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El último líder

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Un tipo que sabe de vinos, como Alex Ferguson, no bebe con cualquiera. Aquella tarde de 1996 eligió un salón privado del Midland Hotel: fachada red, arquitectura victoriana, centro pijo de Manchester. Una sala sin cuadros ni fotos, aséptica para los businessmen londinense que la pueblan a diario con reuniones pegados de hora… y una cueva mítica en la historia del Manchester United: allí firmó Eric Cantona su pasaporte red devil. Un hotel clasista por dentro y rojo por fuera, donde se hallaban tres tipos a los que muchos acusan exactamente de lo mismo: Tony Blair, entonces líder laborista y a un año de convertirse en primer ministro, su gurú en comunicación, Alastair Campbell, y el propio Ferguson, con diez años ya de experiencia en el banquillo del Man U. O sea, de los tres, el más famoso. Tony Blair finalizaba su asalto para quitarle la caspa a la izquierda inglesa a base de champú New Labour. Ferguson, copa en mano, le daba un par de lecciones sobre el liderazgo, como recuerda él mismo en una entrevista com Alastair Campbell aparecida en NewStatesman: “Mientras consigas que toda tu gente clave pueda permanecer en una misma habitación al mismo tiempo, no tendrás problemas”. Una década mas tarde, trabada una sólida amistad y una admiración recíproca, Tony Blair volvió a llamar a coach Ferguson. La habitación se le había ido de las manos. El capitán de su equipo, Gordon Brown, responsable de economía, pugnaba por hacerse con su cargo. ¿Qué harías si tuvieras un jugador brillante pero realmente difícil causándote problemas?” “Me desharía de el” “¿Y si después de deshacerte de él lo siguieras teniendo en el vestuario y en la plantilla? “Eso ya sería otro problema”… El propio Tony Blair relata la anécdota en sus memorias. Ferguson siempre vio Blair en el terreno de juego como un “delantero centro”. El perfecto killer. A su juicio, Gordon Brown, no pasaría de “mediocentro defensivo”. Si las elecciones son como una competición de futbolistas a ver quién vende más camisetas, ¿a quién elegiría la gente? ¿A Wayne Rooney o a Darren Fletcher? Pues eso. Alex Ferguson siguió entrenando al United llevando muchos años sin que nadie se le suba a las barbas. Tony Blair perdía el gobierno meses más tarde sin elecciones de por medio en manos de Brown. Y éste, líder mediocre, rubricó el hundimiento del laborismo cual López Caro en el banquillo madridista: el hombre equivocado en el lugar equivocado. El fútbol, la política, las carreras de caballos y el vino son, por este orden, las pasiones de Alex Ferguson. Y es igual de desmedido con cualquiera de ellas. En España, como entrenador de fútbol, se lo perdonarían todas menos una: ser socialista. Furibunda, genética y vocingleramente socialista. Con el cadáver de Zapatero caminando sobre el caballo como el Cid, Sócrates fuera de Portugal y Alemania, Reino Unido, Francia e Italia en manos del centro derecha, a la izquierda europea sólo le queda un mandamás de peso: Alex Ferguson. Eso sí, a la hora de la verdad, su criptosocialismo obrero sigue cayendo frente a esa izquierda leída, burguesa y con corbatas finas de Guardiola. Dos Champions a cero. Y lo del Barça es de gauche, que esos juicios no los carga el diablo, sino del propio Pep: “hacemos un juego muy de izquierdas, todos hacen de todo”. Pero Sir Alex es como un viejo sindicalista: nunca se desmoraliza. Y disfruta haciendo campaña, como un hincha caminando el domingo hacia Old Trafford con el City esperando en los vestuarios. Y no se esconde. Mayo de 2011. El Labour se huele la catástrofe en las elecciones al Parlamento de Escocia. ¿Solución? Llamar el escocés más famoso, con permiso de Sean Connery (por cierto, gran defensor del independentista SNP y rival político de Fergie). El partido identificó 10.000 hogares “electoralmente indecisos”, que recibieron una misiva firmada de su puño y letra por un tipo con 12 Premierleagues en el bolsillo. Por el estilo, o la escribió él mismo o un asesor muy bueno: “Estuve en Alemania el martes jugando contra el Schalke, en España viendo el Real Madrid-Barcelona el miércoles y de nuevo a casa para ver a los jóvenes del United contra el Arsenal el jueves. Pero no importa lo ocupado que esté. Siempre encuentro tiempo para saber qué está pasando en Escocia. No sólo en la escena futbolística. También en política. El jueves es un gran día y espero que mi equipo, el Labour Party, saque un buen resultado”. Y no se trataba sólo de un eslogan político-futbolero. Ferguson disertaba después sobre cómo conseguir que Escocia vuelva a generar empleo y se lanzaba a una diatriba anti-independentista con más intención que un centro con rosca de Ryan Giggs: “Leo mucha Historia y hay muchas evidencias de que en tiempos de dificultades económicas, el auge del nacionalismo puede ser un gran error … Sería una distracción