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The world witnessed today bizarre events that confirmed the end of a Golden Era for FC Barcelona.  Despite trailing Bayern Munchen by 0-4, Barcelona talked about evening the score in the return game at the Camp Nou.  Coming back from a 4-goal deficit had never been done before in the Champions’ League, but it was possible.  The local press did their bit to stoke the embers of belief.  The Guardian reported newspaper headlines with Es Possible.  And this sentiment was given credence by Messi’s wonder goal against Athletic Bilbao over the weekend in which he dribbled past 4 opponents before bending the ball around the goalkeeper.  It seemed Messi was back to health and would be ready to lead the attack against the Bavarians.  With Messi fully fit in the line-up, overturn the 0-4 score did seem possible.
So imagine the disappointment at Messi’s absence from Barca’s line-up.  How could it be that he played against Athletic over the weekend but would not start against Bayern?  Was he injured again?  When it was confirmed he would not play at all, it was shocking news.  Messi was injured and out of the semifinal.  Why was he risked against Athletic, when the game was meaningless, the league title being mathematically nearly Barca’s?  Radio Marca pointed out that Barca’s technical staff would have to answer questions about why had Messi been risked against Athletic, and why had he not been rested more throughout the campaign?  Had the pursuit of individual records distracted the staff from focusing on the larger picture?
Messi’s absence aside, the line-up chosen by Vilanova read like an audition for next year, at least for two players.  Here was an opportunity for Cesc Fabregas to show his mettle and his ability to lead the attack, and to show he can be an alternate to Messi.  Would Cesc be able to replicate his Arsenal form of old?  Replacing Busquets as the holding midfielder, Alex Song had an opportunity to show his ability to support his defensive line, and to distribute the ball from the back.  Both players disappointed.  Worse, they showed they have regressed and are shadows of the players they were when they wore Arsenal shirts.  Cesc could not lead the attack, nor did he find a groove when he dropped into midfield.  Song took too many touches on the ball and as a result slowed the pace of Barca’s movement.  Plus he lacked the confidence to attempt a long distance pass like the ones he successfully attempted to provide Robin Van Persie with the opportunity to score memorable goals, like the one last season, against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge.
When the first half ended and Barca had not yet scored, belief began to drain.  Bayern took full advantage of this once the second half kicked off.  Robben scored on the 48th minute, bringing the aggregate score to 0-5.  Seven minutes later, Alexis Sanchez replaced Xavi, and with that substitution Barca signaled its capitulation.  Fifty-five minutes had elapsed in the match.  Subsequently, Iniesta made way for Alcantara on the 65th minute.  Barca had folded her colors.
Barca were a shambles from the start, especially on defense.  Pique felt compelled to cover for each one of his colleagues on the back line — Alves, Adriano, and Barta.  As a result, he was caught out of position several times, and in one instance it led to an own goal, Bayern’s second.  How is it that there is no replacement of caliber for Puyol, an aging player suffering from injuries for the past two seasons?  It is incomprehensible that nothing’s been done to shore up the defense, especially at the centerback position.  Unfortunately, important signings have disappointed: Sanchez, Song, Fabregas, Ibrahimovic, while others, like Villa, are not played enough and hence lack fluency.
The aggregate loss to Bayern of 0-7 does mark the end of an era.  Where will Barca go from here?  Clearly they will need to recruit players of high caliber, and with physical presence as well, to help them overcome their disadvantage against teams like Bayern.  However, will Barca have the funds to bring a centerback, a fullback, a holding midfielder, and a forward?  La Masia cannot be the sole answer to the need for new blood.  The technical staff will need to do a better job at resting and protecting players like Messi, Iniesta, and Xavi, from overwork, fatigue, and injuries.  They will also have to explain why they risked Messi against Athletic Bilbao, and did not have him fit to play against Bayern Munchen in the return game of the semifinal of the Champion’s League.  A bizarre decision indeed.  It is unlikely all these needs can be fixed by next season.  Rather it will be a process of rebuilding that will take a few years, hopefully not many.  The true wonder is that this team’s dominance has lasted this long, playing at such a high level for six consecutive years that have also included World Cups, Euro Championships, Super Cups, Intercontinental Cups, etc., etc.  Now that it is over, we can say that it has been a privilege to have been a witness to the first Golden Era of FC Barcelona.
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The semifinal game played today at the Allianz Arena will mark the end of the Golden Age of FC Barcelona. They were threshed 4-0 by a Bayern team that played with hunger, intensity, intelligence, and that deserved every single one of the four goals they scored. And there could have been a couple more.

