"What do you mean you've hurt 'your' knee, it's Liverpool's knee" - Bill Shankly.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Thursday, May 28, 2009

The lost boys of Barcelona

By Ronald Atkin in Barcelona
Oct 16, 2005, 14:48

To be a citizen of Cata-lunya is to live with the confident certainty that Barcelona, the best city in the world, possesses the planet's best football club. And, it goes without saying, the best youth-development policy.

A glittering example of that grass-roots success is the rocket-propelled arrival at the top level of Leo Messi, an 18-year-old Argentinian striker already lumbered with the "new Mara-dona" millstone. However, like Wayne Rooney, Messi soars above such stuff, a glorious talent to keep Barça, if not at the very peak of the world game, then at least ahead of hated rivals Real Madrid.

So well done, then, to La Masia, as Barcelona's youth academy is called after its headquarters, an 18th-century former farmhouse which perches in the very shadow of the Nou Camp's soaring tiers. Since its inception in 1979, La Masia has fed a stream of youthful talent towards the first team - starting with Josep Guardiola, arguably Barça's greatest ever, and continuing with the likes of Ivan de la Peña, Carles Puyol, Andres Iniesta and Victor Valdes.

But behind the cheerful shop- front and the flourishing sales of shirts celebrating Barça's championship-winning season, there lurks nervousness of an astonishing depth. Nou Camp is the sort of place where the slightest tremor is perceived as something high on the Richter scale.

For one thing, the uncertain and uninspiring start to the new season has got them in a right tizz and, though nothing so heretical is ever admitted, the club are increasingly victims of a classic Catch 22: the more success achieved through the skills of expensive foreigners, the more it is stifling the end product of La Masia.

The most glaring current example is Iniesta, a pure Barça-bred star, who spent six years at La Masia, made his first-team debut in 2002 and, last season, was the only squad member to play in every league game. Now, this once indispensable 21-year-old can't get into the starting line-up since Mark van Bommel was brought to the Nou Camp.

Talented youngsters have not been slow to spot that there exists a ceiling at Barça, a ceiling through which not many will manage to break and establish themselves alongside the big names from abroad. Nor did the situation long escape the eagle eyes of Arsène Wenger, Sir Alex Ferguson and Liverpool's Spanish manager, Rafael Benitez.

To Barça's fury, Cesc Fabregas, a native Catalunyan, was persuaded a brighter and better-paid future lay at Arsenal, and so it has proved since he joined Wenger's squad as a 16-year-old in September 2003.

There have been other depart-ures or, as some at the Nou Camp regard them, desertions. Gerard Piquet has been snapped up by Manchester United, while Arsenal are hoping to capture Fran Nerida, brought to La Masia as an 11-year-old. Though no longer at the academy, Nerida is under contract to the club.

The case of Piquet undermines one of Barça's most trumpeted virtues - that it is a democratic institution, where every member gets a vote. Democracy is never very high on the agenda when it comes to the infighting for the coveted post of club president, and it was not much in evidence in the case of Piquet, whose grandfather was a friend of Jose Luis Nuñez, Barça's long-time president, who was succeeded first by Joan Gaspart and subsequently by Joan Laporta.

At the start of the Laporta regime, it was made clear, according to an associate of Piquet's, that, if Gerard himself was not persona non grata, then his name certainly was. Yet Piquet was that priceless asset, a defender who not only gets forward but scores.

Faced with the alternative of life on low wages with Barça's second and third teams, or good money in Old Trafford's waiting room and the glamour of a personal, promise-filled visit from Ferguson himself, Piquet upped and left.

Against such perceived treachery, however, Barça can parade Messi the Marvellous, a teenager around whose talents legends are already clustering. If you can believe it, Leo (real name Lionel) was playing for an Under-11 team in a humble suburb of his home town, Rosario, at the age of five, running the show and dazzling with his keepy-uppy skills.

By the time he had graduated to one of Argentina's bigger clubs, Newell's Old Boys, Barça's scouting system had bagged him, and he came to La Masia as a 13-year-old in 2000.

Despite a bone-hormone problem which was restricting his growth and which has now been cured, Messi scored five goals on his youth debut and has gone on lifting eyebrows ever since, captaining Argentina to success in last summer's Under-20 World Cup and finishing as top scorer and earning the player-of-the-tournament award.
Full caps for Argentina have followed, first in a friendly with Hungary in August and then against Paraguay and Peru in World Cup qualifiers.

Though he was safely under contract, a stunning performance in a pre-season friendly against Juventus had Barça's top brass scrambling to persuade Messi to put his name to a 10-year deal. The granting of a Spanish passport last month means he now has dual nationality and, theoretically, easier entry into life in La Liga, where he played six games last season and, against Albacete, became the youngest ever to score for Barcelona.