de lo que realmente le importa a la gente: economía, empleos, escuelas y hospitales. El Labour es el mejor equipo para las familias escocesas”. Al final, el morrazo de Iain Gray, candidato laborista, fue notable y los nacionalistas obtuvieron la mayoría absoluta. Pero Ferguson sudó la camiseta. ¿Os imagináis Pep Guardiola mandando un mensajero similar a los votantes de ERC? ¿O Vicente Del Bosque, un progresista que siempre ha mantenido sus convicciones políticas lejos de los focos, firmando pasquines del PSOE? ¿Os imagináis a los tertulianos de Intereconomía desosando y chupando luego las altas del que osara dar un paso semejante? Ferguson vivió sus colores desde joven. “Mi padre era de izquierdas, así como la mayoría de la gente de donde vengo. Nací en un barrio obrero de Glasgow, Govan, y nunca perdí el sentido de la comunidad. Crecí creyendo que el laborismo era el partido de los trabajadores y lo sigo creyendo”. Y sabe lo que es currar. Mientras marcaba goles como delantero en el Queens Park de Glasgow, trabajaba en los astilleros de Clydeside, donde era enlace sindical… y ya impartía ordenes: llegó a encabezar un paro ilegal en lucha por mejores condiciones salariales. Pero, además de la sudorosa herencia de familia, Ferguson recuerda una imagen que le hizo guardar al Labour la misma fidelidad que al Manchester United: “Mi madre estaba muriendo en noviembre de 1986, dos semanas después de llegar al United. Agonizaba en el hospital Southern General de Glasgow. Un horro, los revestimientos colgando de las cañerías, doctores y enfermeras explotados… y muy poca dignidad en todo aquello. Siempre he visto al Laborismo como el partido que provee la mejor Sanidad para la gente y los Tories como los que se preocupan sólo por los ricos. El NHS (la seguridad social británica) está definitivamente mejor tras 12 años de Laborismo”. Su conclusión tiene algo de simplona, como un niño definiría una película de buenos y malos. Vive y piensa la política como el fútbol. Como un hincha. Así es Ferguson. Carné red, camiseta red, carrillos red. A Ferguson le tocó vivir las mieles del New Labour gracias a un Tony Blair que hizo posible “la unión entre socialismo y éxito”. Una definición que bien podría aplicar a su modo de conducir el United. La retórica seductora del ex primer ministro nada tiene que ver con los rudos modales del escocés malhumorado, pero ambos trazaron a la perfección el camino hacia el éxito, liberaron sin temblores a los suyos, cortaron cabezas cuando tocaba, controlaron la comunicación con maestría y dejaron siempre claro quién mandaba: ellos mismos. Ferguson no está solo. Igual que los buenos entrenadores que triunfan en Italia son casi siempre de derechas (Helenio Herrera, Trapattoni, Fabio Capello, Mourinho), y en la aburrida y despolitizada España no hablan de sexo ni política en publico, en Inglaterra los mas grandes siempre han sido de izquierdas o escoceses. O ambas cosas a la vez. En octubre de 2009 se hizo una encuesta en Inglaterra para conocer a los mejores entrenadores de todos los tiempos. Ganó Ferguson (26%), por delante del intruso Bobby Robson (14% debido a su fallecimiento tres meses antes), Bill Shankly (9%) y Bryan Clough (8%). Ferguson y Shankly nacieron en Escocia. Los dos, junto a Clough, siempre proclamaron con orgullo sus ideas laboristas. ¿Casualidad? No tanto. Hasta que a finales de los 80 empezó a ser cool, el fútbol siempre fue el deporte de las clases obreras británicas. Los potreros argentinos o las favelas brasileñas se sustituían aquí por un sentimiento de comunidad anclado en la santísima trinidad británica: familia, barrio, equipo de fútbol. De ahí salían los jugadores que, años después, se convertirían en entrenadores. Como la santísima trinidad de los banquillos british: Ferguson, Shankly y Clough. Bryan Clough no sólo ganó dos veces la Copa de Europa con el Nottingham Forest. También fue el mejor opositor a Margaret Thatcher que guió el Reino Unido en la década de los 80. De hecho, su primera Copa de Europa fue en 1979, cuando la mujer que doblegó a todos los sindicatos británicos obtuvo el poder. Solía decir que fue para robarle titulares. “Lo único que aún no ha prohibido esta mujer es votar laborista”, dijo una vez. Él mismo pudo comprobarlo, porque rechazó dos veces ser candidato del centroizquierda, pero no dudó en ponerse en primera línea junto a los piquetes durante las huelgas mineras. Mientras, Kevin Keegan y Emlyn Hughes le plantaban un beso en la mejilla a la Dama de Hierro en el 10 de Downing Street con la selección inglesa. Una de las raras veces que se vio sonreír a Thatcher, embutida en un horrible vestido de motas verdes mientras sostiene un balón. Lo que han cambiado los tiempos. Esperanza Aguirre, en semejante tesitura, se habría puesto los calzones de los pross y empezado a dar toques… “Mi socialismo viene del corazón”, comentó en 1968, cuando era un jovencísimo entrenador del