Monday, 30 September 2013

The Champions League returns tomorrow (Tuesday) with Barça taking on Scottish champions Celtic in the always tremendous atmosphere of Celtic Park. With Leo Messi joining Jordi Alba, Javier Mascherano and Carles Puyol on the injured list Tata Martino has called up centre-back Sergi Gomez and midfielder-turned-right-back Patric Gabarrón from Barça B to make up the numbers in a 21-man squad for the game.

Pedro Rodriguez took a knock in Saturday’s 0-2 win at Almeria but he has been included in the list and should be fine to play if needed. With Messi missing, Martino could opt for either Neymar or Alexis to play a more central attacking role though it seems more likely he will again choose Cesc Fabregas in the false nine role. This means Neymar will almost certainly return on the left wing, leaving Alexis and Pedro to fight for the other forward spot. We should see our classic trio of Busquets, Xavi and Iniesta in midfield, while with limited options in defence we will probably repeat the back four of Alves, Piqué, Marc Bartrá and Adriano. Bartrá will no doubt be hoping to build on his good performance in Almeria

celtic 2-1 barça wanyama goalBarça and Celtic are no strangers in European competition, having faced each other on eight occasions in the last ten years. Anyone thinking it will be easy for Barça tomorrow should take a look at these previous games. In the spring of 2004 a 1-0 Celtic win in Glasgow followed by a 0-0 draw at Camp Nou saw Barça eliminated from the Uefa Cup. The following autumn Barça recorded a fine 1-3 win at Celtic Park in the Champions League group stage but the Scots managed a 1-1 draw in the return in Barcelona. The teams met again in the last 16 of the 2007/08 Champions League with Barça winning 2-3 in Scotland in the first leg and 1-0 in the return. Then last season the two sides were drawn together in Champions League Group G, an injury-time goal from Jordi Alba gave Barça a 2-1 victory in the game at Camp Nou but Celtic got revenge winning 2-1 in Scotland incidentally with Bartrá appearing in both games. Both sides classified for the next round where Celtic were beaten 5-0 on aggregate by Juventus while Barça of course went on to lose to Bayern Munich in the semi-finals.

There have been few changes at Celtic since last season’s meetings. Neil Lennon is still the coach and the core of the team is the same. However, midfielder Victor Wanyama, who was very impressive last year, has been sold for £12.5 million to Southampton while striker Gary Hooper moved to Norwich for £5 million. The most important players signed are defender Virgil Van Dijk (Groningen £2.6 million), winger Derk Boerrigter (£3 million Ajax) and Finnish striker Teemu Pukki (£3 million Schalke), though of these probably only Van Dijk will start tomorrow.

With the demise of bitter enemy Glasgow Rangers, Celtic easily won last season’s Scottish League by a margin of 16 points over second placed Motherwell. This season the Bhoys have started strongly with six wins and a draw from seven games. Last Saturday they won 2-5 at Kilmarnock with a hat-trick from Greek striker Georgios Samaras who you may remember opened the scoring for Celtic last season at Camp Nou. Inverness Caledonian Thistle are top of the league on goal difference but Celtic have a game in hand.

celtic barça bartra 2012It’s always a pleasure to face Celtic, the two contrasting styles of the teams guarantee an interesting battle if not always the most open game, while the vociferous Celtic fans always provide a magnificent atmosphere. For Barça a draw might seem a good result in as far as classifying for the next round is concerned. However, given the importance of finishing top of the group, we really should be looking for all three points. In the first round of Group H matches two late goals gave AC Milan a 2-0 win over Celtic while Barça were beating Ajax 4-0.

For a recent insight into the Celtic-Rangers rivalry here’s an excellent documentary which is well worth a watch.

Barça’s 21-man squad: Valdés, Pinto, Oier, Alves, Montoya, Patric, Piqué, Bartrá, Sergi Gomez, Adriano, Song, Busquets, Dos Santos, Xavi, Iniesta, Sergi Roberto, Fabregas, Pedro, Alexis, Neymar, Tello.

Possible starting XIs:

Celtic: Forster; Lustig, Ambrose, Van Dijk, Izaguirre; Brown, Matthews, Mulgrew, Commons; Stokes, Samaras.

Barça: Valdés; Alves, Bartrá, Piqué, Adriano; Xavi, Busquets, Iniesta; Alexis, Fabregas, Neymar.

Prediction: Celtic 1 Barça 2

Date: Tuesday 1 October 2013. Kick off: 7.45 pm in the UK, 8.45 pm in Spain.

