Glory Hunter – Barcelona: April 2023

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The highlight of the international break is the call-up and first caps for new Spanish star Marc Cucurella. He deserves it. Back at home, we review the intake of this year’s youth candidates. As promised, it’s a highly promising clutch of prospects. Patrick Kluivert, our Head of Youth Development, waxes lyrical about Amara Kelepliy, a 15 year old winger who stands at 5’ 2” but already comes in with a sharp suite of technical merits. There are the two players called Roger, one an attacking midfielder, the other a very fast right-back. Oscar and Nissim Weiss have the capacity to become central midfielders for us in the future. The latter is English and seems to have a smart reading of the game. It looks to me as though Barca knows how to source good young talent.

By the time we come to April Fool’s Day and a home game against Valencia, I can call on a full squad once again. Messi and Bellerin, who have both just returned from lengthy injury lay-offs, need to be used sparingly, but I expect to play them increasingly as the number of matches and the sheer tension develops. Of course, we can’t expect to keep the situation as it is forever. Frenkie de Jong lasts around twenty-five minutes before going down with a twisted ankle and four weeks when he will be out of action. Otherwise, we’re good enough to put down a spirited Valencia team. Despite squandering the chances, we produce for a 2-0 win. Antoine Griezmann scores early in the game, and then much, much later, as the visitors chase an equaliser, Bennacer provides the assist that Ousmane Dembele hits first time to beat the keeper. This is an important victory, against a side designed to challenge for the title. There are now eighteen points between us, which should be enough to kill off their pretensions.

Things get harder still as we travel back to my old haunt of Serie A and Internazionale. Now managed by Ernesto Valverde, the Nerazzurri are tucked neatly into third place, a bit distant of challenging Napoli and Juve for the top of the table but in their own way highly potent. Valverde has spent a lot of money to enhance his already pretty good ranks. After drafting in Gio Wijnaldum from ourselves, he has added Spurs’ Ryan Sessegnon on loan and plays him on the opposite flank to Kingsley Coman, a winger I really like who was signed for £39.5 million from Bayern. Midfield has been strengthened considerably by the acquisition of Ruben Neves, costing £68 million from Wolves. With the likes of Lukaku, Tagliafico, De Vries, Sensi, El Shaarawy, and intrepid right-back Achraf Hakimi all present and correct, they’re a stiff challenge, which they go on to  prove by beating us 1-0 at the Giuseppe Meazza. For long, long swathes it looks for all the world as though this will dribble out to a 0-0 result. The home team have the lion’s share of the scoring opportunities but Lukaku plays indecisively, Torres stopping the bulky striker from putting his anatomy in the way to divert assisted balls into the net. There isn’t much to us. Fati, Kane and Griezmann do little, and even Messi is marginalised by stuff Inter defending. In injury time, they finally get the breakthrough when a typical Hakimi maraud deep into our half leads to the cross that Stefano Sensi slams home for the winner.

1-0 isn’t a disastrous result to take back to the Camp Nou, but our toothlessness in attack is a concern. The Barca board expects, and going out of the Champions League at the Quarter-Final stage would be viewed as an aberration. Winning La Liga might save my bacon, but I’d prefer to avoid any further black marks beyond the criminally juicy contract I handed to Sam Umtiti, and to pile on the pressure we are taking on Real Madrid at the weekend.

This one is considered to be nothing short of a title decider. Win this and I think we will have widened the gap to almost insurmountable proportions. Lose and they come roaring back, and gain the satisfaction of having done the Classico double over us. I still smart from the defeat they handed to us back in the season’s early stages. It’s our only reverse in La Liga. I don’t like losing, not ever, and especially not to the preening jackanapes from the capital.

To everyone’s surprise, Maurizio Sarri orders his talented side to play a game of containment, expecting a rush of Barca pressure and attempting to halt us while stinging on the counter. The Camp Nou is a vast wall of noise, 103,700 attending on a gusty spring evening, a mass of expectation. We have to deliver, tearing into the opposition from the start and getting our reward in the seventeenth minute when Bennacer’s corner kick is headed viciously towards goal by Milan Skriniar. The effort is so powerful that Thibault Courtois can only palm the ball into his own net. In the second half, another corner is converted by Pau Torres’s header, and Real are undone. It surprises me that for all our good play, which we produce with nine shots on target, it’s set pieces that win the day. Griezmann is excellent as Messi is rested for the Inter return. Fati has one of his more exciting displays on the left. Real feel that if they stop Kane then they do the same to us, which isn’t true as we can score from various positions. Just as importantly, we restrict them from inflicting any punishment on Ter Stegen’s goal. The white shirts amass two shots during the entire game, an exercise in shutting the door on them. And with that a considerable hoodoo is broken.

