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Why Barcelona have no reason to panic just yet



An inquisition is in full force at Barcelona after Luis Enrique’s dropped more points against Real Sociedad in the last round.

Luis Enrique’s side came out of the last international break facing what one would consider a pleasant schedule. Home games against Malaga, Real Madrid and Espanyol mixed with away trips to Real Sociedad and Osasuna were all seen as chances to get maximum points in the league. Celtic and Borussia Mochengladbach were the last opponents in the Champions League along with a two-legged Copa del Rey tie versus Hercules. In spite of injuries and suspensions, Barcelona would have expected to pick up all three points at home to Malaga just as they did against Celtic in the next match.

The result, and more importantly, the performance against Real Sociedad has provoked real concern from all corners.

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“El Clasico” is the next big game on the line and the Blaugrana are headed to must-win territory. Madrid currently lead the league by six points and anything but a loss will suit them just fine.

A Barcelona loss wouldn’t end the title race at this point in the season but it would be a severe blow to their hopes.

Enrique’s team does have some positive news heading into the game though as ESPNFC has reported that Andres Iniesta will return in time for the marquee match. The return of the captain will ease concerns over the lack of control in midfield which has hampered Barcelona’s play recently. Newcomers Andre Gomes and Denis Suarez, along with Rafinha, have had decent moments covering Iniesta but Barca will clearly be a better side upon his return. Enrique should have his full first-choice eleven available for Madrid’s visit which bodes well for the home team.

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Madrid will have to do without two major contributors in Gareth Bale and Toni Kroos. Their replacements may be solid players but won’t have the experience of playing in such a big fixture. Personnel and recent results aside, Barcelona will feel they have the upper hand. Neither team has been totally convincing or consistent so far this season but Barcelona are at home and have a point to prove.

Madrid also has the Champions League to consider. They currently sit second in their group and welcome leaders, Borussia Dortmund, to the Bernabeu four days after “El Clasico.” Madrid will surely want to end the group stage on top even if it might mean facing the likes of Bayern Munich or Manchester City in the next round. Barcelona, however, can put all their efforts into this game knowing that a loss to Borussia Mochengladbach would still see them finish first in their group. That fact, and a look at Barcelona’s schedule until now, are other reasons Barcelona need not panic.

A win against Madrid would leave the Blaugrana three points off the pace with two games remaining in the year.

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Enrique will be keen to make sure his side finishes 2016 in top form before the winter break with wins against Osasuna and Espanyol.  When La Liga returns next year Barcelona will have already faced Sevilla, Athletic Bilbao and Valencia away, along with bogey sides Sociedad and Celta Vigo. Madrid will have faced Atletico, where they won quite convincingly, and Barca.

The added distraction of the Club World Cup in December is something to consider as far as Madrid is concerned. It will be new territory for Zinedine Zidane and the last time Madrid were in this situation they started January with losses, though admittedly those came in away games to Atletico Madrid and Valencia.

Barcelona will start the new year with a trip with a potential banana slip game away to Villarreal. Pass that test with three points and the Blaugrana will feel confident in picking up maximum points before games against Bilbao and Aletico, and the return of the Champions League, in February. Add in the continued assimilation of the newcomers and Barcelona will look to be firing on all cylinders during the business end of the season.

Luis Enrique’s side certainly has some kinks to work out. Iniesta’s return will help calm the midfield but a consistent successor is yet to appear. Sergio Busquets will certainly return to form at some point and the goals will flow again for Luis Suarez and Neymar. A loss to Madrid would certainly lead to more hand-wringing but it wouldn’t be the end of the world.

Barcelona were arguably in a worst spot internally two seasons ago yet went on to win the treble. History might be on the way to repeating itself.


Chelsea 1-1 Barcelona: Three talking points from Stamford Bridge

Rob Meech brings us three talking points as Chelsea held La Liga leaders Barcelona to a 1-1 draw at Stamford Bridge.

Rob Meech



Photo: Reuters

Lionel Messi finally broke his goalscoring duck against Chelsea to give Barcelona the edge after the first leg of their Champions League last-16 tie.

Messi had failed to score in eight previous attempts against the Blues, but he was not to be denied on this occasion as he cancelled out Willian’s 62nd-minute opener.

A Chelsea clean sheet would have been a massive boost ahead of a daunting trip to the Camp Nou next month.

However, Messi’s equaliser 15 minutes from time means Antonio Conte’s men face an uphill battle to qualify for the quarter-finals of Europe’s showpiece competition.

Here are three talking points from Stamford Bridge…

Conte’s tactical approach so nearly pays dividends

But for the fatal error that led to Messi’s leveller, Chelsea would be heading to Catalonia in three weeks’ time with a one-goal lead to protect.

That they came so close to victory is testament to Conte’s tactical nous, which stifled Barcelona while also allowing the home side to flourish.

As expected, the visitors dominated the ball throughout the encounter. However, they created precious few opportunities as Chelsea’s back line held firm.