Derby County, “tengo unos ahorros en el banco, una casa confortable y cosas bonitas a mi alrededor. No veo razón alguna para que los demás no tengan el mismo que yo”. Su utopía fue más futbolística que política: conseguir que en Inglaterra se jugase algo parecido al tiki-taka. En España, hoy, puede parecer tan común como que la abuela enchufe Sálvame. Pero en los 80 y en las Midlands… Clough también se crió en un socialismo genético. A él le gustaba definirlo con ese toque entre Clemente y Groucho Marx: “Mis mejores Navidades fueron aquellas en que me tocó el muslo del pavo. No crean, tuve que esperar mucho. Éramos ocho en familia y el pavo solo tiene dos muslos”. Familias humildes, en las que nunca faltaba de nada, pero sobraba todavía menos. Esa dignidad del sillón con remiendos pero el felpudo exterior de casa siempre impoluto en la que crecieron los mejores estrategas del fútbol de las Islas. El irreverente y lenguaraz Clough siempre fue un amante de la utopía: y no sólo en fútbol y política. Consiguió por ejemplo que Nottingham y Derby tuvieran algo en común: la carretera que les une, llamada Bryan Clough Way, en memoria del entrenador que más alto llevó a los equipos de dos ciudades que se detestan. Toda una forma de dejar su sello. Aunque le puede hacer competencia su gran amiga Margaret Thatcher, presidenta de honor del Blackburn Rovers sin que nadie sepa muy bien por que? La tercera hoja del trébol rojo del fútbol británico fue Bill Shankly, el hombre que hizo del Liverpool un mito en los 60 y primeros de los 70 con el mismo patrón que Clough: humildad, buen juego y frases para la posteridad. Escapó de las galerías bajo tierra y las caras tiznadas de Glenbuck (Escocia) gracias al fútbol. Nunca dejó de encarnar los valores, la idiosincrasia y el misticismo de los mineros, que han dado tantos buenos futbolistas como primeras líneas en rugby, en una época en que el Laborismo y la clase obrera empezaban a sufrir sus primeras crisis de pareja… Eran tiempos de crisis, la industria del carbón empezaba a costar más que a producir y la izquierda austera del primer ministro Harold Wilson, un intelectual que fumaba en pipa, no era muy bien entendida por tipos que se ciscaban en el Gobierno y se refugiaban el fin de semana en su pinta de cerveza y el juego ofensivo de los reds del Mersey. “El socialismo en el que creo es el de todo el mundo trabajando en pos de un mismo objetivo y recibiendo una recompensa por ello. Así veo el fútbol. Así veo la vida”, dijo Shankly. Tres tipos auténticos. Tres visones parecidas de tres generaciones de la izquierda y del fútbol británico. Tres tipos hoscos capaces de poner a una tropa de niñitos malcriados a sus órdenes como si fueran obedientes gurisa. “Creo que es porque mantuvimos los valores del tipo de sitio donde nacimos”, explica Ferguson: “trabajo duro, trabajo en equipo y principios sólidos”. Los tres entendieron, como Alfonso Guerra, que lo de las asambleas es para la Puerta del Sol, pero que un partido debe dirigirlo un líder. Musa Okwonga, en Will you manage? The necessary skills to be a great gaffer, definía los entrenadores en Inglaterra como “Estados de un solo partido”. Con “dictadores” se habría ahorrado cuatro palabras. Ferguson lo explica a su modo: “El día en que pierda el control de estos multimillonarios en el vestuario, estoy muerto”. Guerra lo hizo al suyo: “El que se mueva no sale en la foto”. En su biografía del coach del Man U, Patrick Barclay lo define como “un dictador de la convicción”. Sabe hablar a los futbolistas en su idioma, con sus aires de abuelo gruñón. Una de sus frases favoritas para los recién llegados a Old Trafford es: “Cuidare mucho de que cuando vuelvas a visitar tu madre vea a la misma persona que ella me envió. Si no entiendes toda esta fama y este dinero, tu madre estará muy decepcionada contigo”. Lógicamente los tres, Ferguson, Clough y Shankly, mientras predicaban a favor de la clase trabajadora, no tuvieron problemas en vivir como lo que eran: ricos del fútbol. Muchos se lo echaron en cara y todavía lo hacen con Alex Ferguson, como aquí en España algunos se lo reprochan a Valdano. Si un socialista puede presidir el Fondo Monetario Internacional, ¿porqué un socialista no va a entrar al club más rico del mundo? El entrenador red responde abrazándose a la ética del protestantismo: “Claro que es posible compatibilizar el bienestar con mis ideas políticas. Sigo manteniendo amistades de mis otros tiempos y siempre lo haré. He ganado mucho dinero, pero he trabajado duro y pagado mis impuestos”. Hace poco, preguntaron a Alex Ferguson por dos entrenadores franceses que van ganado enteros, los líderes de la Francia campeona del mundo del 98, Laurent Blanc y Didier Deschamps. Se deshizo en elogios. Hacia el final, explicó su peculiar porqué: ambos venían de una buena escuela: “Los dos tuvieron la suerte de trabajar con Aimé Jacques, un buen tipo, un socialista de verdad”