Sunday, 29 September 2013



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Friday, 20 September 2013

A day after it was learnt that Barcelona superstar Lionel Messi did not ask for a pay rise akin to the deal Cristiano Ronaldo recently signed at Real Madrid, the Argentine ace was at his sensational best nevertheless.

Lionel Messi celebrates one of his goals against Ajax on Wednesday. Pic/AFP
On Tuesday, when Barcelona boss Sandro Rosell was asked if Ronaldo’s contract renewal (he signed a five-year deal with Real worth 90 million euros) making him the Spanish League’s best-paid player, would affect Messi’s contract, he said: “Does Ronaldo’s renewal affect Messi’s contract? Messi hasn’t said anything to us. He’s happy here and he’s at the best club in the world.”

A day later, Messi simply went about his job in the best possible way he knows – by scoring goals! Messi moved into second place on the all-time list of Champions League goalscorers with his 27th career hat-trick as Barcelona beat Ajax 4-0 at the Nou Camp on Wednesday.

The four-time World Player of the Year now has 62 Champions League goals to his name as Barca cruised to victory in the first ever competitive meeting between the two sides. Messi opened the scoring on 22 minutes with a sensational free-kick and made the game safe 10 minutes after half-time with a typically cool left-footed finish.

Gerard Pique added a third when he headed Neymar’s cross past the stranded Kenneth Vermeer before Messi rounded off the scoring 15 minutes from time. And the visitors were even denied a consolation when Valdes saved Kolbeinn Sigthorsson’s penalty 13 minutes from time after Javier Mascherano had upended Thurani Serero.

“In the first-half we found it a bit difficult because they played well, but in the second we moved the ball much better and controlled the game,” Messi told Canal Plus. “In general I think we played a very good game. The more variety we have the better.

There are games where we need to manage the ball, control the game, and others which are more difficult where we will need to do a bit more.” Messi took time to lend his support to coach Gerardo Martino, who flew back to Argentina yesterday to attend his father’s funeral. “It was a special game. It’s is a shame what has happened and he is suffering, but we are all with him in this moment.”

Champions League top scorers

Raul Gonzalez
Lionel Messi
Ruud van Nistelrooy
Cristiano Ronaldo
Thierry Henry
rayo 0-5 barça xavi

League leaders Barça travel to Madrid tomorrow to take on Rayo Vallecano at Vallecas in the fifth round of La Liga 2013/14 (Saturday 8 pm). Tata Martino is currently in Argentina for his father’s funeral but he is expected to return in time to take charge of the team from the bench.

rayo 0-5 barcelona messi goalLeo Messi looks likely to make his 250th appearance in La Liga in the game. The Argentinian has scored a remarkable 221 goals in the previous 249 matches, and in the last two seasons he has managed well over a goal a game – 50 goals in 37 games (1.35 goals a game) in 2011/12, and 46 in 32 games (1.44 goals a game) last season. The rate is even better this season with six goals in three league appearances so far, and that’s not to mention the hat-trick he scored against Ajax in the Champions League on Wednesday which took his career total of hat-tricks for Barça to 24.
This is Rayo’s third season in the top flight since their promotion in 2011. In the last four matches played between the clubs over the past two seasons the balance is clearly in favour of Barça with four straight victories and a goal difference in favour of 19-1. Twelve of those nineteen goals have been scored in Barça’s last two visits to Vallecas, a 0-7 thrashing in April 2012 and then a 0-5 win last October.
Rayo have made numerous changes since last season. Players such as Javi Fuego, Jordi Amat, Raúl Tamudo, Leo Baptistão and Chori Dominguez have all moved on and due to a very limited budget all their incoming players arrived either on a free transfer or on loan. The most likely of their new players to feature tomorrow are Alberto Bueno, Johnathan Viera, Seba Fernandez and Argentinian striker Joaquin Larrivey, Our opponents began this season with a promising 3-0 victory over Elche but since then they have suffered three straight defeats to Atlético, Levante and Malaga while conceding 12 goals in the process. Coach Paco Jemez will have to make do tomorrow without the suspended Lass Bangoura, while Nery Castillo, Jose Carlos and ex-big-hope-of-La Masia Iago Falque are all out injured.
rayo 0-5 barça cesc fabregasGiven the heavy fixture load at the moment there may be some surprises to the Barça starting XI. Almost any of the players who didn’t start against Ajax could get a chance but with Martino unable to take training for the last couple of days (his number two Jorge Pautasso has been in charge of sessions), it seems unlikely there will be too many changes though both Xavi and Pedro will probably be back in the line-up. Gerard Piqué picked up a slight groin strain against Ajax but he looks likely to play, but if Piqué is unavailable then Marc Bartrá will probably be chosen as his substitute as Carles Puyol seems unlikely to reappear for another game or two. Barça will be hoping to continue the 100% start to the league campaign with another comfortable win tomorrow though it is probably a bit much to expect a result as big as we have seen in the last two visits to Vallecas.
Possible starting lineups:
Rayo: Ruben; Tito, Galvez, Arbilla, Nacho Martinez; Saul, Trashorras; Seba Fernandez, Bueno, Viera; Larrivey.
Barça: Valdés; Alves, Piqué, Mascherano, Adriano; Xavi, Busquets, Fabregas; Pedro, Messi, Neymar.
Prediction: Rayo 1 Barça 4
Date: Saturday 21 September 2013. Kick off 8 pm local time.

