FC Barcelona unfortunately had to say goodbye to a club legend this week, as former Blaugrana goalkeeper Antoni Ramallets sadly passed away at the age of 89. In his 16 year spell with the club, Ramallets won the Zamora trophy for best goalkeeper a record five times, and was an instrumental member of a Barça squad that won an unprecedented six La Liga titles. Considering that FC Barcelona had won the La Liga title just twice prior to Ramallets’ emergence, and just once in the 24 years after his retirement, it’s safe to say that Ramallets is one of, if not the best keeper in our fine club’s history.
And while Antoni may be gone, he will not be forgotten; his achievements, his contributions and his talent will live on, just like Barça founder Joan Gamper is remembered with fond memories. Born in Switzerland, Hans-Max Gamper moved to Catalunya in 1898 and was so impressed with the city of Barcelona that he decided to stay put, set up a football club and even adopt the Catalan version of his birth name. From the club’s inception right up until his tragic death in 1930, Joan Gamper was the driving force behind Barcelona’s early expansions and as founder, Gamper is arguably the most important figure in our club’s history.
So it’s only fair that each season we dedicate one match to his memory; remembering all that he did for the club, all the while looking to the future. Just as much as the Joan Gamper Trophy is dedicated to our late founder, it is also dedicated to the future as the club traditionally unveil their playing squad ahead of each new season.
Icons, and potential legends in the making take to the field together and demonstrate a brief glimpse of the future – of the new season – and under a new coach, Gerardo Martino, excitement is at a fever-pitch. How will Barcelona perform? Will Neymar adjust to his new surroundings? Can another Catalan player burst onto the scene?
Each of these questions will be answered in the coming months, but until then, Culés will have to try and deduce what the future might hold from this one match, as FC Barcelona contest the Joan Gamper Trophy against Santos.
As one might expect, Barcelona’s record in this "competition" is rather formidable – with 35 wins in 47 years, Barcelona have enjoyed a near-monopoly over the famous trophy, but their monopoly has been upset in recent years, as Manchester City returned home with the title in 2009, before Sampdoria memorably defeated the Blaugrana just a season ago. Under the guidance of Gerardo Martino, Barcelona will be fully expected to regain what’s rightfully theirs – starting with the Joan Gamper Trophy, extending to their playing philosophy and pressing in particular, hopefully ending with their fifth UEFA Champions League in Lisbon in less than ten months time.
Victor Valdés may be leaving the club on a free transfer at the end of the season, but is expected to retain his place as Barcelona’s number one and should start in goal tomorrow against Santos. While he played very little part in Spain’s Confederations Cup defeat, Valdés was granted extended leave along with all his other international colleagues – yet now that he’s back, Valdés is keen to make up for lost time. With no offers on the table as of yet, Valdés cannot afford to coast through his final season with the Blaugrana; on the contrary, Valdés needs to perform and earn himself a contract with another top-level European club. Leading the club to another La Liga title and winning a record-breaking sixth Zamora trophy certainly wouldn’t go amiss, and that’s for both the club, and Valdés’ bank balance.
At right-back on the other hand, we enter the new season anticipating change. Dani Alves remains at the club (as expected), but so does Martin Montoya, and the young full-back remains as dedicated as ever. He’s determined to break into the first-team sooner or later, and with a World Cup on the horizon, Alves will need a little rest, while Montoya will want to earn a place in the Spanish squad; it seems like a perfect situation for head coach Gerardo Martino. Rotate between the two options and everyone is happy.
On the other hand, not much has changed at centre-half for Barcelona. Since this blog’s inception in 2010, Barcelona have signed a grand total of zero central defenders, but they have sold or released five centre-backs (six if you count Eric Abidal). This adds to the two central defensive departures in the summer of 2010; so for the best part of three years, Barcelona have rotated the same few defenders with varying results.
