Luis Enrique targets further Barcelona success after a remarkable year

What an absolutely extraordinary week Luis Enrique has just had.

Exactly one year ago, he was about to rise from what seemed to be footballing ruins, and the events of the past few days have been a brilliant way to mark that anniversary.

In turn he has been idiosyncratic, daring and shrewd, but above all, the Barcelona manager has been true to himself.

It’s one of the all-time great comeback stories.

For context, do you remember early January 2015? Barcelona appeared to be mired in crisis.

There was the standup row with Lionel Messi in training on the Friday before losing to Real Sociedad — with the Argentinian and Neymar left on the bench — followed by the sacking of Luis Enrique’s friend and mentor Andoni Zubizarreta a couple of days later.

Four points behind leaders Real Madrid and only in second place ahead of Atletico Madrid because of their goal power, Barca were as close to Valencia in fourth as they were to first.

(One year later, a four-point gap between Real Madrid and league leaders Atletico was enough to see Rafa Benitez sacked at the Bernabeu.)

After losing in San Sebastian, Luis Enrique’s next match was at home to Elche in the Copa del Rey, and fewer than 28,000 fans turned up at the Camp Nou to see it. Albeit that he was a Barcelona hero as a player, it looked like a vote of no confidence for “Lucho.”

“The sacking of ‘Zubi’ weakens my position and makes me sad,” he admitted in his press conference.

The rest is history and represents one of the most astonishing turnarounds in football. Barca played scintillating football and barely misplaced a footstep in winning La Liga, the Champions League and the Copa del Rey.

But now it feels like the continued superlative football, especially from the MSN of Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar, as well as Barcelona’s five-trophy haul since that traumatic January, might be combining to leave some of Luis Enrique’s excellence in the shade.

So, how about this for his last week of work?

1. Barcelona 4-0 Granada

Messi hit a hat trick two days before he would collect his historic fifth Ballon d’Or, but the man of the match, by a distance, was Sergi Roberto. Perhaps the success story of Barcelona’s season so far, it was already clear just how much faith his manager has in the 23-year-old.

Comfortable in right or left midfield and stellar at right-back in Dani Alves’ absence, Sergi had already put in a stunning performance “overloading” Madrid in midfield and attack during the 4-0 Clasico win.

But this was an exponential step forward.

The single most demanding and specialist position in Barcelona’s version of the 4-3-3 formation is in central midfield. It’s called the “Pivote” and there’s a gatekeeping role.

Possession passing through this position needs to be ultraswift and shrewd, with no hesitation, no mistakes. It’s like speed chess.

If the player in this position loses the ball, misses a tackle or misjudges where to be, then it can leave Barcelona horrifically exposed.

Sergi deputised for Sergio Busquets in the middle of midfield and played brilliantly, looking as if he had trained and performed there for several seasons.

This was an exceptional decision by Barcelona’s manager and, suddenly, a relatively inexperienced footballer, who many would have been relaxed to see leave the club the previous summer, had shown he was the perfect deputy for a player who seemed not to have a proper replacement.

Luis Enrique retained Sergi, promoted him, used him in his preferred position and then kept on testing how many more challenges he could pass. Great vision by the coach.

2. Ballon D’Or Award

You might think him rude, and I don’t think he’ll be distraught if you did.

But Luis Enrique profoundly disapproved of the 2014 ban, which FIFA imposed on Barcelona for transgressing the rules on when and how to sign juvenile footballers. Accordingly, he was true to himself and refused to attend.

The Ballon d’Or itself, without its recent ties to FIFA, is an award of prestige and merit and one which puts winners in esteemed company. To opt not to turn up on a point of principle is, you’d have to say, staying true to personal values — something which the demands of modern football often undermines.

3. Espanyol 0-2 Barcelona

Eleven days after their city rivals harassed and pressed Barcelona into submission in a very aggressive 0-0 draw in La Liga, Luis Enrique saw no danger, only an opportunity in the second leg of this cup tie.

Now I have a vested interest here, having written for ESPN FC back in December 2013: “Why, given the myriad of tactical niceties out there, is this club hidebound to never, ever think about reducing deficiencies and augmenting remaining strengths with a team shape of 4-2-3-1?”

It transpires that Luis Enrique is open to that way of thinking and, against Espanyol, he lined his team up in such a formation. With a whole host of niceties that made the decision stand out:

– Drawing conclusions from Sergi’s performance against Granada, the two organising midfielders in this new tactical scheme didn’t include Busquets who, having played several hundred minutes more than at the same stage the previous season, was rested. That’s vital if he’s to be on form for the trophy-winning part of the season. In his absence, Sergi was paired with Rakiti, and the two functioned like hand in glove. Nice work, coach.

