Where She Stops, Nobody Knows: Valladolid-Barcelona PreviewBy: kage | December 21st, 2012
It’s been a roller-coaster and a half: a week filled with sound and fury, and even Destiny has made its not-so-subtle appearance. It begins like this: Barca beats down the threat from second-place Atletico Madrid with a comprehensive thrashing; a brace from Messi gives him 90 goals for 2012 (more than the number scored by the entire Granada and Zaragoza teams combined). Great delight. Messi then extends his contract so he’ll be at Barca for the next five and a half years; Xavi and Carles Puyol extend theirs too, so they’ll almost certainly play their entire careers at Barca – unheard of, for such great players. Tremendous satisfaction. Then the greatest, most unlikely news of all: defender Eric Abidal, one of our favorites, trains with the team again. After a liver transplant. Could it be the greatest comeback of all time? Joy and joy again. But then comes the hammer: head coach Tito Vilanova suffers a relapse of cancer in the parotid gland. Tito steps down, at least for now, as coach. He undergoes surgery. Oh no!
And now, guess what, Barca has a game to play. A tough one, away to Valladolid, a well-organized, resilient side coached by Miroslav Djukic, eighth in the Liga as the week begins, on the high, probably chilly plains of Castile and León in the northwest of Spain. What will await Barca up there? The future, as Muhammed Ali once said, is a mist. To see that future, make the jump.
Short version: your correspondent has no idea. As your local carney barker will readily tell you (in the attempt to get you to put your coin down in a Wheel of Fortune game): Where she stops, nobody knows. But Valladolid is not the mystery. They will probably play a 4-2-3-1 that soon collapses into the dreaded 4-5-1, with Manucho the man up front.
Manucho is a tall (188 cm) Angolan with 6 goals and 3 assists (and 1 red card, and a great set of dreads, much envied by your bald if still handsome correspondent) in just 10 starts this fall; Manucho scored twice against Real Madrid on corner kicks, outjumping Ramos on one of them – beware the corner, Barca, says the aged sage with a knowing nod, for Valladolid is on average 6 cm taller than Barca. In fact, Valladolid did well all around that game, a couple of weeks ago against Real: their 2-3 defeat, after being ahead 2-1, hinged on a defender slipping, allowing a Benzema tap-in, and an accidental save by Casillas, who bounded one way and saved with his legs the other, dancing fool that he is. Valladolid could have, maybe should have won that game; at home they’ve only lost two of their eight home games. Their other goal threat, with seven dingers, is attacking midfielder Oscar. (They will miss the clever but injured Patrick Ebert, a German midfielder, their best player, and central defender Jesús Rueda.) Valladolid will play good, hard, if not necessarily champagne football. At this moment they are fifth in La Liga in goal difference, though the modest figure of +4 is not the stuff of wild celebratory telegrams or even the odd noise-maker, tooted in the dark.
No, Valladolid is not the mystery; the mystery here is Barca. New coach Jordi Roura steps in for Tito again. Roura has some good solid Barca DNA – he played however briefly under Cruyff, and has been described as Tito’s lifelong friend. For Pep he spent three years analyzing and dissecting opposition tactics and weaknesses; if Valladolid gets an early goal, Jordi is as equipped as anyone this side of Messi to crack the nutshell of defense that will result. But we don’t know how Barca will react to the situation. Will they be distracted, leaderless, confused, suffering from a collective anomie? Or will they come out full of righteous power, the Catalan football equivalent of Max von Sydow in The Virgin Spring, as they did when Pep gave them the news that he would step down?
It is hard to say, because there is no doubt that the team was more attached to Pep than they are to Tito, after just over a third of the season at the helm. They could be in a blah mood, which would yield Scenario A: an early goal by Manucho, headed in after a corner, gives Valladolid a lead that is not relinquished till the final minutes, when Messi finally smacks one low into the far corner: 1-1.
Or Barca could have their batteries charged by sadness, which would yield Scenario B: an early goal by Messi, then one by Villa (making an unusual start), then another by Messi, followed by the hatmaker’s delight; rounded off by a little consolation hiccup from Oscar: 4-1. So pick a scenario. What’s that you say? Door Number Two, milord? Can’t quite hear you. Speak up.
Possible Valladolid line-up: Hernandez; Rukavina, Valiente, Sereno, Balenziaga; Rubio, Perez; Bueno, Oscar, Ramos; Manucho
Possible Barcelona line-up: Valdes; Alba, Puyol, Pique, Adriano* Alves; Busquets; Xavi, Iniesta; *Thiago; Villa, Messi, Pedro *UPDATE: Adriano (and Song) did not travel with the team. So no LB/RB-Pichichi winner this time. Substitute Alves above. Iniesta has resumed training w the team, but one wouldn’t be surprised to see him used as a sub only.