The six-year cycle of excellence for this group of Barcelona players, at club and at national teams, finally showed its physical and emotional toll. Barca looked tired, sloppy, devoid of ideas, and did not really manage to threaten Neuer. Barca showed loyalty to their tiki-taka and to each other to a fault in playing an injured Messi. He had no business being on the field beyond the 60th minute. Clearly out of sorts, he tried but could not weigh in on proceedings. Only 25, it is a miracle this is his first major injury, given his work load. Still it was sad to see him without touch or pace because of his injury. Don’t know why Villa only came in the 82nd minute, or why Alexis started at all.

Bayern were on top from the handshake. They towered over the Catalans, with the exception of Busquets, Piqué, and Valdez. The physicality and athleticism played a role in deciding this match. Two of Bayern’s goals came from corners that Barca could not defend. In both instances Dante climbed over Alves with ease to head balls back into the box for Gomez and Muller to score. That height difference is not about to change by the return game.

It looks unlikely that Barca will come back from a 4 goal deficit. And just as well. Those boys deserve a rest. Well done Bayern.

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Luis Suarez’s controversial hunger for the game was in full display today against Chelsea at Anfield. Though Suarez assisted on a beautiful goal and scored one of his own to tie the score in the last play of the game, what people around the world will forever remember is the sight of Suarez grabbing Ivanovic’s right arm, with both hands for a better grip, and biting his bicep. Not only did cameras capture the bite from at least two angles, but they also captured Ivanovic’s instinctive reaction to protect his flesh. The poor man even crossed himself — lest Suarez be a vampire?

Why? How could he? What was he thinking?

Suarez is a biter. Why this tendency was not nipped in the bud in infancy is a question best addressed to his parents. By way of explanation, one can say that against Chelsea Suarez was frustrated with his game. He had missed on a couple of chances to score in the first half, and it was Sturridge, not him, who scored for Liverpool to tie the game, albeit thanks to a lovely pass from Suarez. And just prior to the bite incident, Suarez had committed a silly penalty that allowed Chelsea to take the lead in the score. Plus Ivanovic was marking him closely, giving Suarez little room to make his speed and skill count. Suarez bit Ivanovic out of frustration and spite, acting with utter disregard for the myriad of video cameras beaming the game to the civilized world. Suarez may be a simpleton but he is not an idiot: he’s proven in several occasions that when under stress he will resort to bizarre behavior:
• during a WC qualifying match a week ago, Suarez surreptitiously punched a Chilean defender. The act was captured on video but it was not seen by the referee.
• last season, playing against Man U at Anfield, Suarez called Evra “Negrito.” Evra complained to the referee who reported the incident. Suarez was banned for 8 games and fined by the FA for racist behavior.
• Playing for Ajax, he bit a PSV player. As a result, Suarez received a 7-game ban.

His desire to win is legendary, and clearly it drives him to behavior well beyond civilized norm. Is his concentration on the pitch such that he tunes out everything? Perhaps. But is he so shameless that he simply does not care for the consequences of his appalling actions? Short of having Suarez play with a muzzle on, Liverpool will be better off selling him during the summer break, and investing on a player who will not bring the game, or the club into disrepute.

One more comment on Suarez and the bite. Football clubs should provide players with cultural education, especially foreign ones. Not too long ago, I came across an article that talked about the culture shock that Brazilian players go through when they arrive in Europe. In an extreme example of being penny wise but pound/dollar foolish, the article pointed out that clubs, both big and small, saw the expense of hiring a relocation service as unnecessary, and saw no problem in leaving players to fend for themselves in finding a place to live, a grocery store, a school for their kids, etc. Consequently, in most instances the performance on the field of these expats suffered, leading to disillusion, apathy, loss of form, etc. Apparently, a few of the big clubs are now offering relocation services to their foreign recruits, and have quickly realized of the benefits resulting from such service. Hopefully, clubs will also see the importance of helping their foreign players acclimatize to their new cultural milieu, and offer them coaching and what is expected of them, on and off the pitch.