– The formation also facilitated Munir El Haddadi at centre-forward, Messi at No. 10 and Aleix Vidal as a winger. Munir, evidently classy in technical terms but shorn of goal confidence this season, was deployed nearer to his perfect position instead of wide right, which is largely the case when he substitutes for one of the MSN. This, with Suarez suspended, was probably the only formation in which Munir can start in the No. 9 position and the youngster responds by scoring twice. Round peg, round hole. Ring the bell for the coach.

– Messi, who has already been playing as a hybrid between the front line and that which Xavi Hernandez used to occupy, was returned to the position where he orchestrates everything. He plays superbly and sets up Munir’s first with a shimmering pass. “We want a formation which gives Messi, our best player, the most time on the ball, and we might well use this setup again this season,” admits Luis Enrique. Ring the bell twice.

– Vidal, who is technical, clever, quick and adventurous, not only turned in a vibrant performance on the right of the attacking three behind Munir but also saw the opportunity to change position late on and overload Espanyol down Barca’s left. It is a surprise move via which he supplies Munir with the second goal. Following Sunday night’s 6-0 win over Athletic Bilbao, it means that in the four games since the two players became eligible, Luis Enrique has used Arda and Vidal in five different positions, from where they have combined for three goal assists. Just ring the bell again.

Thus, it has been a great week, featuring personal excellence from the coach, as well as three Liga and Copa wins with an aggregate 12-0 scoreline.

But there’s no time for Luis Enrique to pat himself on the back, not that it is a propensity of his anyway. The Copa del Rey quarterfinals bring two more meetings with Athletic Club, starting on Wednesday at San Memes, where Barca lost 4-0 in the Super Cup last August.

And beyond that tie, everything is building to a miniclimax on Jan. 30, when current leaders Atletico play at the Camp Nou. In the same fixture last year, one week after that Real Sociedad defeat, Luis Enrique’s Barcelona sprang to life and never slowed down until everything was won in June.

Culled from soccernet.com

Everything is better with Messi – Neymar

The former Santos forward praised the Argentina player and insisted that his arrival changed the game against Diego Simeone’s side on Saturday

Everything is better with Messi - Neymar

Neymar hailed Barcelona team-mate Lionel Messi‘s impact against Atletico Madrid, with the Brazil forward claiming “everything is better with him on the pitch”.

Messi came off the bench for Barcelona on Saturday, playing just 30 minutes but still producing the winner in the Catalans’ 2-1 triumph at the Vicente Calderon.

Neymar, who struck Barca’s equaliser with a direct free-kick after Fernando Torres had given Atleti the lead, was full of praise for Messi’s impact, with the Argentine forward having missed Friday’s training session due to the birth of his second child.

“We got a quick equaliser which was very important,” Neymar told Movistar Plus.

“Messi then came on and he always makes the difference. We went on to win the game.”

Luis Suarez’s deft touch set up Messi’s winner in the 77th minute, with the latter lifting his shot over the onrushing Jan Oblak with the outside of his left boot.

Barcelona full-back Sergi Roberto added: “There is nobody like Leo. He’s a father again, he could not train with us, but today he decided the game.

“We are proud to have him on the team.”

Barcelona lead La Liga with a perfect nine points from three matches having already beaten Athletic Bilbao, Malaga and Atleti this season.

But Neymar was not getting carried away with the Catalan club’s title defence despite Barca having maintained their two-point lead over Real Madrid.

“It’s too early to talk about but it is true that we have started the league very well,” he said.

“We have worked well and we have won three big teams.”

Henry hits out at Chicharito: He should have thanked Ronaldo

The on-loan Manchester United striker netted the winner to dump Atletico Madrid out of the Champions League but opted to celebrate without his team-mates straight away

Henry hits out at Chicharito: He should have thanked Ronaldo

Thierry Henry has criticised Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernandez for not immediately celebrating with Cristiano Ronaldo after scoring Real Madrid’s winner against Atletico Madrid on Wednesday.

The on-loan Manchester United striker swept the ball home from close range after being set up by Ronaldo but the Mexican wheeled away towards the fans on his own, while his Madrid team-mates followed alongside the Portugal star.

Henry has hit out at Chicharito for celebrating “like he won the World Cup” and insists the 26-year-old should have been quicker to acknowledge Ronaldo’s run and pass.

“I don’t know about his future there. To be fair to him, he doesn’t usually play. Tonight was his opportunity and we don’t even know if he’s going to play after that,” Henry told Sky Sports.