In midweek, Inter bring the same spirit of halting our attacking elan to Catalonia and set out to defend their slim lead. I pick what I consider to be just about our best eleven, and watch as we pile into the Milanese visitors. We’re at our absolute best in defence, specifically in defensive midfield where Florentino Luis provides a masterclass in halting Inter attacks and sparking moves of our own. It takes us a while to get back on terms. In the fiftieth minute, as my fingernails fall victim to the tension, Luis fires a long ball that picks out Ansu Fati. The winger evades Hakimi and shoots a virtuous volley that beats Handanovic at his far corner. Lovely. Messi and Fati have two further efforts ruled out by VAR, both fairly, before substitute Tammy Abraham finally produces the game’s decisive moment. A Messi corner is headed towards goal by Skriniar. His shot clatters off the crossbar, but the Englishman is there and has to do nothing more than poke the ball over the line. It’s a win, claimed more closely than I would like but a win all the same.

In the Semi-Final we will almost inevitably come across Real Madrid once again. The Quarter-Final against Paris Saint-Germain is a pair of 3-1 results, the two sides using home advantage to their benefits and cancelling each other out. In the end penalties decide it. The French go home after Joao Cancelo’s climactic spot-kick is saved by Courtois. This sets up a clash with our bitter rivals that guarantees five matches against them this season. They’re up next, at the Camp Nou in the Spanish Cup Final.

We welcome Sarri’s Real in a Catalan rain shower, admiring the way they line up with a wall of defensive midfielders featuring Toni Kroos, Casemiro and Antonio Blanco. What they intend to do here is clear enough, Torres and Pique reminded to be mindful that Brenner is a considerable threat for the opposition. It isn’t a problem. As we pass through them ill discipline takes over for Real and when Ramos thugs Coutinho over in their box we have a thirty-first minute penalty. Harrington Kane takes it, not the guaranteed converter that I hope he would be, but he makes no mistake in sending Courtois the wrong way. Just before half-time, Coutinho fires a free-kick into the penalty area, where the terrific Ilaix Moriba beats the keeper with a header. Things get worse for Real in the second half. Sarri’s calls for passion are misheard through a fog of nicotine when Kroos piles into Dembele and earns himself a straight red card. We know we have won by this stage. Very late on, Bennacer collects Griezmann’s cross and cues the ball for Coutinho who both drives the ball home and collects the match ball. The Spanish Cup is ours, a thirty-second triumph in the competition.

Yet another banana skin awaits in midweek as we make the short journey to Estadio Cornella-El Prat to face Espanyol. The ‘other’ Catalan side can’t touch us in the league, but derbies contain risks of their own and they are very competently managed by Age Hareide. A 69 year old Norwegian who has picked Espanyol as his first non-Scandinavian assignment, the veteran manager was in charge of Denmark before coming here and picks a good side featuring striker Raul de Tomas and Sergi Darder in midfield. We come into this one feeling the weight of all those big matches. Messi starts, because I think it’s important to use someone who appreciates the merit of winning the Catalan Derby. Sergio Busquets captains, for much the same reason.

For much of the game it looks as though this isn’t going to go our way. The home side are ahead after the nineteenth minute, when Yanatan Cohen converts from de Tomas’s cross. It’s a nadir moment for Cucurella, whose job it is the mark the winger and instead falls over on the wet turf as Cohen gives him the slip. We move into attack mode, bringing on Coutinho and Griezmann for Fati and Kane, who aren’t making much of an impression. The former has his moment when Cabrera challenges him clumsily to gift us a seventy-eighth minute penalty. Lionel Messi converts. Later still, Messi lays the ball off the Antoine Griezmann in the area, who evades the luckless Cabrera and finds the net from close range. It’s a deserved win, a contest we have dominated, and a victory for our fighting spirit. Barca simply refuses to accept defeat here, battling until the final whistle, and in Messi we are fortunate enough to have an absolute winner who personifies everything about us that’s good.

First plays last at the weekend, as we venture deep into the Basque Country and Eibar. At last, a straightforward contest, one in which I can pick an eleven of back-ups – Umtiti gets the call – and save my best players for Real in the Champions League. The one starter who gets the nod is Ismael Bennacer, who is of course the injury victim here, collapsing to a rough tackle that twists his ankle and removes him from the contest for three weeks. This is bad. Bennacer has emerged as a potent deep lying playmaker for us, someone on whom we can depend, and now he’s gone. Not that his absence makes things much easier for Eibar. We score six unanswered goals, two apiece from Coutinho and Ousmane Dembele, and best of all a brace for Tammy Abraham, who announces himself in predatory fashion and defies the beleaguered home team with his pace and shooting élan.

On to another clash with Real Madrid, the first leg played at home within a tie that must have the schedulers rubbing their hands with glee. If we played no one but Real, an endless cycle of head to heads, then they would probably be delighted. In the other half of the Champions League Semi-Final draw, it’s an equally embittered rivalry as Manchester United take on Liverpool. Spoiler alert – Liverpool win.

