The business end of FC Barcelona’s season is fast approaching. The 2nd leg of a very tight Copa del Rey tie vs. Atletico is tonight (28/01/2015). The Champions league knock-out rounds begin in less than a month’s time. In between Atletico and Citeh, Los Cules face Villarreal, Athletic and Malaga. If Barca go past Man City as expected (unless Lucho royally screws up), March will be even tougher with El Clasico sandwiched between a champions league tie.
There are a few problems. Messi has been messiesque. Suarez is working really really hard but, to be brutally honest, struggling. Iniesta is very slowly recovering form and fitness. Too slowly to my liking. Lots of eyebrows, mine included, were raised when Guardiola let Yaya Toure go but Pep knew what he was doing. Busquets has been brilliant. Superb ground coverage, great first touch, wonderful outlet passer, surprisingly strong for a wiry guy and, above all, maddeningly irritating to the opposition. A professional footballer and manager knows more than guys like me who haven’t seen sunlight for centuries. Whudathunk??? Sadly, that Busi is no more. He is a ponderous klutz and Luis Enrique refuses to drop him. I feel he should start Mascherano, in the holding position, with Rakitic and Iniesta. Then again, I don’t know how things work so ….
Pique has come out of retirement after 3 years to play defense. Either its because he is going to have second child to feed or that he’ll be out of work and called K-Fed Jr. In all probability, its because he cannot get intimate with Shakira. Bartra has been decent whenever he’s played but he’s slow. It is probably not wise to have 2 slow centre-backs. Alves has been horrible but the defence has been OK so far. I believe the defence hasn’t been any better or worse than the “Pep boys” era. Its just that the midfield hasn’t been inventive and, against better teams, has been overrun. Having Masch as pivot will cover many of those deficiencies, as he continuously proved during the World cup.
There is one player I haven’t mentioned so far: Neymar. It has been 1 year and 246 days since Neymar joined FC Barcelona. A season and two-thirds. I think it is enough time to make an assessment and a calculated prediction. He was signed for 48 million pounds. He was the next big Brazilian thing from as early as 2010. Dunga was under heavy pressure to include Neymar in the 2010 World Cup held in South Africa. In the 2011 Copa Libertadores, he scored the winner in the semi-final tie and opened the scoring in the 2nd leg of the final. The following year, he was top-scorer in the same competition as Santos lost in the semi-finals to the eventual champions. Neymar won everything he could possibly win with Santos scoring 136 goals in the process.
Considering the fact that Andy Carroll, who had scored a grand total of 11 goals in the EPL, went for 35 million pounds, Neymar was a steal or so we thought. Not so cheap it turned out. Still, I thought Neymar had a fairly good debut season for Barcelona. He scored and assisted in the Clasico at Camp Nou and won a penalty that turned out to be the equalizer at the Bernabeu. He also got Sergio Ramos sent off for it, which is always a great thing. He also got the equalizer against Atletico at Camp Nou. New country, new league, not fully fit during the season (played only 26 league games) and he managed 15 goals in 46 matches. Many players, experienced or otherwise, take time to adjust to the “Barca way”. A cantera since 2000, Messi scored 17 in 36 (06-07) and 18 in 40 (07-08) albeit injured and in a bad side in the early full seasons. Like Rafa Nadal asks, comparable, no? This season, he has been very good. It is hard to match Messi but I feel he has done it. At the very least, he has reduced the messidependencia by scoring 19 goals so far. He scored against PSG in both legs and opened the scoring in the Clasico. If only Messi had connected on Suarez’s cross to make it 2-0, things would have been so different. If only …..
Neymar is the classical Brazilian forward, fast and skillful. His dinks and flicks remind me of Ronaldinho in his pomp. He brings joy and fun to the field. Although dribblers are out of vogue, Neymar is a brilliant dribbler capable of beating multiple players. This aspect does not stand out since Barcelona are usually camped in near the opponent’s penalty box and there are very few counterattacks. He has an excellent long range shot, almost always hitting the corners. I have watched only youtube videos of him taking free-kicks and he seems to have a nice curl and dip to his shots. I haven’t had the opportunities to track stats as Messi takes most of Barca’s free-kicks and I don’t watch international friendlies.
That said there are a few weakness. There is a lot of room for improving his finishing. He panics and shoots when there are players near him in the penalty area. His shots are blocked more often than he would like. He needs to be more patient in the box as defenders slide. He is quite easily muscled off the ball by bigger players. At the same age, Messi could hold off two and, at times even three, players before making the outlet pass or winning the free-kick. Occasionally, he wins the free-kick but I feel there is now a perception that he dives so referees don’t give him the benefit of the doubt. His Brazilian forward DNA also means that he is not great at tracking back or pressing. So far he hasn’t given the impression of wanting to do it either. This is not such a big flaw but a flaw nonetheless.
Brazilians at Camp Nou
Barcelona have a history of Brazilian footballers who have had great success both individually and team-wise. Romario scored 30 goals in his only full season as he helped Barca win their 4th liga title in a row. The coup de grâce was the hat-trick in the 5-0 win over Madrid. Romario’s first goal was a fantastic turn and poke after he received the ball from Guardiola. It was, quite literally, a goal out of nothing. Before Messi scored 34 goals in 2009-10, Ronaldo was the only player to have broken the 30 goal barrier from 1994 to 2010. Rivaldo scored bucketfuls none more memorable than that hat-trick. Anything you can say about Ronaldinho between 2003 and 2006 is not enough. About how he took Barcelona from relegation to almost winning the title after he returned from injury in 2003-04. About how he helped Barca win their first trophy in 6 years. About how he, single-handedly, almost won that tie against Chelsea scoring that toe poke in the process. About how he brought the UEFA champions league trophy home after 14 years. It is really sad how it ended. Messi is definitely the superior player but Messi never had a WOW factor like R10 did. Ronaldinho is still the WOWest player in my lifetime so far.
Neymar has not done anything that those guys did so far. Maybe this is the year. Teams can disintegrate in no time. Case in point, Borussia Dortmund. From champions league finalists in 2013 to relegation threatened now. With a transfer ban until the winter of 2015-16, it is probably his only chance at Barcelona to make it count. He has shown that he is Pippen to Messi’s Jordan but he has to take that next step and show that he can carry the team when teams neutralize Messi. If he wants to be the best player in the world, he has to step out of Messi’s shadow. Starting tonight.