05.04.14 FC Barcelona v Real Betis

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FC Barcelona maintained their title challenge this Saturday in a rollercoaster win against a spirited Betis side fighting to avoid the drop.  The visitors provided plenty of nervous moments for the Camp Nou fans and were even on top times, but two goals from Leo Messi plus a Jordi Figueras own goal were enough to keep pace with  Atlético Madrid at the top of La Liga.  The players can now turn their attentions to the Champions League. Despite the many distractions provided by the referendum, FC Barcelona started positively, with danger coming in particular from the right wing pairing of Alves and Alexis.  And it was the Chile international who teased Betis defender Jordi Figueras into bringing him down in the penalty box.  Messi stepped up to left foot the spot kick into the centre of the net. Barça’s best phase of the match came immediately after the opening goal.   Xavi, through the middle, and Alves down the right were constant threats for the visitors but Betis fought back stubbornly and persisted in their attempts to catch Barça on the break.  They came up against Sergio Busquets in magnificent form.  The midfielder had a superb first half, tackling, spraying out passes and going past opponents in a masterful display of technique and tactical savvy that had the fans chanting his name. Betis came out after halftime looking to take the game to Barça, spurred on by their desperate situation in the league.  Xavi hit the woodwork but it proved to usher in a period of sustained Betis pressure.  Manager Gabriel Calderón reaffirmed his team’s ambition by bringing on. Jorge Molina and Rubén Castro to join Leo Baptistao in a three-pronged attack. An unfortunate own goal by Jordi Figueras – the same player who conceded the penalty against Alexis in the first half – from Adriano’s cross, threw cold water on the Betis fight back. The game took another twist three minutes later when substitute Rubén Castro made it 2-1 with twenty minutes left to go. Betis pushed hard for the equaliser but inevitably left space at the back, especially for Neymar. The Brazilian forced Amaya into handling the ball in the area and once again Messi took the spot kick.  Betis keeper Adán guessed correctly but Messi seized on the rebound to make it 3-1.