If, as predicted by Jose Mourinho, the world stopped to watch Manchester United v Real Madrid on Tuesday, then the world surely stopped again on Wednesday to watch FC Barcelona play the return game against AC Milan at the Camp Nou.  Beaten 2-0 at the San Siro, the Catalans at the Camp Nou had to play better than they had in their previous four matches, in which they managed a win against Depor and three losses, twice against Real Madrid, and once against AC Milan.
As much as Milan deserved their victory at the San Siro, Barcelona played right into the Italian’s game plan by passing the ball laterally far too many times, and by taking too many touches on the ball far too frequently.  Those extra seconds Barcelona took on the ball allowed the Milan defense to shift to meet a threat, and to regain its defensive shape.  In the end, Barcelona controlled possession of the ball but created few scoring opportunities in a display of utter futility.  When Xavi and Iniesta attempted passes forward, they ran into a solid and disciplined Milan defense.  Throughout the game at the San Siro, Barcelona looked predictable, unimaginative, and tired, both physically and mentally.  In 90 minutes Barcelona managed only two shots on goal, one in each half.
Naturally, the adverse result gave the press impunity to question whether this great team was in decline.  Messi, quiet in the first game, came under meticulous scrutiny.  What was wrong with Messi?  Was there discord in the team?  Were Xavi and Iniesta carrying injuries?  The press even questioned how much Tito Vilanova’s absence from the dugout is affecting the team?  Tito is in NYC receiving treatment for cancer of the parotid gland in his throat.  To Barcelona’s credit, Rosell, the club president, visited Vilanova in NYC, and when he returned Rosell made statements to the press in full support of Vilanova.  “Tito’s health is the most important thing; everything else is secondary.” And: “Tito is our coach, nobody else.  We are not going to move anyone, even if it means winning nothing.  For us, a good season is Tito making a full recovery.”  This as reported by the Guardian.
It was in this context that the faithful gathered all around the world to watch the return game at the Camp Nou.  The inclusion of Villa in the starting line-up confirmed that Barcelona meant to be more aggressive and, fans hoped, much more direct in their approach to Abbiati’s goal, than they had been at the San Siro.  As expected, once the game began Barcelona controlled possession from the kick-off.  They were aggressive, and their tiki-taka and rotation had the Italians chasing shadows.  The game was only 5 minutes old when the Catalans struck.  The ball passed, one-touch, from Busquets to Xavi, and from Xavi to Messi.  Messi controlled the ball on the run, with his left foot, while surrounded by 5 Milan players in an arrangement that looked like a flower in bloom.  And from the center of the flower, with his left foot Messi bent the ball around defenders and goalkeeper.  It was a statement strike.  The ball rocketed into the upper right hand corner of the goal, with Abbiati a spectator.  The score now stood at 1:2.  It was a dream start that filled the faithful with hope.  Al Shaarawy might have scored for Milan but he missed the target on the 8th minute, and on the 33rd, his touch was a tad too heavy.  The turning point came on the 38th minute when Milan counter-attacked and caught Barcelona scrambling at the back.  With the goal and Valdez at his mercy, Niang fired and hit the post.  On the next play, Messi scored again, a goal similar to his first.  It was then when the faithful sensed this was possibly going to be Barca’s night.  The score now stood at 2:2.
By now everyone saw this team was playing like the Barcelona of old.  Milan had difficulty coping with the intensity and the full-court press to get the ball back anytime Barca lost it.  The Catalan’s efforts paid dividends again when Villa scored on the 55th minute, putting Barcelona ahead for the first time in the aggregate score.  Villa took a pass from Xavi in the right side of the penalty area, controlled the ball and then he bent it around Abiatti.  It was the least Villa deserved on a night in which his presence and movement kept Milan’s fullbacks busy and prevented them from double-teaming Messi.