“He had a couple of chances in the game before that but I can tell you he can thank Ronaldo tonight. I know he went on to celebrate alone and everything but he can thank Ronaldo. For me, he has to.

“That is, for me, Ronaldo’s goal. What I don’t like after [the goal] is it seems like he won the World Cup [with his celebration]. Turn around and celebrate with Ronaldo.”

Carvajal denies Mandzukic bite claims

The Real Madrid full-back was accused of trying to sink his teeth into the Atletico Madrid ace during the second half of the Champions League goalless draw in the Spanish capital

Carvajal denies Mandzukic bite claims

Real Madrid defender Dani Carvajal has vehemently denied biting Atletico Madrid forward Mario Mandzukic during Tuesday’s Champions League clash at the Vicente Calderon.

The full-back was caught on camera moving his head towards the Croatia international’s shoulder during the second half of the quarter-final first-leg encounter.

Mandzukic appeared to react angrily to contact from the defender, prompting speculation that Carvajal had sunk his teeth into the striker.

However, Carvajal quickly took to Twitter to deny the allegation, saying: “I saw that after the game I was accused of biting an opposition player. Let me make clear that I have not bitten anyone, nor did I attempt to do so.”

Mandzukic was also involved in the game’s other big talking point, when he was left with blood streaming down his face after being struck by the arm of Sergio Ramos.

However, the Madrid centre-half dismissed the contact as unintentional, claiming that he had not been aware of where the attacker was at the time.

The game in the Spanish capital finished 0-0, leaving the tie evenly balanced ahead of next week’s second leg at the Santiago Bernabeu.

One year after being sacked by Manchester United – no one is laughing at Moyes now

Having been undermined, criticised, and ridiculed at Old Trafford, the Scot changed the narrative by overseeing a revival at Real Sociedad and making himself popular

One year after being sacked by Manchester United - no one is laughing at Moyes now

When David Moyes takes on Diego Simeone and his team of Atletico Madrid champions at the Vicente Calderon on Tuesday, there will be no grand prize on offer. Relegation and European qualification are equally beyond Real Sociedad with nine La Liga games to go; the best-case scenario is the kind of top-half finish typical of more than a decade of understated achievement at Everton.

More significantly, no one will be laughing. That in itself is a credit to Moyes and his work in San Sebastian, less than a year removed from a 10-month ordeal and brutal professional trauma that threatened to become a permanent blight on an admirable – if over-promoted – managerial career.

Memories of Moyes, wide-eyed, attempting to explain yet another inept Manchester United performance but more often lurching unwittingly from one press conference faux pas to another, already feel like fragments of an ancient past. This is partly because Louis van Gaal’s sheer force of personality inevitably cows any recollection of what came before at Old Trafford, but it is also due to the fact that, more than 1600km away on the Bay of Biscay, Moyes’ rehabilitation progresses at a healthy pace.

Taking over La Real was a left-field choice and yet also a no-brainer. Having been undermined, criticised, ridiculed and finally sacked in the most cruel way possible, Moyes needed to escape – and not just on holiday to Miami, where paparazzi cameras still found ways to harass him. He needed to change the narrative, and the easiest way to start was a complete change of environment.

His new club had dire needs of its own. Less than 18 months after a thrilling Champions League qualification, the first 11 matches of the 2014-15 La Liga campaign had yielded just two victories. Despite selling the likes of Asier Illarramendi, Claudio Bravo and Antoine Griezmann, a squad that languished in 19th was better than previous coach Jagoba Arrasate had shown. Above all, La Real lacked organisation and toughness. They lacked Moyes.

He has done exactly what he was appointed to do. Having lost seven of 15 games prior to his arrival, La Real have tasted defeat just five times in 22 since. Two La Liga wins this season have become nine, including a famous triumph over Barcelona at the start of January, and the upturn has transformed an unforeseen relegation battle into mid-table serenity.

“Our immediate aim has been achieved,” sporting director Loren told Marca after a 3-1 swatting of Cordoba secured a third straight victory to end March. “I think the first thing that David [Moyes] did when he arrived was to try to give the team more solidity and consistency, and you can see that he has achieved that. The team is improving.”

No longer second-guessing himself on matters of style, Moyes has reverted to proven type. La Real are a disciplined, physical side that defends with a plan and attacks with haste. Four of their seven victories since mid-November have been achieved with a 1-0 scoreline, while there have been nine clean sheets in all.

As a couple of viral press conference clips have highlighted, the Spanish speaking is progressing somewhat more slowly than the on-field results. But Moyes is showing desire, attending classes two nights a week and undertaking tests on his iPhone daily, though he jokes he will never get his head around Basque.

