• How long have you been a supporter of Barcelona and what prompted you to become one?
Well, I caught my first Barcelona match back in February 2006 when they faced off against Chelsea in the Champions League. I was young at the time, and over the past decade or so the Premier League has become so mercenary, so to watch these guys, eleven players that appeared to be playing football not to win, not for money, but to enjoy themselves, it was so refreshing. There was something amateurish about their play that was so appealing, especially in these matches against Chelsea and as youngster; you are always drawn to the star names. Ronaldinho, Eto’o, Deco; Barcelona had the star names and as time progressed I found myself watching more and more Barcelona matches, reading about their history and their youth teams, until at some stage I guess I became a “real” fan!
• Are you a fan of any other clubs?
The mighty Colchester United, who are currently (and I fear always will be) plying their trade in League One after a couple of brief, but glorious seasons in the Championship.
• How long have you been writing about Barcelona?
It’s got to be approaching two years now; I started out in 2010 knowing little about blogging and I was lucky enough to join Barca Blaugranes within a few months and somehow I have been then pretty much ever since.
• Last season Barcelona lost the Spanish title to Real Madrid, what do you think were the key reasons for this?
Well, where to begin? Squad depth was a major factor, accentuated by injuries as Barcelona had to turn to the B team for replacements when David Villa broke his leg at the Club World Cup. Isaac Cuenca and Cristian Tello were excellent, but when your rivals have the likes of Kaka and Higuain in reserve, it’s hard to compete. Both mental and physical exhaustion played their parts as well, especially away from home where the Blaugrana really struggled to keep up with Mourinho’s juggernaut. But let’s not take anything away from Real Madrid; they played a virtually perfect season from Jornada 6 onwards.
• How does this season’s Barcelona team compare to last season’s and what are the key differences?
In terms of personnel, very little has changed. Obviously we bought Jordi Alba from you guys, at an absolute bargain price, Alex Song was brought in from Arsenal and most importantly, El Guaje is back. We all know that Villa is a fabulous player, and his return is arguably the key difference as Lionel Messi often lacked goal-scoring support from his teammates in the latter stages of last season. Tactically, Sergio Busquets has been told to pressure higher up the field and so far, it hasn’t really worked as well as Tito might have hoped, while Messi tends to drop a little deeper which is frustrating a few Culés. Other than that, it’s the same-old style of play with the same-old weaknesses.
• Barcelona lost the Super Cup to Real Madrid, what are your thoughts about this?
It was a tough defeat, and it will be interesting to see how Barcelona recover on Sunday against such difficult opposition. Personally, I think the Super Cup was a huge opportunity to really put some pressure on Jose Mourinho, and in relinquishing the first-leg lead, Barcelona might find that the momentum has shifted back in Madrid’s favour. Watching Real Madrid celebrate a trophy is never easy, although I just hope it is the wake-up call they needed to make the most of that early five-point lead.
• Who would you say is Barcelona’s most influential player and the weakest player?
Hmm, I’m going to have to say that Xavi is Barcelona’s most influential player, as without him, the entire team suffers. There’s always a chance that someone else can score the goals that Messi provides the team, even more so now that Pedro has found his scoring boots again, but at current there is no-one that can dominate a game as well as Xavi does. As for the weakest player, I think it’s a 50-50 between Victor Valdés and Alexis Sanchez at the moment if we are going by starters. Valdés is mostly excellent, but is making too many mistakes in goal, and Alexis (10 games without a goal for club and country, only three goals since the middle of February) is virtually wasting a space in attack.
• Who is going to be Barcelona’s key player this season?
Lionel Messi is undoubtedly the key player. After all, he is the one who is going to be getting the goals, and probably the majority of the assists as well. Aside from Messi, I think Barcelona need Pedro in top form if they wish to replicate the success of seasons gone by.
• What would you say are the strengths and weaknesses of your team this season?
The strengths of the team remain the same. Our form at the Camp Nou is absolutely terrifying and Messi is equally terrifying. Our attack is possibly the quickest in the league, while the Alves-Alba combination could either contribute to a more well-rounded offense, or put more pressure on an already shaky defense. There are a lot of weaknesses though, starting with the defense who are often beaten for pace or made to pay for poor positioning. Set-pieces are another concern and what happens if Barcelona goes through another injury crisis?
• Any young players to watch out for that could be on a “break-out year”?
Thiago is the man to watch out for. He ended last season brightly despite carrying a stress injury similar to the one that led to David Villa’s broken leg, and hopefully he will be able to pick up where he left off. Sergi Roberto could see more game-time this season, but looks set to continue in Eusebio’s B team along with Gerard Deulofeu, who would otherwise be on this list.
• Can Barcelona win this season’s Champions League, what would be the biggest obstacles in doing so and what about the Spanish cup?
Barcelona are the favourites for the Champions League, although at this early stage, I feel it would take a lot of luck for them to win it. Real Madrid clearly want this to be the year they complete La Decima, although I think the true challenge will be from the likes of Bayern Munich who look incredibly strong and the English clubs. In a one-off game, Barcelona can beat any other team in World Football, but at the moment I am not convinced that they possess the concentration to do so. As for the Copa del Rey, it isn’t going to be their primary aim, but it’s always a nice feeling to retain a title.
• How good do you think Valencia will do this season? Is it feasible to think that Valencia could win the Spanish championship or at least challenge Barcelona and Real Madrid?
I think given the disparity in terms of TV revenue and global brand power, Valencia do not have anywhere near the resources needed to compete with Real Madrid and Barcelona over the course of a 38 game season, but they will pose a significant threat in the individual matches – as we saw in the league opener. I think Valencia could challenge for a top two place though, especially if Mourinho continues to prioritise every competition over La Liga, and I also think that they could challenge for the Copa del Rey as well.
• What do you think are Valencia’s strengths and weaknesses?
Despite selling Alba, I think Valencia’s left flank is one of their greatest assets. Jeremy Mathieu always plays well against Barcelona even if he does struggle against the rest of La Liga at times, his partnership with Guardado has the potential to be just as, if not more devastating against the Blaugrana. Aly Cissokho should improve that left-flank as well. Soldado is one of the best pure strikers in World Football and Jonas continues to improve in the #10 role behind him. Diego Alves and Guaita are both fantastic keepers as well, capable of winning points on their own and I think the squad depth is good as well, at least once everyone recovers from injury.
Weaknesses? Well I think what stands out from the season so far is how many chances Valencia have allowed their opposition, and the pressure it places the keeper under. Depor and Real both created plenty of chances – more than Los Che anyway – and they also got the better of the possession stats as well, which is a concern ahead of a trip to the Camp Nou.
• Who do you think will win the Champions League and Europa League this season?
I don’t want to tip Barcelona for the UCL just yet, but I think it will be between Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich. As for the Europa League, I think Inter are the obvious choice, but I also fancy Atletico to go far with Falcao still at the club.