, is about ready to spell Xavi and Iniesta as playmaking midfielders. Also, strange as it may seem, I actually liked Real Madrid's idea of bringing in one superstar player a year. With these caveats: Get rid of one superstar a year, too, don't buy superstars you don't have a place for, and buy them experienced in Europe but still under about 26. Don't buy Latin American stars untested without a couple of years in a major European league. I'd get Cristiano Ronaldo; the local papers are claiming that Barça already has him tied up for next season. They should get some cash for Deco that they can spend on C.R.

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