Limited language skills have been no barrier to his bonding with supporters – or clashing with officials. In mid-January, during a hard-fought Copa Del Rey clash with Villarreal, Moyes was sent to the stands for making a ‘you need glasses’ gesture at referee Carlos Velasco Carballo. No sooner had he seated himself among the home fans than a friendly arm snaked towards him bearing an open packet of crisps. He good-naturedly dipped his hand in and munched as he watched.

Moyes is popular and, more importantly, seemingly happy within himself again. His contract with La Real runs just one more season beyond this one and he and his wife are still living in a local hotel, but he insists he loves San Sebastian and is looking for an apartment. The signs are that if an opportunity arose to extend his stay at Anoeta beyond 2017, he would be very open to taking it.

Before then, there will surely be clubs willing to offer Moyes a return to the Premier League – not least because the year since his departure has only served to accentuate his successes and mitigate his failings.

Roberto Martinez’s disastrous second season at Everton is rooted in a loss of the defensive cohesion his predecessor cultivated so well. Elsewhere in the north west, it has taken United eight months and more than €200 million of summer spending under Van Gaal to finally stumble across the beginnings of a post-Ferguson identity, with Moyes recruits Marouane Fellaini and Juan Mata both playing significant roles in the revival.

But such thoughts will not assail the Scot as he pits his wits against Simeone at the Calderon for the first time. On his mind will be three points, and the chance to take another step away from the humiliation that already feels a long time ago.

Cristiano Ronaldo blasts ‘unintelligent’ reporter

The Portuguese attacker had little patience for one journalist’s line of questioning following his side’s 4-0 humiliation to Atletico Madrid on Saturday

Cristiano Ronaldo blasts 'unintelligent' reporter

Real Madrid forward Cristiano Ronaldo showed his frustration following Saturday’s 4-0 derby thrashing from city rivals Atletico by blasting a reporter for what he perceived as an ‘unintelligent’ line of questioning.

Liga leaders Real suffered their worst defeat since a 5-0 drubbing from Barcelona at Camp Nou in 2010 in what coach Carlo Ancelotti labelled the darkest day of his time in charge of the 10-time European champions.

And Ronaldo was visibly miffed shortly after the game when one reporter asked him to clear up what he meant when he motioned to his Club World Cup-winning badge on his shirt following his sending off against Cordoba on January 24.

“Do you want to talk about what happened today or about Cordoba, that was three months [sic] ago now,” he said.

“What do you want me to say? If you were an intelligent journalist you’d ask me questions about today’s game.

“You are not intelligent. Sorry.”

Real Madrid will see their lead at the top of La Liga cut to one point if Barcelona can prevail against Athletic Bilbao at San Memes on Sunday.

Mandzukic: It was a pleasure to outplay Real Madrid

The Croatia striker was thrilled with Atletico’s performance in a memorable derby, while Tiago reserved a special mention for coach Diego Simeone

Mandzukic: It was a pleasure to outplay Real Madrid

Atletico Madrid striker Mario Mandzukic has described playing in his side’s 4-0 derby thrashing of Real Madrid as “a pleasure”.

Mandzukic added the icing on the cake to an emphatic performance from the champions, scoring the final goal in their demolition of the current Liga leaders on Saturday.

The Croatia international says goals are not everything to him but offered little doubt as to the satisfaction within the Atleti dressing-room after the match.

He told Nova TV: “We all had to give our best to win this game and it was really a pleasure to outplay Real Madrid like that.

“It doesn’t mater if I score or not, what is important is that we win games. But of course I am glad I scored.”

Midfielder Tiago, who opened the scoring, paid tribute to the preparations of head coach Diego Simeone prior to the match.

“We wanted to keep up the pressure on Barcelona and Madrid in the league and we got the three points on a very good afternoon for us. We didn’t give Real Madrid any openings and everything went our way from kick-off,” he told reporters.

“Madrid played during the week and that worked against them. We knew that with our fans behind us we are strong and we showed that.

“We wanted to exploit the spaces that Real left behind them. We got into the game early and we found the areas where we could hurt Madrid. Our manager has shown what he is about; everything he told us to do came together on the pitch.

“I have been through the times when we couldn’t win [the derby]. Not much has changed, but our confidence has and everything went our way. We have everything very clear in our minds and we are a strong team. We knew if we followed what we have been doing that victory was possible.”

Guilherme Siqueira, singled out for praise by Simeone after the match, added to Canal Plus:  “We are pleased to think that the work we did was very important.

“We kept high intensity throughout the game. When we put so much intensity in, it is difficult to beat us. I think we should give more credit to Atletico rather than criticise Madrid.”