The first leg is to be played at home, and we come up with a fine 2-0 victory to give us an advantage. Pedro and a rare Florentino Luiz shot that fires through a sea of legs on its way to the back of the net do the business. In truth it’s all over by the end of the first half, Varane’s reply on the hour mark ruled out for offside representing their best opportunity. We’re imperious, especially at the back, as Brenner and Luka Jovic fail to find a way through.

A frantic April concludes with the visit of Villarreal. Even after this there are seven league games remaining, and the season is now feeling very long and absolutely gruelling. Thank goodness for a good squad. Abraham, Dembele and Riqui Puig makes our starting line-up, and then it all seems to go wrong when Yeremi Pino puts them in front straight from kick-off. It’s a horrible one to concede. The blame lies with Gerard Pique, who is starting to look very old and not so quick as he is unable to keep up with the marauding winger.

The visitors’ advantage forces us to move into the attack, producing a blizzard of shots that Villarreal are forced backwards to defend, DM Mattia Zaccagni emerging with real credit as he breaks things up with skill and concentration. But he’s one man, and he isn’t enough. By the end, Tammy Abraham has bagged a hat-trick, a brilliant personal display that makes his £21.5 million price tag look cheap indeed. Pau Torres heads in from a corner as we go on to record an important 4-1 victory. Over in Madrid, Real won’t give up, so wins like this one might look routine but are absolutely vital to the cause.

As it happens, our 4-1 against the Yellow Submarine coincides with a 2-0 reverse for the Madrid giants at Athletic Bilbao, which puts us thirteen points clear in the league. There are twenty-one still to play for. It isn’t over, but by now I feel that we would need to collapse completely to cough up the title. Surely it won’t happen.

Glory Hunter – Barcelona: October 2022

To catch up on the story please head yourself over to the Chapters page.

Another packed month, which takes in an international break once we have completed the home match against Sevilla. Real, Ajax and PSG all lie in wait this month, with a tightly contested scenario in La Liga and the Champions League group both to be resolved. At the end of October the league calendar takes a break until January, while we all sit back to enjoy the winter World Cup and keeping our fingers crossed that the Barca players taking part in it don’t get too battered and bruised in the desert.

Sevilla first. They’re in lower mid-table, for once not playing in their traditional personal fiefdom of the Europa League and now managed by former Man City and Italy boss, Roberto Mancini. He can call on Ivan Rakitic, who once dominated our midfield before old age took over and he was doled out to play his waning years for Los Nervionenses. As though specifically aiming to put some of our sluggish performances behind us, we end up winning 4-0 in this one. I field Pedri on the left wing, basically because I want to promote one of the more promising Barca kids, and he responds with two goals to crown a shining performance. Sevilla fail to deal with his superb dribbling, and while trying to keep eyes on Messi, Kane, Moriba and de Jong they similarly prove unable to cope when Florentino Luis launches a terrific long shot to beat the keeper, and they then fell Lionel Messi in the area to allow Little God to cap off a good day’s work from the penalty spot.

A brilliant performance, and a good feeling to take into the latest Interlull. Hector Bellerin has played his way back into the Spanish national team. Pedri isn’t selected, and I see it as a personal mission to play him as often as I can to stake his claim. If the youngster’s presence comes at the expense of Coutinho then that’s fine by me. The choice on the left is between two Barca prodigies and the Brazilian, and I know who I want to move forward with.

Spain beats Serbia 3-0 with a side containing five Barca stars – Torres, Bellerin, Sergi, Busquets and Fati – and the board announce that a small stadium expansion is now complete. We can now play host to 104,000 supporters, which will hopefully transform the Camp Nou into an even louder cauldron of noise. The difference between this place and Napoli’s San Paolo is pronounced. It’s never far from full, a massive degree of Catalan loyalty that we are all keen to repay on the pitch.

Not that we get to do so on the other side of the international schedule. We have to complete the single hardest fixture of the calendar, an away day at the Bernabeu, home of Real Madrid. Barca’s record against their bitter rivals over the past two seasons isn’t good. We haven’t won a single game, and while that didn’t matter in 2020/21, last season it was part of an effort that handed the title to the team that plays in white. It’s on me to try and change things, to reclaim the Classico.

Real are now managed by Maurizio Sarri, who guided them to La Liga glory in the summer. Some of their stars have left in that time (Odegaard, Valverde, Locatelli) and of course the shadow of Cristiano Ronaldo sits atop everything, but they’ve been busy. Bastoni, Fekir, Wijndal, Brenner and Dalot are all in. They have started the campaign in slightly slower fashion than we have, but they aren’t far behind and my temptation is the measure our progress against theirs. Essentially, stay ahead of them and we won’t be going far wrong.