Friday, 6 September 2013

Lionel Messi clears on Tax case
The Messis, who were facing the possibility of jail time, deposited the "corrective payment" last month, said a court in Gava, near Barcelona, according to Reuters.
The Messis, who are Argentine, are still due to appear at a hearing on Sept. 17, although their lawyer had asked for it to be postponed as he had another commitment that day, the court statement added. Both men, who denied wrongdoing, allegedly hid more than $5.25 million by filing incomplete returns for the years 2006 to 2009.
The sale of Messi's image rights had been hidden using a complex web of shell companies in Uruguay, Belize, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, according to the prosecutor's office for tax crimes in Catalonia said.
"I never take care of that stuff myself and neither does my father," Messi, a four-time world player of the year, said in July. "We have our lawyers and our wealth managers to take care of that and we trust them and they will sort this out. The truth is that I don't have a clue about all this and that is why we have people taking care of it."
Messi has been resident in Barcelona since 2000 and gained Spanish citizenship in 2005.

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

The midfielder will find a team playing his brand of football, two international team-mates to keep him company and a manager who can explain his ideas in German
As you would expect, Mesut Ozil's £42.5m move to Arsenal has reverberated through his home country – all the way down to the nether regions of Regionalliga West, the fourth division. Rot-Weiss Essen, a traditional powerhouse who have fallen on hard times, were jubilant when they heard the news on Monday; they are expecting a handsome windfall of €800,000 (£675,000) as compensation for developing him over a decade ago. Schalke, where the son of Turkish immigrants played from 2005-08, are due a similar figure.The real benefit to German football of this record transfer – the 24-year-old is now its most expensive footballer – will go far beyond financial considerations, however. Ozil's "escape from circus Real Madrid" (Süddeutsche Zeitung) has been widely seen as a smart decision, both for him and, by extension, the national team. Germany's manager, Joachim Löw, certainly will not have to fret about his sensitive playmaker being frozen out at the Bernabéu in a World Cup season any more.Ozil will instead find a team playing his kind of football, two German team-mates to keep him company and a manager who can explain his ideas in German. Most importantly, Ozil will go from feeling like the fifth wheel at Carlo Ancelotti's Madrid to being the star attraction in north London, and Arsène Wenger's personal favourite. The Frenchman tried to sign him first seven years ago, before he moved to Werder Bremen."I'm a player who needs the confidence [of the manager]," Ozil explained to, the official channel of the national team, on Tuesday. "At the weekend, I was certain that I would stay at Real Madrid, but afterwards I realised that I did not have the faith from the coach or the bosses. I am really looking forward to [joining Arsenal] because I have the faith of the coach. I had spoken to him at length on the telephone, he explained his plans and that he has faith in me – that is what I need as a player."Germany's sporting director, Oliver Bierhoff, joked about a "hectic" start to the international week. The former striker had facilitated the deal just as he had done two years ago, when Per Mertesacker was signed on deadline day by the Gunners. You could just sense the slightest sense of exasperation in the 45-year-old's voice – why do they always leave it so late? – but it was in his own interest to see it get done. Ensuring Ozil got out of the Madrid pressure cooker had become a thing of national importance. He had no longer been feeling "the trust inside the club", Bierhoff explained: "Ancelotti had perhaps different ideas."  
'I am really looking forward to joining Arsenal because I have the faith of the coach,' says Mesut Ozil. Photograph: Gerard Julien/AFP/Getty Images Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung's Spanish correspondent Paul Ingendaay took a more negative line on Ozil's departure to the Emirates. The outrageously gifted playmaker did not impose himself in any of Madrid's big matches in the past three seasons, he recalled, and wryly noted that his at times breathtakingly elegant performances were "the stuff of dreams, but not of trophies".The move to Arsenal – "a club that's always involved at the top but never tends to win anything" – amounted to him failing in the Spanish capital and was not simply a consequence of new arrivals Gareth Bale and Isco stealing his limelight. "The air at Real had been thin for him before," Ingendaay insisted.There is some truth to that. Serious seeds of doubt about his future at Madrid were first sown in a meeting with club management in mid-May.Mustapha Ozil, the player's father and agent, expected the president, Florentino Pérez, to offer a contract extension beyond 2016 and improved wages that reflected his popularity with the supporters, but the club coolly professed contentment with the existing status quo. Feelers were put out to a number of Premier League sides over the course of the summer.A combination of Ozil's wage demands – he was already on €5m a year after tax at Madrid, roughly the equivalent of £150,000 per week before tax in the UK – as well as Madrid's preoccupation with incoming players did not lead to any concrete negotiations before the beginning of the weekend, however. Then Arsenal called.As late as last Wednesday, when Ozil was professing his love for Real to German journalists at a Madrid event organised by his sponsors Adidas, he firmly expected to stay at the club. Madrid soon made their plans – or lack of them – for him clear, though. "Real Madrid mobbed him towards Arsenal," was Bild's take on the affair."I wasn't surprised, I had known about it for two or three days," confirmed his former Los Blancos team-mate Sami Khedira, possibly the only German who has seemed upset about Ozil's London move. "I regret the decision, it could weaken [Madrid], from a sporting point of view," said the 26-year-old in Munich.Bierhoff carefully suggested that Germany's No10 will "have to adapt to new conditions" in England after leaving a league that seemed more tailored to his lightness of touch. "In Spain, the style suited him, naturally," Bierhoff admitted, "but he will mature [in England]."A similar hope for Germany's most beautiful but also frail flower was expressed in Süddeutsche. "Wenger is someone who understands artists," mused the broadsheet, "[at Arsenal] somebody like him could find ideal conditions to blossom."