01.04.14 FC Barcelona v Club Atlético de Madrid

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There were no surprises at the Camp Nou tonight  -no surprises in the line ups, in the tactics both teams chose, the way Barça had to work hard to breakdown the visitors’ rock solid and tough tackling defence and in the end, after three draws already this season, no surprise in the result. Diego conjured up a wonder strike from nowhere to give Atletico the lead on 55 minutes, but Barça dug deep and Neymar’s equaliser leaves it all to play for at the Calderon next week. Atletico came flying out of the traps and for the first quarter of an hour, they seemed to have Barça on the rack  – with Villa missing a great chance to put the visitors ahead after just 4 minutes and when Piqué was forced off after a tumble to be replaced by Bartra, things were looking worryingly dangerous for Martino’s side, who despite coming out clearly focussed on the game, were finding it tough to create any kind of threat. After that first quarter of an hour though, Barça forced Atletico to defend ever deeper and began to match their opponents aggression and intensity, as they laid siege to the Atletico box. Messi somehow found a way through a packed defence to free Iniesta on the left of the area, but his shot was blocked by a defender on 25 minutes, Soon after, Diego Costa limped off and with their main attacking reference point missing, Atletico dropped even deeper, always on the lookout for a quick counter, which time and again Busquets was quick to snuff out. The game was now taking on the shape of this season’s earlier match ups, with Barça dominating possession against a tough and stubborn opponent. Chances were few and far between and despite the continuous fouls from Atletico, the game was being played at a frenetic pace. Villa nearly popped up again just before the break, but his effort was well stopped by Pinto. The game continued with Barça controlling possession and tackles flying in from all parts, but Martino’s team were taken by surprise on 55 minutes, when Diego fired home an unstoppable shot from well outside the box after a quick free kick . The crowd upped their volume as they attempted to lift the team and the players responded by moving up a gear, winning the ball, attacking from all angles and producing their best half hour of the game. Martino put three up front on 67 minutes, replacing Cesc with Alexis and Atletico responded by taking Villa off and bringing on Sosa. Neymar now switched wings and moved to the left and on 71 minutes an exquisite pass from Iniesta found the Brazilian cutting in behind the defence to fire home brilliantly past the Atletico keeper for the equaliser, Courtois then proved his worth with some great saves as the Camp Nou crowd roared the team on. In the end tough it was another draw and the prospect of another epic game to come in a week’s time at the Calderon.

26.03.14 FC Barcelona v RC Celta de Vigo

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 After a lightning start to the game as Barça took up from where they left off at the Bernabeu,  a nasty looking injury to Valdes stunned the Camp Nou and although Messi and Neymar ensured the win, the keeper’s injury cast a pall over the celebrations. Luis Enrique made his return to the Camp Nou with a five-man defence that included Fontas as a deep lying midfielder and with an untypical tactic of ceding possession, which allowed Barça to lay siege to the Celta area and reap the benefits within the first five minutes, as a clever move between Iniesta, Messi and Alexis ended with a simple tap in for Neymar. With Iniesta finding plenty of space through the middle to release Messi, Barça were playing elegant and incisive football which created chances for both Neymar and Messi. All the optimism took a blow on 20 minutes however, when Valdes fell awkwardly saving a free kick and immediately called for help in obvious pain, before being stretchered off. The Barça players looked shocked for a while and the rhythm dropped, before Iniesta and Messi brought a smile back to the fans’ faces on the half hour with an inch perfect move that the Argentinean finished off by rounding the keeper to double the lead. Iniesta was replaced by Sergi Roberto as a precaution at half time and with the rain coming down and the players clearly affected by the injury to Valdes, Celta took the chance to step forward after the break and Pinto was called on to make a superb double save on 52 minutes to keep the Galicians out. Cesc was unlucky to have a goal ruled out for offside just before the hour mark, but it was the visitors who looked the more likely to score, until on 67 minutes, Neymar broke down the left into the box and fired through the defenders’ legs to beat the keeper and make it three. Soon after, the Brazilian was replaced by Pedro. There was still time for drama though, as Pinto clattered into a post after a good stop from Bermejo. The crowd held their breath, but the keeper got up and went on to make two more good stops on a night that brought another win, but one tinged wth sadness for Valdes’ injury.

12.03.14 FC Barcelona v Manchester City

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FC Barcelona laid down a marker for the rest of Europe tonight, cruising through to the last eight of the Champions League with a 2-1 win over Manchester City (4-1 on aggregate) with a performance that put to bed the doubts around the team after their weekend league defeat in Valladolid. Javier Mascherano insisted before the game that Barça weren’t down and out and tonight the team proved him right with an important win over one of the strongest teams left in the competition. Both teams are used to dominating possession and City began the game looking much more comfortable on the ball than in the first leg, taking control of the first quarter of an hour before Barça imposed themselves on the game and began to create chances- the clearest of which saw Neymar score, only for the ref to rule it out for a dubious off side against Jordi Alba. In truth though, there weren’t many opportunities for either side in the first half hour – Nasri, then fired straight at Valdes after a great one-two between Silva and Toure and then Neymar had a couple of great chances, but the teams went in goalless at the break. Dzeko came on for a rusty looking Aguero at the break and City looked sharper at the start of the second half, with the Bosnian striker having a couple of opportunities to make it 0-1 early on, with Kolarov and Silva both looking dangerous. Valdes’ saves proved key and Narça hit back with a great chance for Messi, with only the woodwork denying the Argentinean. Both sides were looking for a goal now and the tempo of the game increased as City pushed forward and Barça showed their threat on the break and after Lescott fluffed a through ball from Cesc, Messi pounced to open the scoring and put Barça three up on aggregate. That goal rocked City, who were soon after reduced to ten men after Zabaleta was shown his second yellow for dissent, but the Premier League side showed they could still pose a threat when Kompany bundled the ball home for the equaliser after a knock on by Dzeko from a corner. There was never going to be time left for a shock and Iniesta set up Alves on the counter to ensure the win on the night late on and ensure that Barça go through to the last eight after two impressive wins against City. Mascherano was right – this team are certainly not down and out!