Already, of course, the rows are flaring: adidas, sponsors of Real Madrid, are desperate to sign Messi to a boot contract instead of Nike, one of Barça's sponsors, while Deportivo La Coruña have incensed the Nou Camp by complaining that Messi is not properly registered for La Liga, having signed after the 31 August deadline for the season.

The Spanish Football Federation are due to rule on Tuesday, but are unlikely to uphold Deportivo, not least because of the volume of support for Messi, including Miguel Angel Lotina, the coach of Barcelona's city rivals, Espanyol.

The paranoia at the Nou Camp is evident in Laporta's assertion that the whole registration row has been orchestrated by Real Madrid to prevent Messi playing. "Everyone is against Barcelona," Laporta complained.

Well, not quite. Messi is as much in love with his dream club as they and their supporters are with him. Nothing it seems can halt the rise of a genius who, like Rooney, seems to operate in an exclusion zone when he is on the ball.

In a new TV commercial, he says: "I am Leo Messi, remember my name." Back in the old farmhouse of La Masia, they are unlikely to forget.

ACADEMY LIFE: The boys who stayed at Barça

Founded in 1979 with 20 youngsters, La Masia now has 60. Ninety per cent are Spanish and more than 50 per cent of those Catalans. In addition to coaches and medical staff provided by the club, there is a full-time care team of 13.

JOSEP GUARDIOLA
Academy years 1984-90

The Academy's greatest product. A midfielder who won 43 caps for Spain and a gold medal at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. Given his club debut by Johan Cruyff in 1990. Guardiola led the club to six league titles, a European Cup in 1992 and two Spanish Cups. A move to Brescia in 2002 was unhappy and he ended his career in Qatar last season.




CARLES PUYOL
1994-98: A native of Catalunya, he has been solidly loyal to Barcelona, his only club, and is heading towards his 250th game. He played 83 times for Barcelona B before making his first-team debut in October 1999. Puyol has been a linchpin in defence and a Spanish international for the past four seasons. His defensive skills anchored Barça's title win last season.

ANDRES INIESTA
1996-2001: Joined Academy as a 12-year-old from his Albacete junior club and has been at the Nou Camp ever since. Was a vital component in Spain's wins in the Uefa Under-16 and Under-19 competitions, as well as captaining his country's Under-21s. First-team debut in October 2002 and was only squad member to play in all Barça's title-winning league games last season.

VICTOR VALDES
1996-2000: This native of the Catalunya town of Hospitalet kept goal for Spain in the Uefa Under-18 championship in 2001 and made his first-team debut the following year against Atletico Madrid. Came into favour when Frank Rijkaard took over as manager, missing only five games in 2003-04 and last season was Spain's most successful keeper, conceding only 25 goals.

IVAN DE LA PENA
1991-94: Tipped for great things, he has taken a roundabout route to success. Made his debut for Barcelona at 19 but after a fall-out with Louis van Gaal moved to Lazio and then Marseille before resurrecting his career with Barça's neighbours Espanyol to such effect that the "Little Buddha" gained his first cap for Spain last year at 28.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Player Linked: Jakub "Kuba" Blaszczykowski

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Player Linked: Yoann Gourcuff.

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Player Linked: Danijel Pranjic

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Player Linked: Juan Arango

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The 29-year-old attacking left-winger has been plying his trade in Spain for Real Mallorca for the past 5 seasons. The Venezuelan international has also been a regular goal scorer after netting 45 League goals including 12 last season (his most productive season yet). Arango has now played a total of 81 times for his country (17 goals) which makes him the 5th most capped player in their history. He also Captains the side.

Player Linked: Edin Dzenko

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The 23-year-old has enjoyed a superb season at Wolfsburg after scoring 25 goals in 31 league appearances (28 starts) as his club currently tops the Bundesliga, two points above Bayern with one game remaining.



Sunday, May 17, 2009

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Just for laughs

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Rafael Benitez: The Transfer Truth

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We’re always being told about Rafael Benitez’s poor transfer record.

I’ve already commented repeatedly on his lack of funds in his time at Liverpool, and the fact that he’s built an entire squad out of funds gotten from player sales, but what’s the truth about his transfer record?

Has he signed a series of duds that have drained the Liverpool transfer kitty dry? Here’s a definitive breakdown of every major Benitez signing. You’ll find how much they cost, what they sold for, and a brief history of their Liverpool careers.

I hope you’ll find it as interesting as I did, and that it sheds some light on what Benitez has done in his time at Liverpool, as part of the larger picture of building a club from the ashes of UEFA Cup mediocrity.