Four teams still have 100% records in La Liga following another pulsating round of fixtures on week three in Spain's first division.

It seems our defensive problems are over! With the transfer window now closed Sporting Director Andoni Zubizarreta gave a press conference this lunchtime alongside Vice-President Josep Maria Bartomeu to explain Barça’s activity, or rather lack of it, in this summer’s market. Zubizarreta stated that the club had tried everything to try and sign Thiago Silva both last summer and this, but the Brazilian had preferred PSG. Zubi then defended the decision not to incorporate another central defender with the usual excuse of the difficulties of finding the right player to fit the Barça system. He went on to talk about Carles Puyol, saying “there were 24 hours to go before the transfer window closed and yesterday Puyol went out to train. This is our signing.”
Now, nobody needs an introduction to Carles Puyol. As captain of our best ever team he has won every cup possible at club and international level. A blaugrana living legend. However, given his recent bad luck with injuries it is difficult to expect the 35-year-old Puyol to play too often or to offer the same level of performance as in previous seasons. Zubizarreta tried to justify the decision by stating that last season we achieved the best first half to a season ever with the same group of defenders even though we suffered injuries. However, Zubi failed to remember that last season we conceded 70 goals in 60 matches in all competitions, a poor record when compared to the previous four seasons under Pep Guardiola (2008/09: 55 goals conceded in 62 matches; 09/10: 41 goals in 59 matches; 10/11: 36 goals in 60 matches; 11/12: 48 goals in 64 matches).
The current situation only goes to magnify the foolishness of the decision not to offer Eric Abidal a new contract. With every day that passes Abidal proves his fitness, playing regularly for Monaco and being called up again for France. You might expect that when the decision was taken to let Abidal go, the club would have had somebody ready to sign as his replacement. But no, the club was thinking only of Thiago Silva who had already turned down the chance to join Barça in 2012. As Zubizarreta said today when talking about the Brazilian defender “not every player gets up in the morning thinking how wonderful it would be to play for Barça”. If Silva chose PSG over Barça in 2012 I think you can be pretty sure it is because they offered him more money. The club should have realised that the only way to get the player was by matching PSG’s wages. If this didn’t agree with Barça’s wage structure, then fine, don’t sign the player, but at least have an alternative ready before letting a player of Abidal’s qualities go.
Zubizarreta also spoke of the confidence the club has in Marc Bartrá. Now, Bartrá is still a promising player and he may still prove to be the answer to our defensive problems. However, last season when the first moment came to give him a chance, Tito Vilanova preferred to play Alex Song and then Adriano in central defence. Later in the season when Bartrá was thrown in at the deep end against Bayern he didn’t look quite ready for the job. The player needs playing time in some of our easier matches to continue to develop. So far this season he is the only fit outfield player who has still not played a minute, which also means Piqué and Mascherano are the only players who haven’t had a minute’s rest. At the moment it seems as though Bartrá could still face problems if suddenly needed against tough opposition.
On paper, Barça have started the season well. The first trophy of the season is in the bag and we are top of La Liga with the maximum nine points. However, there is a feeling that having failed to sign anybody apart from Neymar this summer, we may have to rely more than ever for good fortune regarding injuries if we are to challenge for the top trophies next May.
AC Milan have concluded talks with Real Madrid that will pave the way for Brazilian playmaker Kaka's return to the San Siro, reports claimed late on Sunday.
Milan CEO Adriano Galliani flew in a private jet to Madrid on Sunday morning and Sky Sport Italia later claimed the Spanish giants have agreed a two-year deal with the Rossoneri.
No firm details were given in the report, although speculation suggests Real could release Kaka for free or allow him to go on a two-year loan.
Kaka last week made a public plea to be able to leave the Spanish giants as he looks towards cementing a place in the Brazilian national side ahead of next year's World Cup.
Coach Massimiliano Allegri on Friday praised the Brazilian's attributes and said he had "faith" a deal could be struck for Kaka.
"Kaka would strengthen us. He's versatile, and his technical attributes would be a big plus to the team," said Allegri.
"We still have two and a half days till the end of the transfer window and the club is working on it. I have faith."
The deal is now confirmed and Kaka is now set on with free transfer to Milan.