In the 60th minute Milan brought in Robinho and Muntari for Ambrossini and Boateng.  For the next 20 minutes Milan enjoyed a spell of possession and pressure that had Barca defending desperately.  In the 74th minute, Milan sent in Bojan to increase the pressure, while Barca replaced Villa with Sanchez.  The final changes happened in the 77th minute when Puyol replaced Mascherano, and in the 83rd when Adriano came in for Pedro.  Near the end of the match, Alba threw himself at Robinho’s feet to block a point blank shot on goal from the Brazilian forward.  And then on the 90th minute, Barca managed to clear a ball to Messi who skipped a couple of tackles before releasing a pass to Sanchez, seen racing forward on the right channel, with Milan’s defense in pursuit.  Sanchez then sent a perfect pass just beyond the reach of the retreating Milan defenders which Alba controlled.  Running at full speed toward the Italian goal, Alba shot the ball around the advancing Abiatti, thus securing Barca’s victory.
The 4-0 final score, and the 4-2 aggregate victory over Milan qualified the Catalans for the next round.  It was an historic victory on a night in which Barcelona overcame not only an adverse score, but also concerns over the health of Eric Abidal and Tito Vilanova, and they did it by going back to their brand of football.  Next up: Paris Saint-Germain.
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How much Liverpool have really progressed as a football team was the question in everyone’s mind heading into this encounter at Anfield. So far this season, Liverpool had failed to defeat any of the top four teams, and Spurs arrived occupying 4th place in the table, determined to secure a place in next years’ CL.  The general perception is that Liverpool have improved, certainly since the arrival of Sturridge and Coutinho in January.  Both players featured in the starting line-up, having already shown signs of acclimation to the rest of the squad and to Rodger’s game plan, and both players had good games.  In the early stages, Coutinho contributed creativity, skill with the ball, incisive passing, and intelligent movement across the front line.  It was Coutinho, the “proper Brazilian,” who initiated the first goal by trapping the ball released by Liverpool’s midfield, having a one-two with Enrique that led to the Spaniard threading a wicked pass to Suarez, which Suarez finished impeccably.  The play gathered speed from the moment Coutinho made the first pass to Enrique, and by the time Suarez flicked the ball under Lloris, the ball was but a blur.
The early goal bode well for The Reds.  Spurs however, gradually gained control through the efforts of a strong midfield in which Moussa Dembele’s tackling and skillful passing dictated play.  Dembele has a fine touch, and he glides gracefully on the field in a manner reminiscent of Fernando Redondo. Although Bale is Tottenham’s star player, it is Dembele who works tirelessly to keep the Welshman supplied with passes.  Soon Spurs leveled the score and then went ahead thanks to goals by Verthongen, excellent as a fullback and as a threat on free kicks and corners.  During the early stages of the second half, Spurs continued to dictate play and were so dominant that Glen Johnson was seen, in the 60th minute, shaking his head in disbelief after a long period of possession by Spurs in which they narrowly missed adding to their score.
To Liverpool’s credit, they fought hard in the second half just to stay close to Spurs.  Their fortitude paid off when Spurs committed defensive errors, first in the 56th minute, allowing Liverpool to tie the score, and later in the 81st, effectively presenting the game to Liverpool in a platter thanks to a penalty which Gerrard converted.  They were silly errors: Kyle Walker attempting an ill-conceived pass to Lloris from 45 yards away; Defoe, in the course of defending a corner, lobbing the ball back into his penalty area rather than clearing the danger away from his goal.
The game turned out to be gripping, edge-of-your-seat stuff.  Liverpool deserved the victory and the accompanying euphoria.  So much frustration had been pent up after all previous losing efforts against other teams in the top four.  In the days that followed, Gerrard demanded a perfect finish, while others were heard mentioning finishing high enough to qualify for European play.  Alas, last Sunday, the final score at St Mary’s read Southampton 3:1 Liverpool.  Once again, Liverpool’s inconsistency has cost them valuable points, and has revealed no real progress has been made.
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