 

2004-'05

Luis Garcia (In £6m, Out £4m)—Scored some fantastic goals for Liverpool, including five on the way to the Champions League victory in Istanbul.

Xabi Alonso (In £10.5m)—Signed as a relative unknown from Real Sociedad in Rafa’s first season. Now a mainstay of the current side, courted by Europe’s elite.

Antonio Nunez (In free, Out undisclosed)—More or less forced on Rafa Benitez as part of the deal to take Michael Owen to Real Madrid in 2004, Nunez never adapted to the English game, and returned to Spain after one season.

Josemi (In £2m, Out player swap)—Signed as cover for Steve Finnan, Josemi never adapted to English life and was later swapped for Jan Kromkamp.

Fernando Morientes (In £6.3m, Out £3m)—Signed as a proven goalscorer, Morientes never quite adjusted to the English game.

Scott Carson (In £750k, Out £3.25m)—Signed as cover for Jerzy Dudek, but decided to leave when he found opportunities slim behind Pepe Reina. Sold for a profit of £2.5m.

Mauricio Pellegrino (In free, Out free)—Signed towards the end of his career to give experience to the backline. Struggled to adapt to the pace of England, but nonetheless had a major effect behind the scenes in an unofficial coaching role, which was cemented when he became first-team coach in 2008.

 

2005-'06

Jose Reina (In £6m)—Signed as an unknown to English fans from Villareal. Currently seen as one of the best goalkeepers in world football, who has won the Golden Gloves in England three times in four years.

Jan Kromkamp (In free, Out undisclosed)—Struggled to adapt to England and the English language, Kromkamp was sold to PSV Eindhoven after a single season.

Boudewijn Zenden (In free, Out free)—Signed as temporary cover for the left-wing in 2005, Zenden’s time at Liverpool was marked by injury.

Peter Crouch (In £7m, Out £11m)—A publicly mocked player and shock signing in 2005, Crouch became an instant fan favourite, scoring crucial goals in the Champions League, and was later sold for a tidy profit of £4m.

Dan Agger (In £5.8m)—An unknown defender signed from Brondby, Agger is now being courted by some of Europe’s biggest clubs including AC Milan.

Mohammed Sissoko (In £5m, Out £7m)—Signed as a youngster from Valencia, Sissoko fought his way in to Liverpool’s midfield, displacing Steven Gerrard to the right side of midfield. Following some impressive displays and a determined comeback after an horrific eye problem, Sissoko eventually left for a profit due to midfield competition at Liverpool.

Jack Hobbs (In £750k, Out undisclosed)—Signed as a youth player, Hobbs was allowed to leave following further acquisitions in his position at youth level.

Robbie Fowler (In free, Out free)—Signed to provide more options up front in 2005.

Paul Anderson (In free)—Another young player signed for free, Anderson is highly regarded at Anfield, though his career has so far been beset with injury.

 

2006-'07

Dirk Kuyt (In £9m)—A first-team player now converted to a right-sided midfielder, and a fan favourite. Scored some of Liverpool’s most crucial goals of recent seasons.

Craig Bellamy (In £6.5m, Out £7.5m)—Seen as a risk by many, Bellamy was signed to improve the attack and give pace to compliment Crouch. He scored 9 times for Liverpool, including the first in the win at the Nou Camp, and was sold for a profit.

Jermaine Pennant (In £6.7m)—Brought in to provide options on the right, Pennant fitted in nicely in his first season at Liverpool, helping his new club to the Champions League Final, in which he played a starring role. Since lost out to competition for places, with the tenacious Dirk Kuyt brought in at right midfield.

Alvaro Arbeloa (In £3m)—Arbeloa managed to displace popular full-back Steve Finnan, and has been arguably one of Liverpool’s most consistent performers in the '08-'09 season.

Nabil El Zhar (In free) – Signed as a youngster, El Zhar is growing into a first-team player, with some decent performances under his belt, and he’s still just 22 years old.

Fabio Aurelio (In free)—Aurelio has grown into Liverpool’s first-choice left-back, displacing the popular John Arne Riise in '07-'08.

Mark Gonzalez (In £1.5m, Out £4.5m)—Initially refused a work permit, Gonzalez struggled to adapt to the English game, but was nonetheless sold for three times his initial fee.

Gabriel Paletta (In £2m, Out undisclosed)—Signed as a youngster, Paletta was allowed to return to Argentina after struggling to adapt to England, and used as a makeweight in the deal to make Emiliano Insua’s loan move permanent.

 

2007-'08

Fernando Torres (In £20m)—Signed as a player with potential that exceeded his actual worth. Now the most valuable striker in the world.

Ryan Babel (In £11.5m)—Signed as a 20-year-old against competition from Arsenal, and expected to be a player for the future, Babel fitted instantly into the team, scoring goals from the bench. Struggled to find the same form in '08'-09, but still only 22 years old.