Monday, 2 September 2013

Real Madrid have broken the world transfer record to sign Tottenham forward Gareth Bale.
The Wales star has agreed a £300,000 per week, six-year deal after sealing an £85.3m (100m euros) move which eclipses the £80m Real paid Manchester United for Cristiano Ronaldo in 2009.

"It's very important for Gareth to throw his heart and soul into this move.
"He's got it all and ability-wise he is phenomenal. The only question is whether he's got the mental strength to cope with such a big transfer and the spotlight that will be immense in Spain.
"But it's a fabulous opportunity for him and the important thing is he really needs to grasp it with both hands."
"I have had six very happy years at Tottenham but it's the right time to say goodbye," said 24-year-old Bale.
"We've had some special times together and I've loved every minute of it."
Bale will have a medical and then be presented to the Real Madrid fans at the Bernabeu at 12:00 BST on Monday before speaking at a media conference.
He added: "I am not sure there is ever a good time to leave a club where I felt settled and was playing the best football of my career to date.
"I know many players talk of their desire to join the club of their boyhood dreams, but I can honestly say, this is my dream come true.
"Tottenham will always be in my heart and I'm sure this season will be a successful one for them.
"I am now looking forward to the next exciting chapter in my life, playing football for Real Madrid."
Bale joined Spurs as a left-back for £10m from Southampton in 2007 and scored 26 goals last season as he was named both the Professional Footballers' Association's and Football Writers' player of the year.

Bale's season-by-season Premier League stats

  • 2012-13: Played 33, goals 21, assists four
  • 2011-12: Played 36, goals nine, assists 10
  • 2010-11: Played 30, goals seven, assists one
  • 2009-10: Played 23, goals three, assists five
  • 2008-09: Played 16, goals 0, assists 0
  • 2007-08: Played eight, goals two, assists 0
His representatives told Spurs at the end of July that he wanted to speak to the Spanish giants.
Real Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti's claim at the start of August that they were "in talks to find a solution" to the transfer angered Tottenham manager Andre Villas-Boas, but the clubs have now reached a settlement.
After his side's 1-0 loss to Arsenal, Villas-Boas said: "Bale is a wonderful player. He is going to join Real Madrid so we wish him all the best.
"He left us with some great memories from last season."
Bale, who becomes Real Madrid's fifth signing of the summer, paid tribute to both Southampton and Tottenham for developing his career.
He said: "I am well aware I would not be at the level I am today were it not for firstly Southampton and then Spurs standing by me during some of the tougher times and affording me the environment and support they have.
"I would like to thank everyone at the club; the chairman, board, staff, coaches and players, and, most of all, the fantastic fans who I hope will understand this amazing career opportunity."
Spurs have been busy in this transfer window, signing seven players for a total outlay approaching £105m.