Conte had resisted the temptation to start with an out-and-out striker, with Alvaro Morata and Olivier Giroud both named on the bench.

The fluid movement of Pedro, Eden Hazard and Willian caused more problems than Barcelona have been used to this season and the Blues’ second-half goal was a deserved one.

Heading into the second leg, Conte will need to devise another masterplan if Chelsea are to proceed to the last eight.

Third time lucky for impressive Willian

The tricky Brazilian has by no means been a regular for Chelsea this season.

But he was given the nod against Barcelona in a three-man attack that featured Hazard as a false number nine.

It’s a system Conte has favoured recently, but although it failed to get the best out of Hazard, the same could not be said about Willian.

He was Chelsea’s chief threat and, on another night, could have walked off with the match ball.

Willian twice hit the post in the first-half, showing great skill on each occasion to create space and leave Barca keeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen with no chance.

Despite his misfortune, Willian was unbowed and he broke the deadlock with a pinpoint finish that raised the roof at Stamford Bridge.

It was a fitting reward for a top-class performance that highlighted his natural ability.

Surely he can’t be far away from cementing a regular spot in Conte’s starting XI?

Messi ends Chelsea goal drought to have decisive say

It is not often that British football fans get to see the little magician at such close quarters, so each time he arrives on these shores it is to be cherished.

Chelsea had a game-plan to nullify his influence and in the first half this worked superbly.

Although there were the usual sublime touches that we have come to expect, Messi was largely shackled by a solid rearguard display from Chelsea’s three-man central defence.

However, it only takes a side to switch off for a moment for the Argentinian to flex his muscles.

A misplaced pass from Andreas Christensen was intercepted by Andres Iniesta, whose pull back enabled Messi to slide the ball past Thibaut Courtois.

Once the ball had arrived to him in the box, there was no doubting where it would nestle.

Messi’s exuberant celebrations underlined the importance of his equaliser in the context of the tie.

It could be the decisive moment.

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Who are the five most valuable players under the age of 21?

Jake Jackman



The CIES Football Observatory have produced a list of the 100 most valuable players under the age of 21 and it makes for interesting reading, with three Premier League players in the top five.

CIES are a research group based within the International Centre for Sports Studies. It was created in 2005 and has looks to specialise in the statistical analysis of football, which is a growing field within the sport.

A lot of their studies are based in the financial side of the game and given the continued increase of transfer fees, they produce a lot of information that is of interest to clubs.

This particular study focuses on the top five leagues and it won’t come as a surprise that the Premier League features heavily.

Here are the five most valuable under-21 players according to the CIES study:

5 – Marcus Rashford (€116.7 million)

Amid all the spending that Manchester United have done in recent seasons, the value of producing your own players through your academy continues to be shown in the Manchester United squad. It is important to their supporters to have homegrown players and Marcus Rashford is one of the best that they have produced in recent seasons. According to CIES, he is already worth more than £100 million and it is remarkable to think that he may not have been given a chance if it wasn’t for injuries to Wayne Rooney and Anthony Martial.

It has been a good start to the season for Marcus Rashford as he continues to get significant minutes, despite the arrival of Romelu Lukaku. Across the Premier League and Champions League, he has contributed six goals and four assists. His goal involvement is one every 113.8 minutes. Considering he has been used in various positions and not played every week, this is impressive. United need to continue showing faith in him. If they do, the sky is the limit.

4 – Ousmane Dembele (€120.4 million)

The French winger made headlines during the summer, as he was selected to be the replacement for Neymar at Barcelona. There is a lot of pressure on the 20-year-old to live up to his price tag, which was £135.5 million. There were clauses included in the deal, but the overall value is more than the £120.4 million that he has been estimated at by CIES. However, there were circumstances driving that. Namely, the desperate position of Barcelona.

Last season, he was one of the best players in the Bundesliga as he contributed eight goals and 18 assists across the two major competitions. His goal involvement was one every 108.2 minutes, which underlines why Barcelona were keen to buy him this season. An injury has hindered him at the beginning of his La Liga career, but he remains one of the most exciting young players in the game.

3 – Leroy Sane (€124.5 million)

The £37 million that Manchester City paid for the German international is looking more and more like a bargain with every passing day. CIES value the winger at €124.5 million and that underlines the improvement he has made under Pep Guardiola. He is now one of the most devastating attackers in the Premier Leaguer and it will be fascinating to see how much further he can go, as he is only 21.

His record in the Premier League this season has been remarkable and he is well on his way to contributing at least ten goals and ten assists. Sane is already on six goals and six assists, with a goal involvement every 78.75 minutes. The quality of the team helps him, but his own performances have contributed significantly to the success of City.

2 – Dele Alli (€180.2 million)

It has been a difficult start to the new season for Dele Alli, but he remains one of the most exciting players in the world. In the list of these five players, the England international is the most attainable for the biggest clubs in Europe, as Tottenham have the lowest chance of winning major trophies. It will take a huge fee to secure the midfielder and the valuation of €180.2 million from CIES is around the fee that Spurs would expect.

