End of an era (and other such nonsense)

FCB. They’re in rough shape right now, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who hears the funeral bells. They missed out on their chance to claim their domestic cup by losing to their greatest rivals in one of their most humiliating defeats in recent memory. They were beaten in the Champions League in a fashion that will leave a bad taste in everyone’s mouth for months to come. Even their league run was pretty subpar.

As the more astute of you have probably figured out, I’m not talking about FC Barcelona here. I’m talking about FC Bayern Munich. Specifically, I’m talking about Bayern Munich in 2011-2012.

Last year was a horror of a season for them. They lost out on the league by 8 points. They were humiliated by a 5-2 loss in their domestic cup by Borussia Dortmund, who also beat them in both league matches. And, most notably, after making a strong run in the Champions League, they lost to a weakened Chelsea side on penalties.

The last month of the season was full of painful losses and tears.

Over the summer, Bayern did not fire their coach. They did not sell half the team. They were active in the transfer market and bought several players who have been key in their success this year, but they didn’t replace the entire starting XI by any stretch of the imagination.

And this season, they have been on fire.

There’s absolutely no reason why Barcelona cannot do the same thing, and many reasons to think that they can. The nice part of painful, humiliating ends of the season is that they tend to make lasting impressions and spur necessary changes.

We can’t make the same excuses this year that we could last year. We didn’t just get unlucky against Bayern in the UCL, and we didn’t just get unlucky against Real Madrid in the CDR. We played poorly and did not really deserve to move on. End of story.

However, make no mistake: these aren’t new problems. There are certain factors that have exacerbated them, but at their core, these are not new issues, and it’s time we address them.

The major exacerbating factor is, of course, the loss of Tito Vilanova for several months mid-season because he was in a different country being treated for cancer.

Digest all of that for a moment.

Vilanova had only been their coach for five or six months, and he was still adjusting and adapting the system that was obviously in need of a little change. It was evident in games – Barcelona were starting to have a plan B, in that they were starting to play a more direct, adaptive game. When he left, that progress slowed to a crawl, and after a little while, they began to slide back to what had stopped working last season. They haven’t been able to recapture since his return, and I don’t expect them to manage it before the end of the season.

However, the tactics are only part of it. The psychological toll this relapse took on the players has been quite clear. Vilanova has been an integral part of many of their careers. He coached some when they were in La Masia, he was an important part of Pep’s team, and he has helped several of them step out of Barca B into the first team. He’s been a major part of their careers.

Of course Vilanova’s relapse has had a profound effect on the team. How could it not, especially given Abidal’s struggles as well? Cancer is serious, and in the last few years they’ve had two people who have been a major part of the team battle it, triumph, and then relapse. That’s exhausting. That takes a toll.

Those are just exacerbating factors, of course. Even before Vilanova left, the defense was a complete mess. Even before Vilanova left, the team was vulnerable to injuries and becoming a bit too dependent on Messi.

But the relapse magnified all of those problems.

Those problems, however, are very fixable, and now management can no longer ignore them. At this time next year, Barcelona may well be right back on top, just as Bayern Munich are now.

So don’t despair, and don’t get pulled into the media’s fervor about Barcelona being done. They’ll be back, and hopefully, they’ll be even better than ever.

On bandwagoners

Hey, guys. I’m sorry for my rather prolonged absence – I’ve been struggling to keep up with everything in RL as well as battling a bout of serious depression, so I haven’t really had the energy to update this blog like I’ve wanted to.

I want to talk about Barcelona and their fate next season. (Hint: I will not be calling for Vilanova to get fired, nor will I be recommending that everyone other than Messi, Iniesta, and Busquets get sold.) However, I’m going to leave that for next time and instead talk about a term I hear tossed around a lot, especially these days: bandwagoners.

I sympathize with people who use it: I really do. I get as annoyed by fickle fans with no knowledge of the club who call for a mass exodus after a bad run of form as the next football fan.

However, I find the underlying concept behind the term to be equally problematic. It’s tossed around to put down new fans, who have committed the grave crime of not falling in love with a team when they were awful, or not having been around when the team fell on hard times.

That’s not fair, and it speaks to a real elitism that I think is dangerous and exclusionary.

Everyone needs to start somewhere. A new fan to the sport is unlikely to be drawn to a team that plays poorly and is relegation-threatened. A new fan to the sport is likely to be drawn to a team that is fun to watch and has a style of play that they find attractive.

There is nothing inherently wrong with that.

What’s the alternative? That the person not get into the sport at all, or that they only be allowed to like inconsistent teams or teams that are poor? That doesn’t make any sense. When teams begin to play well, more people will be drawn to them. That’s just how human nature works: people like to be impressed.