02.03.14 FC Barcelona v UD Almería

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It took until the 83rd minute for Barça to secure the three points against Almeria. The eventual 4-1 win could easily have been achieved in the first half, but some great football was only reflected by two goals, and Almeria managed to grab one of their own to add to the drama. The intensity dipped in the second half, and the win was not decided until Puyol bravely stuck home FCB’s third, with Xavi making it four in the final minutes. A win was more essential than ever after the setback at Anoeta, and the 2-2 draw in the Madrid derby was surely the best result Barça could have wished for, and they now find themselves just one point short of the lead. The evening started well. After just eight minutes, Alexis Sánchez was once again the man to break the deadlock as he extended his excellent goalscoring form this season by pouncing on a rebound off visiting keeper Esteban from a Cesc shot. Barça were playing fast, intense football, and although the finesse was not always there, they looked well in control of the match, especially down the right, where Alves and Alexis were giving full-back Dubarbier a torrid evening. Leo Messi made his mark with an extraordinary goal from a 24th minute free kick, with the ball curving brilliantly to find the precise sport that Esteban was never going to reach. Barça were well in command, but totally against the run of play, Trujillo was able to knock home a corner for Almeria, and incredibly considering the number of chances that had fallen to Neymar, Messi and Alexis, at half time the Andalusians were still in contention. Barça had enjoyed 78% of the possession and shot 14 times in the first 45 minutes. In the second, in which they lost some of their rhythm and struggled to create as many chances, things started to get unnerving. Almeria seemed capable of containing the Barça pressure and also started putting Valdés to the test. Barça desperately needed a goal to settle the result, but Neymar missed an easy chance in the 65th minute, and moments later the visiting defence managed to prevent Messi from scoring a near-certain goal. The Argentinian had had a quiet second half, but burst back into life in the final quarter of an hour. Iniesta came on in the 70th minute, which helped to retain the ball in midfield and generate more ideas up front. And the third goal finally came in the 83rd minute, with Messi out-jumping his marker to head the ball onto the bar, whereupon it fell to Puyol, who volleyed it into the back of the net. The Camp Nou could breathe again and started chanting the captain’s name. And to round off a nervy night, Xavi then scored a stunner from outside of the area to set up the final scoreline of 4-1 and ensure three absolutely crucial points for Barça’s title bid.

12.11.13 Barcelona v Celtic

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Barça only needed a point to clinch top place in their Champions League group, but did much more than against a Celtic side that was only playing for pride but was instead played off the park by an intense, ambitious display from the Catalans. After going into an early 1-0 lead and with the win already as good as settled by half-time, Barça were able to play for the crowd and regain some lost confidence, with hat-trick hero Neymar on stunning form. It was two minutes before Celtic had even touched the ball at the Camp Nou. Barça were passing it around with ease, and were soon creating problem after problem for Forster to deal with. And that was how things would stay for most of the ninety minutes, as has been the case so often in the past against the Scottish champions, who as usual opted for a highly defensive game-plan. But this time, Barça broke the deadlock early doors. After just six minutes, an opportunist Piqué pounced on the rebound after Alexis had found himself one-on-one on the keeper. 1-0. Barça had all the possession, and even though they were losing, Celtic preferred to keep it tight at the back and speculate with the occasional counter-attack or dead-ball situation. All this served to do was create a Barça onslaught on their area, although the home side were lacking the speed and definition to turn their dominance into further goals. Busquets was outstanding, Sergi Roberto and Xavi were feeding balls from all angles, and Alexis, Neymar and Pedro were all getting involved with spectacular bicycle kicks and all the works. The worrying thing, however, is that it wasn’t until the 39th minute that they finally found the net a second time, with Neymar starting the move and Pedro finishing it off. Moments later came the play of the match. Some wonderful first touch football among the midfielders ended with the ball reaching Alexis, who subtly chipped it through to Montoya. The defender could have shot himself, but instead laid on a perfect assist for Neymar. There had only really been one team on the pitch in a first half that ended 3-0. Neymar’s first ever goal in the Champions league was just the boost he needed. In the second half, he scored another peach of a goal on the back of yet another terrific combination move. For the rest of the game, Barça restrained themselves from showboating too much, knowing that this has cost them dearly in the past and that one of the most important aspects that they need to improve is holding onto leads. But there was little chance of tonight’s lead slipping away. On a freezing evening, the Camp Nou was soon chanting the name of Neymar as he went on to complete his first hat-trick in a Barça shirt. It was yet another move initiated by a flash of genius from a defender, followed by a delightful one-two to make it 5-0. A rare Barça attempt at a long ball, by Mascherano, almost led to Neymar getting his fourth of the night, but Pedro was caught offside and the move was invalidated.Tello marked his return to the team by grabbing the sixth and final goal of the night with a shot that rebounded off a defender and left Forster with no chance. But it was thanks to the Celtic keeper that Neymar failed to add any more goals to his account. As the game drew to a close, we finally started seeing a bit more life in Celtic, with Samaras heading home a consolation goal and coming close to adding a couple more. But by this stage, Barça’s biggest heroes of the night, Busquets and Neymar, were already resting on the bench. The Camp Nou gave both the ovation they deserved and was able to celebrate qualification for the last sixteen as group leaders. The Champions League returns in February, and on Monday, Barça will be finding what team they’ll be playing.