Lucas Leiva (In £6m)—Just 20 years old when he signed for the Reds, Lucas was the highly promising Brazilian under-20 team captain. In the two seasons he’d been at Anfield, he has yet to fully win over the Liverpool faithful, but recent displays have illustrated a marked improvement and an adaptation to the English game. At 22 years old he has a long career ahead of him.

Martin Skrtel (In £6.5m)—Another relative unknown outside of Slovakia and Russia, Skrtel has managed to displace the excellent Daniel Agger in defence and is a current first-team regular.

Yossi Benayoun (In £5m)—Benayoun has had few opportunities to impress, but has managed to do so in recent weeks with some important goals and performances. Highly regarded by Benitez and his fellow players.

Andriy Voronin (In free)—Signed as support for Torres and Crouch, Voronin struggled to establish himself at Liverpool, but played 19 times for the club.

Dani Pacheco (In free)—Signed as a youngster, now a regular for Liverpool’s reserves and one of Spain’s brightest prospects.

Javier Mascherano (In £18m)—Initially signed on loan following a disastrous and controversial spell at West Ham Utd., Mascherano is now captain of Argentina and one of the world’s most highly regarded midfielders.

Emiliano Insua (In free)—Signed as a youth, he spent most of his early career in the Liverpool reserves, but has broken through in to the first team with a series of impressive displays.

Sebastian Leto (In £1.85m)—Signed as a youngster for the future, Leto was refused a work permit by the UK authorities, despite his track record on the international stage. The player has had no chance to establish himself in England as a result, but has already proven to have great promise.

Charles Itandje (In undisclosed)—Signed as cover for Pepe Reina following the moves of Dudek and Carson out of the club.

Krisztian Nemeth (In free)—Signed as a youth player. Currently regarded as one of the brightest young talents at Liverpool.

Lauri Dalla Valle (In free)—A youngster who had previously played for Inter Milan’s youth set-up. A current regular in the reserve team, and a young talent in the making.

Damien Plessis (In free)—Signed as a youngster. Made his senior debut against Arsenal in a confident performance.

 

2008-'09

Robbie Keane (In £19m, Out £12m potentially rising to £19m with add-on deals)—Signed by Rick Parry for a fee beyond what Rafael Benitez wanted to pay, and stopping the Gareth Barry deal from going ahead. Made 25 appearances in all competitions.

Andrea Dossena (In £7m)—Struggled to establish himself in his first season, but nonetheless contributed to Liverpool’s stunning victories against Real Madrid and Manchester United.

Diego Cavalieri (In £3m)—Signed as cover for Pepe Reina, and has shown signs of talent in the few starts he’s had.

Philipp Degen (In free)—Signed as cover for Arbeloa at full-back, his career has stalled repeatedly through injury. A Swiss international in Euro 2008.

Albert Riera (In £8m)—A player whose inclusion is largely credited with giving Liverpool’s attack an entirely new dimension this year. Signed as another unknown player from an unfashionable Spanish club, Espanol, after being mocked for a poor loan spell at Manchester City, Riera is now regarded as one of the squad’s most important players.

David Ngog (In £1.5m)—Completely unknown, Ngog signed as a 19-year-old youngster, and has already shown tremendous promise in his few first-team showings.

 

 

I think the one key thing I noticed is the sheer amount of signings in there that were free transfers, as well as the amount of players signed young and cheap.

Many of the players were relative unknowns at the time of signing, yet have now grown to become some of the biggest names in football.

It seems to me that when you have to buy young, inexperienced potential, you're often going to get the odd player that doesn't fulfill what's expected. But then again, you'll always get your Daniel Aggers and Pepe Reina's, that come from nowhere to grow into world-class players.

Benitez has made profits on many players considered to be flops by many, and used that money to purchase men previously out of Liverpool's league in terms of fees.

Make of it what you will, but for me there's no question: Rafa Benitez is shrewd, intelligent and clever enough to improve a squad year by year, until it's capable of challenging for major honours in every trophy campaign.

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Quote of the moment

Defying belief however, is a market Benitez has cornered quite well. The moment you think Benitez is clueless, he defies it by pulling off a result of majesty, like the one achieved in Madrid. The moment he is hailed a genius, he masterminds toothless surrender to a team going nowhere. In the ongoing Anfield power struggle, just when he was cornered by the firing squad, the Spaniard's demise at Liverpool looking practically assured with the ominous suspension of betting by the bookmakers, he squeezes out through a narrow trapdoor and eliminates Rick Parry. Rafa Benitez is Keyzer Soze.
- Just Football blog: The Curious Beast that is Football 28 Feb 2009