Friday, October 15, 2010

Barcelona vs Valencia: Sorting things out in La Liga

This weekend Barcelona plays Valencia in an intriguing game between two contenders for La Liga title. Here is a look at the teams and how they match up against each other.

Barcelona: After winning their first 5 of 6 matches, Barcelona has stumbled lately with two straight draws. For most teams this would not seem like a big setback, but we are talking about a team coming off a season with a record-setting point total to win La Liga and a semifinals appearance in the Champions League. The bar has been raised this year and anything less than multiple hardware would be a disapppointment. These expectations have put enormous pressure on the Catalan giant and it showed during their draws. They struggled to find the back of the net against opponents that are considered to be of lesser quality in Ruben Kazan and Mallorca.

Is pressure the only issue for Barcelona? The current lineup may not be sufficient for great success. The summer signing of David Villa appeared to provide an extra level of firepower. However, the defensive midfield position is an issue. The departure of Yaya Toure has left a void that has been difficult to fill. Javier Mascherano was brought in to fill this void with his wealth of experience in the Premiership. He provides a toughness and stability at the rear. But one wonders how well he fits into Coach Guardiola's system. Barcelona counts on their defensive midfielders to not only stop opponents but also convert these stops quickly into offensive strikes. In Mascherano's first games, he has played so far back that a gap has formed causing a slowdown in any potential attacks. It remains to be seen whether he can close the gap and assimilate to Barcelona's style.

Another issue for Barcelona is the health of its players, especially the Spaniards. With the heavy volume of games played including La Liga, the Champions League, and national team duties, it is taking its toll and is evident with the recent health problems: Xavi Hernandez is sidelined with an Achilles tendon injury. David Villa picked up a knee injury in a recent Euro 2012 qualifier. And it could be a matter of time for others: Andres Iniesta's slight frame leaves him constantly vulnerable. Carles Puyol is now on the other side of 30. One wonders if the team will be 100% throught the year and play the entire season together.

On the other hand, Barcelona boasts a tremendous lineup when they are healthy and running on all cylinders. Lionel Messi is a player capable of singlehandedly dismantling an entire team. Other internationals such as Dani Alves provide a great dimension of width on the wings. And a bench that can call on players such as Pedro and Bojan can be very intimidating. It will be interesting to see how the season unfolds for the Catalans.

Valencia: Los Che may have surprised many on the surface by rising to the top of La Liga with 5 wins and 1 draw in 6 games. A deeper look at the team reveals that they may have been underestimated. During the summer, they lost two of their best players in David Villa and David Silva. These two alone accounted for a large portion of Valencia's offense last season. However, Valencia's management quickly attempted to compensate the loss by acquiring Aritz Aduriz and Roberto Soldado. While these are not household names in La Liga, they have picked up the workload well with 4 goals and 2 assists between them in their first 6 games.

Valencia also has a group of young talented players that can be relentless in their offensive attacks. The likes of Juan Mata, Pablo Hernandez, and Ever Benega have been a nightmare for opposing defenses. Mata and Hernandez have already been recognized with call-ups to the Spanish national team and it may only be a matter of time before AFA is knocking on Benega's door. Youth in general is a strength as Valencia's starting lineup has only two players over the age of 30, and one of those players is the goalkeeper.

And if the starters aren't playing at a satisfactory level, Coach Unai Emery has other viable options. At his disposal are young eager players such as Jordi Alba, Alberto Costa, and Mehmet Topal. And veterans such as Vicente and Bruno are available for service. Coach Emery has been a master at pulling the right strings with his bench so far. An example is Valencia's recent win over Atletico Bilbao in which Emery brought in substitute Vicente in the second half. Vicente answered the call by scoring the deciding goal in the 90th minute.

Is Valencia a real number one in La Liga? There are some areas of concern for this club which makes one wonder if they can sustain the top spot. While youth is a strength at most positions, it is not at the goalie position. Cesar Sanchez is thirty-nine years old and he has a lot of mileage. The question becomes whether he will be healthy for the entire season. Also, Valencia's attacking style has left their defense very vulnerable at times. They provide opponents too many opportunities and have been lucky not to give up more goals. Finally, one cannot help but notice that 4 of their 5 wins have been against teams in the bottom half of La Liga, and none of the 5 are ranked higher than ninth place. It will be interesting to see how Valencia fares against stronger opponents such as Real Madrid, Sevilla, Villarreal, and of course, Barcelona.

The match-up: As visitors, Valencia has not scored a goal since February 2008 at Camp Nou. This year it is the home team that has struggled to score. Barcelona has scored only two goals in three games at Camp Nou. However, don't expect a scoring drought in this game. Both teams favor an attacking style with players that can make deadly runs on the wings or the middle of the field. Teams that have packed 10 men defensively in the box have experienced success against Barcelona, but will Valencia employ such a strategy? Probably not. Such a strategy would take Valencia out of its game. And right now they are licking their chops, as they see Barcelona as a weaker team without playmaker Xavi and possibly without Villa also. But don't expect Barcelona to be without offensive fireworks. Remember, they have Messi.

Prediction: 2-2 draw, with a late goal spoiling Barcelona's chance at getting their second home win of the season.

5 comments:

GFC said...

I think that Barcelona and to some extent Real Madrid might start to suffer from Spanish Euro and World Cup hangover. The core of Barcelona - Xavi, Iniesta, Villa, Puyol, Pique and Busquets have for the most part been playing non stop for the past 3+ seasons. Espana winning both the Euros and World Cup as well as playing to the 3rd place game at the Confederations Cup means these players have had no break during the summer for the past 3 seasons. Add to this the games they play for club and you are starting to see some mileage add up...could this be the season Barcelona suffers from this phenomena?

philip said...

I agree, no one in soccer goes on top for that long. Remember France 98-01 oh the memories.

GFC said...

Those were good times! I will say that when that team headed into South Korea/Japan they were in good shape:

- Henry leading scorer in England
- Trezeguet leading scorer in Italy
- Cisse leading scorer in France

Too bad Zidane picked up a knock and too bad Lemerre did not leverage Micoud to pull the strings in the midfield!

But I agree that is very difficult to stay atop the game for this long for both club and country!

josemanes said...

Good points, Guy and Philip. I agree that a heavy workload can take its toll and it is not easy to maintain the top spot. Guardiola faces a huge challenge this year to keep his side healthy while at the same time putting the most lethal lineup on the field. Del Bosque was able to meet this challenge for Spain in the Euro qualifiers recently by using fresher players like Llorente, Silva, and Cazorla. I'm not sure that Guardiola has a bench that is so deep at different positions....Wasn't Pires also hurt for WC 2002? Not having Zidane & Pires was huge. It would have been interesting to see how that team would have fared with a full 100% healthy lineup. Although France rebounded nicely in WC 2006..That was a great run to the finals!

GFC said...

Good point Jose! Pires got injured, blew out an ACL, with Arsenal a few months before the WC. He was also playing his best football at the time and would have been a factor in the WC with or without Zizou! I completely forget about Pires being injured.

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