FC Barcelona 0-3 Bayern Munich – Barcelona look a shadow of the side that dominated the sport a decade ago.

Barcelona 0-3 Bayern Munich

10 years ago FC Barcelona beat Manchester United 3-1 in the Final of the UEFA Champions League at Wembley Stadium so convincingly; it was actually quite terrifying. Fast forward a decade later and the Catalan club now look a mere shadow of the once formidable European giants they once were.

Under the command of popular manager Pep Guardiola, Barça had just won their second Champions League crown in three years in London. They played with confidence, flair and with a style everyone could only sit back and admire. ‘Tiki-Taka’ was used by pundits and commentators alike to describe this new way of playing which very quickly revolutionised the game before our eyes.  Now under the watchful eye of former player Ronald Koeman, the Catalan club are worlds away from those heights after a 0-3 home drubbing to German champions Bayern Munich last night at Camp Nou.

Barça looked lost and out of ideas. They struggled to really challenge the Munich defence with any meaningful attacks and instead seemed content on keeping men behind the ball and try to frustrate their German visitors. In the end they were tactically inept against their Bavarian opponents.

The young Julian Nagelsmann, who managerial trajectory is following a similar pattern to that of 2011 Guardiola, has already got Bayern playing a free-flowing, high-pressing offensive style that Koeman and co couldn’t handle. It was like the ghosts of that infamous Barcelona side from a decade ago had turned up, possessed the away side, and taught the current crop of Barça stars a lesson in their own back yard.

Summer signing Memphis Depay was an isolated onlooker up front with limited service from his teammates. He was probably wishing he had an Antoine Greizmann or a Luis Suarez to partner him up the top of the pitch. Alas, this is not that team either anymore.

The home side was crying out for some magic, some inspiration to come from nowhere. They were crying out for Lionel Messi.

Many were intrigued by how Barcelona would fare in their first European match without their hero after a summer of turmoil saw to his abrupt and shocking exit from the club. An attempt to launch what was an absurd idea of a European Super League was a seismic failure, and club president Joan Laporta has been left trying desperately to clear the truckloads of debt the club had accumulated under the previous regime ever since.

This saw many players head for the exit including Messi – arguably the greatest footballer to ever don the infamous red and blue stripes of Barcelona. This was something many believed was impossible. Messi lived and breathed the city. If he was a prince, then Camp Nou was his castle. The Argentine himself cried during his farewell press conference, admitting he was ready to sign a new contract extension at the team he so dearly loved – but in this tale there was to be no happily ever after for player or club. With Barça confirming that Messi had no future at the Spanish giants, he received a royal reception days later at Paris Saint-Germain after agreeing a two-year deal with the French club. This was quickly followed by the departure of Greizmann, who joined former Barça striker Suarez at Spanish champions Atletico Madrid on deadline day earlier this month.

Senior household members of the team that stayed at Barcelona, such as Sergio Busquets, Jordi Alba and Gerard Pique, have all had to take substantial pay cuts in order for the club to register new signings such as Depay, Sergio Aguero and Eric Garcia, due to La Liga’s salary cap restrictions.

It’s not been all doom and gloom. Barça have got off to a decent albeit unimpressive start domestically. A 4-2 win on the opening day against Real Sociedad was followed by a 1-1 draw at Bilbao. A hard-fought 2-1 victory over Getafe at the weekend sees Koeman’s side currently seventh in the La Liga table, undefeated and on seven points with a positive goal difference.

But Champions League nights are special in this part of the world. Barcelona haven’t won the competition since 2015 – and their fans are desperate for the team to regain the European Cup they cherish so much. They have played decent sides in La Liga so far this season, but Bayern Munich are a different animal together and they proved last night just how far Barcelona have fallen in a very short space of time.  

The Bavarian side were comfortably better in every department. Bayern’s press was relentless, they moved the ball quickly and accurately, they created more goal-scoring opportunities. If it wasn’t for a lack of composure in front of goal and a couple of decent saves from Marc-André ter Stegen then the away side could have had five or six goals to their name and no one would have complained.

