After a day of turbulent speculation, in which all of the panjandrums of modern football have come out with their takes on the departure of Jose Mourinho, it is time to turn our attention to two Spanish clubs whose future could very well be affected by the “Special One’s” future movements.
This Saturday (22nd September) sees the first blockbuster of this year’s La Liga season, with Barcelona hosting Sevilla at the Camp Nou. With the future of both Frank Rijkaard and Juande Ramos a matter of speculation (though Juande Ramos’ agent has come out today to deny any rumours linking the Sevilla manager with an immediate move to Chelsea, or anywhere else for that matter), the game should go a long way to highlighting not only the fates of the two managers, but also of the two teams in this year’s championship.
Whilst Barça’s stuttering start to the La Liga campaign has paled in comparison to Sevilla’s domestic form (the Andalusian club not only having won both of their league outings but also having taken away the Spanish Super Cup), the clubs experienced a reversal in fortune in the midweek Champions’ League group stage matches; Barcelona comprehensively dismantled a disappointing Lyon team, winning 3-0, with Sevilla losing by the same margin at the Emirates Stadium.
Confidence amongst the Barcelona team, therefore, should be considerably higher than the previous weekend, although Ronaldinho’s pedestrian performance on Wednesday leaves the Brazilian with a point to prove to himself and to the many fans who both cheered and then whistled him during the encounter.
In true Soccerlens spirit, I have decided to settle the question of which team is better by attempting to make a combined eleven, after which I will analyse the pros and cons of the two teams before going on to make a prediction for Saturday’s game.
Combined Barcelona and Sevilla XI
Goalkeeper: Andrés Palop
This decision will certainly prove controversial. However, Palop’s form over the last two seasons has been excellent, and he was long underrated at Valencia. His distribution is superb and whilst he may not dominate the box as well as some, this is more than compensated by his consistency. VÃctor Valdes has without doubt improved a great deal over the last two years (people can no longer claim that he is THE weak link of the Barça starting eleven), but Valdes is all too prone to making howlers in crucial games (e.g. against Valencia the season before last), and is marginally less reliable than the Sevilla ‘keeper.
Right back: Daniel Alves
Despite the formidable talents of Zambrotta, this for me is a no-brainer. Daniel Alves is one of the most sought after talents in the world and offers pace, strength, crossing and shooting abilities, as well as the ability to form a cohesive partnership with the player ahead of him (unlike, say, Cicinho, who was all too often left out of position due to misunderstandings with Beckham down the right wing). Zambrotta is a superb player but lacks Alves’ devastating pace and trickery, though his crossing is pin-point and he can score the odd vital goal too.
Left back: Eric Abidal
Abidal has been one of the few bright sparks in Barcelona’s disappointing start to the season, and can lay claim to being one of the top three left backs in the world. He rarely makes a defensive mistake and can be devastating going forward; particularly excellent is his passing range.
Centre backs: Ivica Dragutinovic and Carles Puyol
English fans will be perplexed when they think of the vulnerable Khalid Boulahrouz at a Champions League club. However, Sevilla are not very weak down the centre. Whilst Gabi Milito has adjusted fairly well to life at the Catalan giants, Dragutinovic has a wealth of experience, being a member of the “Famous Four” Serbia defence, and rarely puts a foot wrong. Puyol, although injured recently and not in the team for Barça’s victory on Wednesday, has been a solid presence at the back for several years, not suffering the lapses of concentration and position of which Márquez can be guilty. Milito and Navarro are excellent players though, with the former getting the edge over the latter on the bench due to his age.
Right midfield: Jesús Navas
Another no-brainer for me, especially if we consider the Navas-Alves tandem in all of its splendour. Were it not for Navas’ personal problems (the panic attacks he suffers when away from his hometown and family), there would be no doubt in my mind that Navas would be a fixture in the Spanish selección and a transfer target for the world’s top clubs (I am sure that Rafa BenÃtez is aware of the winger’s talents). Navas is fast, skillful, direct, explosive, in short, everything one could want from a winger. Barça have few recognisable wide players as they like to accommodate several strong central midfielders.
Left midfield: Andrés Iniesta
Were it not for the tragic death of Antonio Puerta, he would almost certainly have taken this title. Puerta was a superb young talent and will be very difficult to replace. As it is, there are few candidates for this position in a standard 4-4-2 formation, as both teams have an over-abundance of central midfield players. I have placed Iniesta in this position as I feel he is consistently underrated and likely to be overlooked at central midfield, but a positive enough influence on the pitch to deserve a place. Iniesta is dynamic and versatile, pacey and with a knack of scoring vital goals.
Note: if the formation is changed to a five-man midfield or a more flexible four-man centre line, Lionel Messi can be deployed in this position to devastating effect.
Central midfielders: Yaya Toure and Deco
Whilst Deco seems to me a clear pick (even if he has suffered a downturn of form since his first season at Barcelona), the choice of Yaya Toure is again controversial. However, Toure would add a sense of stability and solidity to the team not offered by any other Barça player than Edmilson, than whom Toure is a vastly better player, especially if his forward bursts are accounted for. On the bench, Xavi again misses out — too lightweight, in my view — in place of Renato, whose overall contribution to Sevilla’s success is constantly overlooked. In this team, Deco and Iniesta switch around when they feel like it, offering some flexibility and creativity.
Strikers: Lionel Messi and Ronaldinho
Ah, this is where it gets really interesting! I have picked here what I think is a balanced team, rather than attempting to do what Frank Rijkaard has the unenviable task of doing: combining the attacking talents of Ronaldinho, Messi, Henry and the (fortunately for the ease of my decision-making) injured Eto’o. Ronaldinho’s form has been patchy this season and many, myself included, have been saying that Messi (along with Iniesta) is now the heartbeat of the team. I also feel that it has been well proven that Messi performs better when playing properly across the front rather than as a winger/striker. Equally, Thierry Henry is nowhere near full fitness, and Ronaldinho’s output in terms of goals can still be expected to be relatively high. In all honesty, Freddy Kanoute is probably extremely unfortunate not to make this side after his fantastic form for Sevilla, and he would undoubtedly make my bench based on form and not reputation. What one does with Bojan and Dos Santos is anybody’s guess.
(Nominal score) — Barcelona 7 — 4 Sevilla.
The conclusions one can draw from such a team are fairly simple: whilst Barça may have a higher calibre of player in certain attacking positions, Sevilla offer far more in terms of wing-play, and have some top-notch defensive stalwarts. One feels that I may even have been harsh with Sevilla’s lesser-known midfielders and attackers (Renato, two-time Danish player of the year Poulsen), but only this year’s Champions’ League will help us tell. Many will disagree with my team, and certainly the formation is debatable — however, the contribution of players such as Iniesta and Dragutinovic should not be overlooked in favour of those with heftier reputations and price tags.
As for the game on Saturday, scansion of the above team would suggest that Barcelona are vastly the superior side. However, it may well not prove to be this way, as Juande Ramos’ Sevilla are super-organized and extraordinarily hardworking, whereas the personal problems at Barcelona (on which I will expand tomorrow) are undermining the talent available. My prediction is a 2-2 draw, with Kanoute and Messi on the scoresheet at some point, and a near miss from Ronaldinho.