Since joining Tottenham as a teenager, he has been a revelation and scored 28 goals during his first two Premier League seasons. This season has been harder as he has only three goals in 15 matches, but he was always going to go through a drop-off in form at some point. The test will be how he recovers. The next few months will show us how far Alli can go in the game.

1- Kylian Mbappe (€182.8 million)

The valuation from CIES is fractionally higher than the reported fee that PSG will pay for the teenager next summer when his transfer is made permanent. He was a revelation last season and played a major role in Monaco winning Ligue 1 and reaching the Champions League semi-finals. PSG have made the move to sign him and he could become the best player in the world at the club if he is managed correctly.

This season hasn’t been as eye-catching as his debut season in senior football, but he has been very impressive still, especially when his age is taken into consideration. He has contributed nine goals and seven assists across the two major competitions, with a goal involvement of 86.5 minutes. This is incredible, but there have been some critics as he isn’t as noticeable playing alongside Edinson Cavani and Neymar. He is clearly the best young player in the world and this list from CIES reflects that.

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The conductor of the Barcelona orchestra: Reflecting on the career of Xavi Hernandez

Martyn Cooke




Barcelona is an iconic city. FC Barcelona is an iconic football club. The Nou Camp is an iconic football stadium that has been graced by the presence of countless prestigious and legendary players over the last century.

The esteemed names roll off the tongue. Luis Figo, Patrick Kluivert, Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Ronaldinho, Diego Maradona, Pep Guardiola, Johan Cryuff – the list in almost inexhaustible.

Even amidst the glamour, sensationalism and capitalist ideology of modern football Barcelona have entertained the world through the magic dust sprinkled by Lionel Messi with the supporting cast of Luis Suarez and, prior to the summer, Brazilian superstar Neymar.

However, among the stellar names it is hard to identify an individual who has won more trophies and influenced the very essence of the game itself than Xavi Hernandez.

No other Spaniard in the history of football has lifted more trophies. No other player in the history of Barcelona has made more appearances. No other player has been as synonymous with the development of a club.

He is truly a legend of the game.

The conductor of the orchestra

Xavi Hernandez first joined Barcelona via the club’s La Masia academy as an 11-year-old, where he swiftly proceeded to rise through the ranks. He was technically efficient, intelligent and appeared to possess an instinctive awareness of when, and more importantly how, to alter or influence the rhythm and flow of the game. When he was handed his first team debut in 1998 he seamlessly slotted into the side.

However, Xavi developed into much more than just another star player. He represented the definitive transformation of Barcelona during the early twentieth century and he embodied the new total football philosophy that was implemented and progressed by a series of managers, culminating in the tiki-taka style of play that was fine-tuned by Pep Guardiola.

He was synonymous with the possession-based football that led to Barcelona dominating European football for almost a decade and played a pivotal role in the club’s development.

Whilst other players produced exuberant moments of skill or brilliance he adopted a different style of play that was crucial to the tiki-taka philosophy. You would rarely see Xavi dribble beyond a player and he was never a regular goal scorer from midfield, but his contribution was no less important.

He was the conductor of the Barcelona footballing orchestra, dictating the flow and rhythm of the game with a range of elegant, measured passes. When he received the ball he never looked flustered or unsure and there was an air of confidence and assertiveness that made him attract the ball, like a flame attracts a moth.

He stroked the ball around the pitch unperturbed by the pressure of the occasion or the state of the game – when Xavi played well, so did Barcelona.

By the time that Xavi departed Barcelona, joining Qatari side Al-Sadd in 2015, he won eight La Liga titles (the first coming in 1999), the Copa del Rey three times, six Spanish Super Cups, two European Super Cups, two Club World Cups and four Champions League titles.

However, he was equally as impressive for the Spanish national team, playing in four World Cup tournaments and three European Championships. His haul of 133 caps is a record for a Spanish outfield player and he lifted two European Championships (2008 and 2012) and one World Cup (2010) during an era in which he became the embodiment of domestic and international dominance.

The very best of a generation

As with every great player, a decline eventually began to set in and Xavi Hernandez’s powers began to wane. It is perhaps testament to his importance and influence that his departure has coincided with the gradual deterioration of Barcelona’s authority in world football.

In 2015 he joined Qatari club Al-Sadd after agreeing a three-year deal, in essence taking a step into semi-retirement, and in April 2017 he won his first trophy – the Qatar Cup. In addition to his playing commitments, Xavi is also undertaking his coaching qualifications and has taken up an ambassadorial role in order to promote the 2020 World Cup as he ultimately begins to plan for a career beyond the realms of playing football.

Xavi’s impact and influence at Barcelona and for the Spanish national team is arguably unparalleled for a player in the modern era. His style of play was unique and embodied the emergence of a new tiki-taka, total football philosophy which came to dominate domestic and international football for over a decade. Whilst he became a genuine icon, Xavi always avoided controversy or contradiction and is looked upon with respect and admiration by his peers and all those connected with the game.

It is little wonder that the conductor is regarded as one of the very best players of his generation.

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