Tottenham's summer signings

  • Argentina forward Erik Lamela (Roma, £25.7m, pictured)
  • Brazil midfielder Paulinho (Corinthians, £17m)
  • Spain striker Roberto Soldado (Valencia, £26m)
  • Belgium winger Nacer Chadli (FC Twente, £7m)
  • France defensive midfielder Etienne Capoue (Toulouse, £9m)
  • Romania centre-back Vlad Chiriches (Steaua Bucharest, £8.5m)
  • Denmark midfielder Christian Eriksen (Ajax, £11.5m)
Brazil midfielder Paulinho has arrived from Corinthians for around £17m; forward Roberto Soldado has signed from Valencia for £26m, and Roma playmaker Erik Lamela has joined for a reported £25.7m.
Their other summer arrivals are Nacer Chadli from FC Twente for £7m, Etienne Capoue for £9m from Toulouse, Romania centre-back Vlad Chiriches from Steaua Bucharest for £8.5m, and Ajax's 21-year-old Danish midfielder Christian Eriksen for £11.5m.
Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy admitted he did not expect to have to plan for the season without Bale.
"Gareth was a player we had absolutely no intention of selling as we look to build for the future," said Levy.
"He is a player whose career we have fostered and developed and he was only a year into his new four-year contract.
"Such has been the attention from Real Madrid, and so great is Gareth's desire to join them, we have taken the view that the player will not be sufficiently committed to our campaign in the current season.
"We have, therefore, with great reluctance, agreed to this sale and do so in the knowledge that we have an exceptionally strong squad to which we have added no fewer than seven top internationals.
"More importantly, we have an immense team spirit and a dressing room that is hungry for success."
Bale's sale could now trigger a series of deals involving other Premier League clubs before the transfer window closes at 23:00 BST on Monday.