06.11.13 Barcelona v Milan

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Leo Messi  led FC Barcelona into the last 16 of the Champions League with the opening and final goals against Milan at the Camp Nou tonight. The first was a penalty and the second from a lovely move with Cesc. With Busquets grabbing one more in between the Argentinean’s brace,  Milan could only reply with a Piqué own goal just before the break. The three points ensure Barça are mathematically through to the last 16 of the competition, sitting five points ahead of Milan, who stay in second place. Massimiliano Allegri was true to his words on Tuesday and set up his team with a clear defensive attitude, with 9 or 10 players crammed into the final third of the pitch, Milan were happy to sit deep and wait for Barça from the off. And just as they had in San Siro, Kaká found it tough to find the space they need to create chances, as the Italians booted away possession to the hosts without ever venturing into  the Barça half. Barça weren’t making clear chances, but they kept plugging away and when Iniesta carved out a great opening for Neymar, Abate brought the Brazilian down in the box for Messi to step up and fire home the penalty for the opening goal. Barça continued to dominate possession with Xavi and Iniesta hogging the ball, whilst Neymar provided the spark – again suffering a foul that led to a goal, with Xavi crossing a free kick in for Busquets  – enjoying a great game -to head home  and double Barça’s lead. Just as the half looked like ending comfortably, Barça conceded a goal when Kaká crossed from the left and Piqué’s attempted clearance flew into the net – a goal that recalled one against Osasuna in Pamplona a couple of years ago. The goal came just on half time and was a psychological boost to Milan. With Balotelli on after the break, and with Kaká pulling the strings, Milan were now looking more ambitious – which also of course left them more vulnerable at the back. The game was opening up now, with chances – which weren’t taken – at both ends. Barça then imposed a more measured pace to the game and Iniesta brought a good save from  Abbiati  before Neymar nearly broughtthe house down with a great individual effort, beating four defenders before shooting high. Alexis could also have made it three, but it was Messi who rounded off the scoring, latching onto a  brilliant one-two with Cesc  – who’d come on for Iniesta  – to fire home and ensure a spot in the last 16.

01.11.13 Barcelona v Espanyol

The day after roast chestnuts and Halloween, FC Barcelona took all three points from the local derby with Espanyol. The game was decided by a Neymar assist for an Alexis Sánchez who is enjoying his finest season yet for the club. The Chilean had already played a key role in the clásico and in Tuesday’s game in Vigo, and once again found the back of the net in this bank holiday encounter. Thanks to him, a more passive and practical Barça than we are used to seeing were able to claim another full set of three points. In total, that’s now an astonishing 34 out of 36. FC Barcelona did all they could in the first half, but got nothing out of it. They were superior in every aspect of the game and completely dominated the possession but simply couldn’t find a way through the superbly compact defense deployed by Javier Aguirre. Espanyol simply held their lines at the back and looked for loose opportunities to mount the occasional counter attack. The only place where Barça did seem to be finding gaps was down Alves’ wing, with the Brazilian giving Torje a nightmare of an evening, but never quite managing to get his crosses to connect. Alves was also the protagonist of two incidents, one at either end of the pitch, in the space of little more than a minute. In the FCB area, a misunderstanding with Valdés almost gifted a goal to ex Barça man Víctor Sánchez, but Valdés saved the day by pulling off a tremendous save. Moments later, Alves tried to make amends with a powerful strike from the edge of the Espanyol area, but the ball struck the post. The game reached half-time scoreless, but with no major reason for alarm among the Barça ranks. And in the second half they finally sorted things out. The football was a lot slicker and electric than it had been in the fitrst 45 minutes as Barça stepped things up a gear in search of the Espanyol net. It looked like Messi had scored from a header, but Casilla pulled off an absolutely extraordinary save, and Neymar also came close from outside the area. The ball just didn’t seem to want to go in. But Espanyol’s luck didn’t last forever. In the 67th minute, a delightful assist from Neymar, nutmegging both Raúl Rodríguez and Sidnei in the process, gifted a virtual tap-in for Alexis Sánchez, who was waiting unmarked at the far post. The two men who scored in the clásico had done it again. The goal obliged Espanyol to push forward in search of a leveller, and the last twenty minutes saw plenty of action at both ends of the pitch, but there was no further score. We certainly didn’t see Barça at their best tonight, and Espanyol produced a plucky performance, but nevertheless there is little doubt that the it was a thoroughly deserved win for the home side, whose unbeaten record continues.