The first half of the Classico at the Bernabeu looks like living up to its billing. Real take a quick 2-0 lead via Casemiro and Mariano, but we begin to claw our way back and by the break Antoine Griezmann and Milan Skriniar have levelled the game. It’s so finely poised, so tense that I need to walk away from it for a little while before accepting the responsibility of seeing it out. Very early in the second half, we concede a free-kick about thirty yards from our goal, which gives Nabil Fekir the licence to fire in a spectacular effort. Driven to find yet another equaliser, we instead end up conceding a fourth, Vinicius Junior netting from a breezy counter-attack. We lose 4-2.

It’s a disappointing result to take, especially as we have dominated the game and ultimately go down to Real’s superior cutting edge. We are especially bad at the back, a top class defence looking quite amateurish, but the villain for us is Coutinho, who is kept in the pocket of Dalot. Fati does slightly better when he comes on, but my thoughts regarding the Brazilian are beginning to turn to considerations over his exit. Two Barca products – Fati and Pedri – just look more lively for us, so do we really need Philippe, even though the prospect of parting ourselves from his massive value and enormous contract will make him a difficult sell? Is he just an albatross for us? On the upside, Lionel Messi plays really well, yet this just makes me angrier. We are supposed to be moving away from relying on a club legend to make our waves, but he looks like one of the rare players who actually cares about trying to win this match.

At least we have now played all three of our main contenders – the two Madrid clubs and Valencia – away from home in the league now. When next we meet in La Liga it will be at the Camp Nou, presumably a different story for us. A run of matches played in Catalonia will complete our October. We start with a Champions League clash against Ajax, for whom Jasper Cillessen has become an ogre of a keeper, expanding to twice his size whenever we bear down on his goal. We should have the capacity to pummel them and we do, but the result is a vexing 1-0, Lionel Messi netting from a beautiful passing move in which his close playing relationship with Sergi Roberto is an absolute advantage. I guess it takes something special to beat Cillessen, and this is exactly that.

Eibar next, a game against a Basque side that is rooted to the foot of the table. The fact they have remained stubbornly in La Liga since 2014 is to their considerable credit, however it ought to be a scenario of men against boys, and we end up with a 5-0 victory. Pedri scores a couple of early goals to advance his credentials, before Milan Skriniar heads in from a classic set-piece and Bruno Guimaraes bags his first. Edouard Exposito gets himself sent off after that for collecting two yellow cards in quick succession. This wraps up a miserable afternoon for the midfielder, who listens from the changing room as Jordi Alba drives in a spectacular fifth for us. This is what I want to see, a complete performance. Bruno claims the match ball, but I am pleased with the work of Ousmane Dembele, on to give Messi the day off and providing two assists as part of an enterprising outing.

We can guarantee qualification from our Champions League group if we win our next match, however Paris Saint-Germain are the slight obstacle standing in our way. They beat us 1-0 in France and we do exactly the same to them here. Harrington Kane does the honours, a depressingly rare instance of him finding the net (I expected a free-scoring escapade from Day One, quite honestly). Skriniar is impressive in this one. His work leads Haaland to have an evening of absolute anonymity, which is all I could ever ask of him. PSG supply the fouls, earning three bookings as their inability to make an impression here descends into entitled thuggery.

Sporting Gijon (pronounced, I believe, Hee-Hon) are a higher standard of opposition than Eibar, but once again I’m expecting a win here, and I select an attacking side to get just that. Pedri puts in another enterprising job of work, taking less than a minute before putting us a goal ahead. Before the first twenty minutes are up, Torres claims that he’s pushed in the area during a corner kick and we get a penalty, which Harrington Kane duly dispatches. The star man here is Ousmane Dembele. Later in the game, he sets off on a solo run from deep in our half, which only ends when he’s placed his shot beyond the keeper to complete an outing of some potency. For the visitors there’s only pain. They don’t get so much as a shot on our goal, and are effectively hamstrung when attacking midfielder Pelayo Morilla tears his midway through the first half. I get some pelters for the level of squad rotation I do, but here’s why. Field the same players week in, week out, and watch the injury count ratchet up.

It’s a positive end to the first portion of our season, with domestic matters now taking a breather as the World Cup takes over. All we have left is to complete our Champions League group. In the meantime, we are in a three-way tie at the top of the league. Valencia are in the driving seat thanks to their match in hand, and in truth they have been very dominant recently, but we are up there, despite the Classico reverse, and that’s what matters. The five-point buffer between ourselves and Real gives me heart, though I’ll confess it’s a gap that can be worn down with a couple of poor results.

Ansu Fati agrees a fat(i) new contract, which puts the 20 year old within the upper bracket of Barca earners and ends the speculation that he might leave the club. Over my dead body, though you can have Coutinho if you’re desperate.