Under my influence, my boyfriend has begun to get really into football. He’s not under my influence enough that he’s especially fond of the Spanish league, but he’s begun watching games on his own, and from what he’s seen, he’s become very drawn to Borussia Dortmund. He likes their style of play, and he likes watching them.

I am happy that he is getting into football, and I am happy that he has found a team that he really likes watching after spending two months of not feeling all that drawn to anyone. I don’t think that he should be shamed or feel bad for that. He found a team that he enjoys, and at the end of the day, football is about enjoying yourself, not being able to win a pissing contest for who’s the most hardcore fan.

Will he stick with BVB? I’m not sure. He may end up finding another team that he likes more. He may end up finding as he watches more of BVB, he doesn’t like them quite as much as he thought he did. He may even just get fed up of having to find streams or be at my place to watch their league games, since he doesn’t have access to the Bundesliga right now. I don’t know.

But either way, there’s nothing wrong with that.

New fans are annoying when they call for major changes based on very little experience and education about the team. New fans are annoying when they call for someone’s head on a platter because everything isn’t perfect all the time.

That’s not because they’re new fans. It’s because they’re impatient, uneducated, and think that they know everything anyway.

I wish they were just called on that, rather than for being new to the sport.

Worries about Messi’s injury are drastically overstated

As everyone who follows the world of football is no doubt aware, Barcelona superstar Leo Messi had to be substituted off at half-time in their match against PSG yesterday.

However, worries about Messi’s injury and its possible effect on Barcelona have been drastically overstated by the media and many fans. Click through for why.

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La Liga: where the top three could stumble

Right now, Barcelona have a sizeable lead (13 and 14 points, respectively) on Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid, and with only 27 points left to play for are almost assured of winning the title.

However, all three teams have some tough fixtures ahead of them. Click through to see where they’re most likely to stumble.

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UCL Quarter-Finals: Bayern Munich v. Juventus profile

Bayern Munich finished last season without a single trophy, despite reaching the finals of both the DFB Pokal and the Champions League. They’ve rebounded this season with a vengeance, beating out Borussia Dortmund for the German Super Cup and going on to dominate the league while staying alive in both the DFB Pokal and the Champions League. However, while their league form has been emphatic, they’ve struggled in the Champions League, conceding more goals than any quarter-finalist but Real Madrid and moving on from the Round of 16 only on the away goals rule. It’s difficult to figure out how to judge Bayern Munich right now; on one hand, they’re still among the favorites, but on the other, it’s not really because they’ve been so convincing in this particular competition this season.

Juventus, on the other hand, have also had strong league form this season and reached the semi-finals of the Coppa Italia before being knocked out by Lazio. They also have a much more impressive Champions League record so far: they’re undefeated in the competition this season (the only quarter-finalist besides Borussia Dortmund that’s true for), and have conceded just four goals. Celtic were certainly one of the easier runners up from the group stage, but that doesn’t diminish Juventus’s accomplishments, particularly considering that they were in one of the tougher groups.

By the numbers:

Bayern Munich Juvenus
Record 5-1-2 5-3-0
Average Possession 58% 49%
Goals Scored 17 17
Shots (on target) 136 (50) 144 (48)
Conversion rate 12.5% 11.8%
Goals Conceded 10 4
Saves 12 28
Clean Sheets 1 5

The first leg of the tie is on April 2 at Munich. The second leg at Juventus will be played on April 10.

Bayern will be playing Hamburger, Eintracht Frankfurt, and Nurnberg around the two fixtures. All are reasonably solid teams, but they could be playing Borussia Dortmund all three times for all the good it would do Juventus. Bayern currently have 20 points on second-placed Dortmund. They could field youth players and lose all three games and still be assured of winning the title. If they need to rest players, they will.

Juventus, on the other hand, will be playing Inter, Pescara, and Lazio – Pescara currently sit in the relegation zone, but Inter and Lazio are both fighting hard for a place in Europe next season, and will be tough competition. Juventus also can’t afford to drop too many points – Napoli are nine points behind them, but that’s a cushion that could quickly evaporate if they end up with a couple draws and/or losses during the quarter-finals.

Objectively, Juventus should probably be regarded as favorites. They’ve been more impressive in the Champions League this season, and they’ve also had a strong showing in Serie A. On the other hand, Bayern have been dominating the Bundesliga – which is a stronger league – to an even greater extent, and while there have been some close calls, they’ve done enough to move on. They can also perhaps be forgiven for getting a bit complacent against Arsenal, and it’s a mistake I doubt they’ll make again.