26.10.13 Barcelona v Real Madrid

Barça- Real Madrid games always provide plenty of images that stick in the mind – this time it was not just the wonderful tribute to Tito Vilanova in the pre-match mosaic, but also Neymar’s first Clasico goal and Alexis Sanchez’s magical chip for the second. The Chilean’s 72nd minute beauty ended up being the difference between the two well matched sides, after Barça had the better of the first half with some clever play, but were seriously threatened after the break, when Valdes again pulled off some superb saves. Martino tried a new set up with Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta and Cesc holding onto the ball in the middle and Messi and Neymar up top, with freedom to roam wide or come into the centre. Madrid also sprung a tactical surprise, with Carvajal at left back and Ramos pushed into midfield behind a front three of Bale, Ronaldo and Di Maria, with the Welshman in an unfamiliar false number 9 role. Barça started well and were clearly heeding their boss’ warning that they had to control the ball and avoid losing possession in dangerous areas. With both sides’ defensive anchors – Busquets and Ramos both picking up early yellows, neither team looked too comfortable on the ball, with the emphasis very much on not making mistakes. Then on 18 minutes, Iniesta pounced on a loose ball just inside the Madrid half and ran at the visitors’ defence, before slipping in Neymar on the left for the Brazilian to cut inside and fire low past Diego Lopez for the opener. The Camp Nou crowd – full of banners and flags demanding Catalonia’s right to self-determination – erupted with the goal and their excitement lifted the team who upped their game a gear, with Messi almost immediately shooting just wide after escaping down the right and the Argentinean and Neymar were combining to cause plenty of problems for Madrid’s defence, as Barça stamped their style on the game. Xavi knew that it was in Barça’s interest to slow the game down and avoid any end-to-end stuff to allow them to weave their web of close passing and the Catalan midfielder was soon dictating the pace in the middle again. As the half came to an end with Barça’s superiority clear to all, Madrid gave a warning of things to come though, when Cristiano Ronaldo cut in from the left and sent a low cross in towards the onrushing Khadira, Victor Vlades was equal to the German’s point blank effort, but the rebound also came back to him off the supporting arm of Adriano, who was on the ground after his tackle on Khedira. After the break, it was Neymar who revitalised both the game and Barça, bamboozling Carvajal and bringing out a great stop from Diego Lopez with a powerful effort from the left after good work again from Iniesta. Then it was  Valdés who was called upon to once again save the team with a stunning save from a Ronaldo drive , Madrid were beginning to create in the middle now and the game began to open up – something that was always going to favour their style of play. With the yellow cards piling up and a bit of tiredness creeping in, Barça’s dominance of possession was also slipping.  Martino brought on fresh legs, with  Alexis coming on for Cesc and the side returning to a more familiar 4-3-3 shape as Madrid enjoyed their best phase of the game. Cristiano Ronaldo had a shout for a penalty turned down after a push from Mascherano and  Benzema rattled the woodwork with a shot from the edge of the box. However, once again Barça brought the game back to their pace and took control of possession to take the sting out of Madrid’s threat. And that was when Alexis popped up, picking up a long clearance deep in Madrid’s half and creating a few inches of space away from Varane to chip an inch perfect effort over the Madrid keeper and into the back of the net for the goal of the night. Alves then nearly made it three, darting down the right and nutmegging Cristiano before firing straight at Diego López. Jesé’s injury time goal – rounding off a quick counter to make it 2-1, was too little too late for the visitors and Barça played out the final couple of minutes to take the three points and stretch their lead over Madrid to six.