A first-half Leo Messi hat-trick proved enough to earn Barça a nervous victory over Valencia at Mestalla tonight. Messi’s goals gave Barça a commanding 0-3 lead in a brilliant opening 41 minutes from Barça but two late first-half strikes from Helder Postiga put Valencia back in the game. After the explosive end to the first half neither side could find the net in the second period. There were chances for both sides with the closest attempt coming in the 86th minute when Victor Valdés got his fingertips to Jonas Gonçalves’s shot before the ball bounced out off the post.
With Xavi and Alexis rested, Tata Martino made the logical decision to bring Pedro back on the right wing while restoring Iniesta to midfield to form a trio with Sergio Busquets and Cesc Fabregas. There had been interest to see whether Iniesta or Fabregas would play the Xavi role of organising the team and from the kick off it seemed clear that Iniesta was in his normal position on the left of midfield with Fabregas on the right. However, Iniesta played a more reserved game which allowed Fabregas to excel in a varied role, dropping back sometimes but more often surging forward to support Messi through the middle while also impressing with an array of passes.
Both teams played a high pressing game from the start but there was little penetration until the 8th minute when Messi fired wide after Fabregas slipped a pass into the area. After this, for a splendid twenty-minute spell, Barça began to find space behind Valencia’s high defence with remarkable regularity. Iniesta sent Neymar haring for goal but after entering the penalty area the Brazilian tried to turn only to find the Valencia defence closing him down. Thirty seconds later and Messi played a superb pass through to Neymar who this time managed to shoot past Diego Alves only to have the goal disallowed for offside. The replay suggested that Guardado had played Neymar onside but in less than a minute Barça had the ball in the net and this time it counted. Busquets found Fabregas who threaded a ball through for Messi to chase, Diego Alves came running out of his goal but Messi resisted the goalkeeper’s challenge, sprinting on to beat Ricardo Costa to the ball and force it over the line.
A familiar pattern followed of Barça pinning an opponent back in its own half. Neymar curled one wide after Messi’s neat pass and Iniesta drove over from 25 yards. The nervousness in the Valencia defence was demonstrated by Diego Alves sending a loose pass towards Iniesta who was just impeded from shooting by an excellent intervention from Michel Herrera. Then in the 27th minute Messi set Fabregas up with a shooting chance and Diego Alves had to be alert to save the awkward bouncing sidefooter from 25 yards.
Valencia had hardly been seen in attack until Pabon fired in a 30-yarder from the left that went straight at Valdés in the 31st minute, then three minutes later Pabon shot again from a bit closer but the effort lacked power and Valdés dived comfortably to gather. There was nothing easy about Valdés’s next save, Ever Banega found Pabon inside the area and the Barça keeper sprang magnificently to his left to parry the Columbian striker’s shot.
The game had been intense and entertaining up until this point but the final minutes of the first half were breathtaking. In the 39th minute Busquets robbed Canales midway inside the Valencia half, knocking the ball on to Fabregas who played Messi into the right of the area to beat Diego Alves with a right-footed finish into the far corner. Messi completed his hat-trick two minutes later and Fabregas was again involved. Messi started the move, finding the ex-Arsenal man in the inside left position, Fabregas then sent Neymar into the left of the area and the Brazilian slipped a neat pass through to Messi who had continued his run through the middle to steer the ball low past Diego Alves from eight yards.
Three-nil up and Barça should have been home and dry. Things started to go awry in the 44th minute when Pedro underhit a back-pass to Valdés, allowing Postiga a chance which Valdés managed to deflect out for a corner. A minute later the ball came out to João  Pereira on the right, Neymar didn’t drop back to cover, allowing Pereira the chance to cross to the near post where Postiga met the ball with hooked shot that flew past Valdés just inside the near post.
The game then entered first half injury time which had been signalled to be just one minute. Inexplicably the referee, Jose Antonio Teixeira Vitienes, allowed play to run on for more than two minutes in which time first Valdés had to tip over from Banega’s 20-yard drive, then from the resulting corner Postiga rose above Alves and Iniesta at the near post to power a header across Valdés inside the far post. Two-three, and finally Teixeira Vitienes blew for half time.
Both sides began the second half more cautiously but as Valencia gradually pushed further forward the chances started coming at both ends. Guardado had Valencia’s first attempt after the break, blasting wide after Pabon’s assist, then soon after, Messi let fly from 25 yards, forcing Diego Alves to tip the ball over. Then in the 64th minute, Iniesta, who had a relatively quiet game, delivered a fine cross from the left but Pedro misplaced his header from eight yards. Pedro’s misfortune continued a couple of minutes later when he hesitated after Messi’s chested pass and missed a possible shooting opportunity. Valencia’s coach Miroslav Djukic reacted by bringing on Feghouli and Jonas, and soon after Martino sent on Tello in Pedro’s place.
As the game neared its end the tension mounted with the Mestalla public trying to roar their team on to an equalizer. One very good Valencia build-up in the 79th minute led to Jonas firing a shot that was deflected for a corner. Then from the resulting kick Ricardo Costa headed over the Barça crossbar.
Martino brought on Johnathan dos Santos in place of the tiring Fabregas, a signal to the critics that the Barça coach has faith in his youngsters to perform in important moments. Fabregas wasn’t the only one showing signs of fatigue as the heat and humidity took effect which led to the game remaining open to the end. In the 83rd minute Messi came agonizingly close to his fourth goal, his shot grazing the post after a splendid flick from Neymar and a quick exchange of passes with Alba. A minute later Neymar headed the ball into Messi’s path but the Argentinian couldn’t force the ball past Diego Alves.
Then came the heart-stopping moment for Barça fans, Piqué failed to make a good clearance, sending the ball to Jonas who turned Piqué and Mascherano this way and that before cracking in a low shot that Valdés just managed to touch with the tips of his fingers and the ball bounced out off the base of the post.
There was still time for a double chance for Alba and Messi but Diego Alves completed a fine game by stopping both efforts. Both goalkeepers, despite the goals conceded, had very good game which should help to demonstrate the quality of the entertainment. In one final push from Valencia Valdés first gathered Feghouli’s weak header, then in the final action of the game the Barça keeper punched clear a Valencia corner. Nine points out of nine for Martino’s Barça but the pressure is on with Atlético, Villarreal and Madrid all winning their first three games too.
Valencia: Diego Alves; João  Pereira, Rami, Ricardo Costa, Guardado; Michel Herrera (Dani Parejo m82), Javi Fuego; Pabón, Banega (Feghouli m68), Canales (Jonas m68); Postiga.
Barça: Valdés 8; Dani Alves 6.5, Piqué 6, Mascherano 7, Alba 6.5; Fabregas 9 (Dos Santos m80, 6.5), Busquets 8, Iniesta 7; Pedro 6 (Tello m72, 6.5), Messi 8.5, Neymar 7 (Sergi Roberto m91, –).
Goals: m11 Messi 0-1, m39 Messi 0-2, m41 Messi, m45 Postiga 1-3, m45+3 Postiga 2-3.
Yellow cards: m17 Pereira, m29 Alba, m65 Dani Alves, m74 Neymar.