This one is tough to call. I’m going to predict a Bayern win, though.

UCL Quarter-Finals: Paris Saint-Germain v. Barcelona profile

Surprisingly, given their status as favorites to win the competition, Barcelona have struggled at times to reach the quarter-finals. They were forced to come from behind twice in the group stage (when they hosted Spartak Moscow and Celtic), and in the Round of 16 they had one foot out of the competition before mounting a historic comeback at the Camp Nou. Despite these difficulties, they should not be underestimated, especially since their coach will be returning before the quarter finals after being absent for more than two months to receive cancer treatment in New York.

PSG have their own strengths, though, and shouldn’t be underestimated. They’ve put together one of the most expensive teams in Europe and have several major superstars, most notably ex-Barca man Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who may feel like he has a bit of a point to prove, especially after Barcelona dropped his Milan out of the competition last season. They’re favorites to win Ligue 1 this season, and have an impressive record in the Champions League thus far, including having the best shots-goals ratio of the last eight.

By the numbers:

Barcelona Paris St-Germain
Record 5-1-2 6-1-1
Average Possession 74% 48%
Goals Scored 15 17
Shots (on target) 121 (49) 102 (46)
Conversion rate 12.4% 16.7%
Goals Conceded 7 5
Saves 19 21
Clean Sheets 4 3

The first leg of the tie is on April 2 at PSG. The second leg at Barcelona will be played on April 10.

Barcelona will be playing relegation-threatened Celta Vigo, Mallorca, and Zaragoza around the two fixtures, and they have room to drop a couple points here and there if necessary without putting the league title in much danger.

PSG’s league title is far less assured – they only have four points on Lyon right now – and they’ll also be playing tougher opposition on paper. They face Montpelier ahead of the first match with Barcelona and Rennes in between the two quarter-final ties. Both teams are vying for a spot in Europe. Following the second match they’ll play relegation-threatened Troyes, who they probably won’t be too concerned about.

On paper, PSG actually look like they’ve got a decent shot. However, with Vilanova returning to the team, I think that many of Barcelona’s problems will resolve themselves, and as long as they don’t get complacent, they should be able to move on to the semi-finals once again.

UCL Quarter-Finals: Málaga v. Dortmund profile

There’s no doubting that Málaga have earned their place in the quarter-finals. They weren’t in a group of death like Borussia Dortmund, but they did have to see off two teams with much more experience in Europe, and did it in expert fashion to win their group. They were also matched up against Porto in the Round of 16, who were one of the strongest runners up. Not only did they get past Porto, but they did it by conceding the fewest goals of any other team in the Round of 16. Their domestic league form is a little more suspect, but they’ve still run a strong campaign so far and currently sit in fourth.

Borussia Dortmund have earned their place, too, probably in the most emphatic fashion of any team in the Champions League this season, entering the quarter-finals undefeated in the competition. They ended up in this year’s especially deadly group of death, and were so dominant that they beat out the Dutch, Spanish, and English champions to win the group with a game to spare. They also beat out Shakhtar Donetsk – another very strong runner up – with ease in the Round of 16. However, like Málaga, their league form hasn’t been great recently this season, and unlike Málaga, this is a team that has managed to win the Bundesliga for the past two seasons.

By the numbers:

Borussia Dortmund Málaga
Record 5-3-0 4-3-1
Average Possession 44% 48%
Goals Scored 16 14
Shot (on target) 123 (54) 85 (38)
Conversion rate 13% 16.5%
Goals Conceded 6 6
Saves 27 30
Clean Sheets 3 4

Their stats so far are quite similar, but it’s important to note that Dortmund have been doing it against tougher competition overall.

The first leg of the tie is on April 3 at Málaga. The second leg at Dortmund will be played on April 9.

Buffeting the fixtures for Dortmund are Bundesliga matches with Stuttgart (likely on March 29), Augsburg (April 6), and Greuther Furth (likely on April 13). All three are relegation-threatened teams, which toward the end of the season can be a bit of a wild card. Still, Dortmund can afford a few slip ups and still qualify for the Champions League next year through the league, and will probably take the opportunity to rest players.

Málaga, on the other hand, are very much in danger of not qualifying for the Champions League through the league this season (assuming their ban on playing in Europe next season is overturned). They also have a tougher run of fixtures leading up to the match: they play Rayo Vallecano (likely on March 30), Real Sociedad (likely on April 6), and Osasuna (April 14). Rayo and La Real are both battling for a spot in Europe, while Osasuna are battling relegation.

On paper, the reigning German champions look likely to win this one. There’s always the possibility of an upset, but I see them going through.