Gerard Piqué and Carles Puyol previously laid claim to the unofficial title of "best defensive partnership" in Europe, but the latter has struggled to cope with advances in time, while the former has seemingly lost his "mojo". Yet, with just a couple of weeks to go until the start of the La Liga season, Barcelona continues to count on both players, plus Javier Mascherano (a converted midfielder) and Marc Bartra (an inexperienced youngster). The talent is there; unfortunately luck, fitness and form are not – at least at present.
However, that could all change. Barcelona’s defense has been deteriorating over the past couple of seasons – but so has their emphasis on pressure. If Martino can revive the principles of old, starting with a high-line of pressure, will the Blaugrana defense regain form? Sure, defending ultimately comes down to the defenders, but the whole team plays its part; and the defenders might not need to "defend", provided that the offense and midfield picks up the slack.
That’s not to say that another defender wouldn’t be welcome, but equally Barcelona shouldn’t just sign another name, simply for the sake of signing someone. For all his talents, is anyone really convinced that Daniel Agger for instance – a mediocre centre-half for a mediocre Liverpool team in an ultimately mediocre defensive league – is the cure for our defensive ills? Or is David Luiz – an attack-minded, overpriced defender for a team that crashed out of the UEFA Champions League group stages – a better fit? Barcelona went down a similar path last season, and ended up wasting €19 million on Alex Song; for a club that thrives thanks its patience on the field, perhaps the board (and the fans) should follow suit off the field, even if that does mean waiting another season for the perfect signing.
Anyway, moving back to tomorrow’s friendly, I expect to see Gerard Piqué and Javier Mascherano start together in the heart of defense with Adriano alongside them at left-back.
In midfield, Sergio Busquets will hopefully start at pivote – whether carrying a slight injury or not, Alex Song has simply not been at his best, let alone up to the standards that Busquets delivers on a consistent basis. In the absence of Carles Puyol, I suspect that Xavi Hernández will start in central midfield and captain the side, and may be joined in midfield by Sergi Roberto, giving Martino a chance to try Cesc Fàbregas in a "Xavi role" in the second-half, with Andrés Iniesta in support. Despite announcing that he is set to stay at the club, I wouldn’t bank on Jonathan dos Santos seeing much, or any, game-time.
Then, moving onto the attack, Lionel Messi will start for the fourth consecutive game and should be joined in attack by Barcelona’s latest signing, a certain Brazilian forward named Neymar. Up against his former club, Neymar will be raring to leave a good impression on the watching Camp Nou crowd – and he must be relishing the chance to finally take to the field alongside Lionel Messi, a player whom Neymar idolises. Will Alexis Sánchez complete the attack? It seems likely, though one can never rule out Pedro given his history with the club, and his playing style which is sure to fit in under the new management.
Barcelona have reportedly secured a first option on three Santos players – Victor Andrade, Gabriel Barbosa (aka ‘Gabigol’) and Giva – and it would be a surprise if we weren’t treated to a glimpse of at least one of them tomorrow evening at the Camp Nou. The Brazilian side have focused on a counter-attacking style in their most recent training sessions, with an added emphasis on practising the offside trap – so they will surely utilise one of their talented forwards to capitalise on the few chances they are gifted at the other end, right?
Well, maybe not. Instead, Santos will probably turn to two of their other talented forwards, Neilton and Willian Jose to bag the goals against the Blaugrana, and pack the midfield in an attempt to stop Barcelona from dictating the tempo.
FC Barcelona 4-0 Santos – 18th December 2011 – FIFA Club World Cup Final
Barcelona cruised to victory to secure their second-ever FIFA Club World Cup title, thanks to goals from Lionel Messi (2), Xavi Hernández and Cesc Fàbregas
Barcelona (4-3-3): Valdés; Alves, Piqué, Mascherano, Adriano; Busquets, Xavi, Roberto; Alexis, Messi, Neymar
Santos (4-2-2-2): Aranha; Galhardo, Durval, Edu Dracena, Leo; Arouca, Cicero; Montillo, Leandrinho; Neilton, Willian Jose
In their first match under Gerardo Martino, Barcelona will surely secure victory and reclaim the Joan Gamper Trophy – I’m going for a stylish 4-0 win, reminiscent of that night in Yokohama