Sunday, 1 September 2013

Tata Martino has decided to rest Xavi Hernandez and Alexis Sanchez for tomorrow evening’s league match at Valencia (Sunday 9 pm). Barça will be hoping to continue the 100% start to La Liga with another victory and Martino has recalled Adriano Correia to his 19-man squad for the game at the Mestalla stadium while there is also a place for Leo Messi after concern about his fitness this week.
Messi’s problems were made evident when he trained apart from the group on Thursday and Friday. However, this morning (Saturday) he trained normally with his teammates and looks likely to make the starting team tomorrow. Messi has been struggling with minor injuries ever since his hamstring injury against PSG in April, an injury that was blamed on the player’s lack of rest. The club, no doubt, recognize the need to have him at his best in the closing stages of the season and there would be no reason to take any unnecessary risks with him now. If he plays tomorrow it should be because he is in optimum condition, otherwise it would make more sense to start him on the bench.
It is very early days to be judging Martino, and after taking full points from the first two league games and clinching the season’s first title, it might be said that he has made the perfect start. However, having scored seven in the opening game against Levante, Barça have only managed to find the net twice in the last three games, a poor return given the immense talent of our forwards. On the positive side the defence has only conceded one goal in four games this season though Victor Valdés has needed to demonstrate his worth on several occasions already. Only time will tell if Martino’s apparent decision not to sign a central defender is exposed during the season. 
Of course we need to be patient. Neymar is still adapting to his new team, Messi has not been at his best and Andrés Iniesta is a long way from the form we saw last season. Despite maintaining the general philosophy of play, Martino has introduced his own variations. The full backs take fewer risks and have been told to make runs inside the wingers rather than overlapping, there is the intention to return to the highest-possible pressing game while there is sometimes a slightly more direct style with the midfield trying to find the forwards more quickly. Even with minor changes the players need time to assimilate the new ideas.
Tomorrow’s opponent’s Valencia have begun the season with a 1-0 home win over Malaga and a 3-1 defeat at Espanyol. Like most teams in Spain, Valencia have needed to sell more than buy in this summer’s transfer window. Roberto Soldado (Tottenham €30 million), Tino Costa (Spartak Moscow €7 million), Nelson Valdez (Al-Jazira €3 million) and Fernando Gago (Boca Juniors €1.7 million) have been sold, David Albelda has retired and Aly Cissokho (Liverpool) and Johnathan Viera (Rayo Vallecano) have been loaned out.
Valencia’s biggest signing has been the €7 million paid to Mexican team Monterrey for Columbian striker Dorlan Pabón who scored eight goals in 17 games in a short spell at Betis last season including the opening goal in Barça’s 4-2 over Betis at Camp Nou last May. Pabón’s transfer has been cleared in time for tomorrow’s game and he could replace another summer signing, Helder Postiga (Zaragoza €3 million) in the starting XI. Coach Miroslav Djukic has three other new players at his disposal, Michel Herrera (Levante €420,000), Javi Fuego (Rayo Vallecano free) and ex-blaugrana, Oriol Romeu (on loan from Chelsea). Djukic is expected to make various modifications to the team that lost at Espanyol including a possible change of goalkeeper with Vicente Guaita in line to replace Diego Alves. Djukic has also tried out with Andres Guardado at left back in training this week and there could also be a place in the starting XI for Dani Parejo and Sergio Canales.
For Martino the most logical Barça XI would seem to be the same team that started against Atlético on Wednesday with Pedro and Iniesta coming in for Alexis and Xavi. With a probable midfield three of Busquets, Fabregas and Iniesta it will be interesting to see how Fabregas and Iniesta combine to work the Xavi role. Will one of the two be asked to play a role closer to Busquets or will they take it in turns to drop deeper?
Last season’s game in Valencia ended in a 1-1 draw at the start of February, Ever Banega put Valencia in front after 33 minutes but Leo Messi converted a penalty five minutes later to earn Barça a point. Given that Valencia look a long way from their best, Barça should be looking for all three points tomorrow, but it is never going to be easy at Mestalla.
Barça’s 19-man squad: Valdés, Pinto, Alves, Montoya, Piqué, Bartrá, Mascherano, Adriano, Alba, Busquets, Song, Dos Santos, Sergi Roberto, Fabregas, Iniesta, Pedro, Messi, Neymar, Tello.
Possible starting XIs:
Valencia: Guaita; João  Pereira, Rami, Ricardo Costa, Guardado; Michel Herrera, Ever Banega, Dani Parejo; Feghouli, Pabón, Canales.
Barça: Valdés; Alves, Piqué, Mascherano, Alba; Fabregas, Busquets, Iniesta; Pedro, Messi, Neymar.
Prediction: Valencia 1 Barça 2
Date: Sunday 1 September 2013. Kick off: 9 pm local time.