Camp Nou is only operating at 40% capacity due to the ongoing pandemic, but even then there were plenty of pockets of empty seats all around. Messi’s departure has descended the club’s attendance into low numbers unseen in my lifetime, when usually there are queues upon queues of supporters scrambling for the best seats in the house. Usually a fortress to behold, especially on European nights against the biggest clubs the continent has to offer, Camp Nou was unusually quiet for a majority of the 90 minutes – but in these uncertain times the atmosphere was missing just as much as the tiki-taka Barcelona style we have became all too familiar with over the past 10 years or so.

I wonder whether Guardiola, Messi and co from that team a decade ago on that beat Manchester United at Wembley would believe you if you told them that Barça would only go on to win the Champions League only once more in the next 10 years. Whether they would believe that a team as mighty as Barcelona would go from a possession-based, attacking style of play to a defensive, men behind the ball, counter-attacking style like the one we saw last night?

One is right to fear for this once great European superpower. It is a transitional period for the club and football fans know how long those periods can take. Barcelona probably will bounce back from this and challenge amongst Europe’s elite once again in the future – the question is how long will it take them to reach those levels again or am I wrong? Could the class of 2011 be the last hurrah of this great club?

Sergio Garcia finally gets his hands on a major.

The popular Spaniard beat England’s Justin Rose in a tense play-off to win the 81st Masters at Augusta.

It’s a famous saying: Never give up on your dreams. Most of us are guilty of doing that very quickly when things are starting to look grim. The same cannot be said of Sergio Garcia, who after 73 failed attempts finally got to experience that feeling of winning a major.

Dubbed as the ‘best golfer to never win a major’ by the fans, Garcia’s victory was an emotional one. Yes, he was finally able to extinguish that burden of never winning one of the sport’s top prizes, but he also did it on what would have been his idol and fellow Spaniard Seve Ballesteros’ 60th birthday.

It had been a long time coming. In 1999 he broke onto the scene as a 19-year-old low amateur at the Masters, before finishing second to Tiger Woods at the USPGA that same year.

In 2007 he heartbreakingly missed a putt to win the Open, before losing the subsequent play-off to Irishman Padraig Harrington. That was just another of his four agonising runner-up finishes prior to his win at Augusta.

The Spaniard had finished in the top 10 at 22 previous majors and in 2012 he seemed to have given up, famously saying in an interview: “I’m not good enough. I’ve come to the conclusion that I will always be fighting for second and third place.”

This made Garcia’s win even more special. He didn’t just beat 92 other golfers that weekend, he also proved himself wrong.

The 37-year-old had been in three winning Ryder Cup teams previously, but nothing means more to a golfer than to win a major on your own.

Initially though there were times that a familiar story was threatening to emerge on the final day.

Garcia saw a three-shot lead turn into a two-shot deficit with just seven holes left to play. The 37-year old needed a semi-miracle, but a birdie-eagle run on the 14th and 15th holes saw him level things up with leader Rose. Both missed great birdie chances on the 18th to take the contest to a play-off- the first at the Masters since 2013.

Rose struggled, driving wide into the pines and scuffing his second shot. The 2016 Olympic champion could only manage a bogey, which opened the door for Garcia. The Spaniard composed himself and calmly got to the green in two, before putting confidently for victory.

“It was the calmest I’ve ever felt coming into a Sunday at a major championship,” the Spaniard said afterwards.

“To do it on Seve’s 60th birthday and to join him and Jose Maria Olazabal – my two childhood idols – as the only Spanish golfers to win a major championship, it’s amazing!”

Garcia is living proof that if you don’t first succeed than try, try and try again. He is the perfect role model for any young sportsman currently finding it difficult in their field and struggling for motivation. The Spaniard’s green jacket – awarded to the winner of the Masters every year- is a symbol of perseverance and self-belief.

If you believe in yourself, you can accomplish your dreams, and Sergio did just that.

The Swiss and Spanish renaissance: A year to remember for Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.

They won all four Grand Slam titles between them and will end the year as world number one and two. What a 12 months it has been for the 36-year-old Swiss and 31-year-old Spaniard.

Just when it seemed like two legends of tennis had been chewed up and spat through the exit doors by the impressive, younger stars at the end of 2016, both came rallying back to dominate the 2017 season.

Of course, I’m talking about Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.

Both subsequently came into this year following injury lay-offs. Federer had been out of action since Wimbledon 2016 with a knee injury, whilst Nadal ended his tour in October of that year after problems with his wrist.

As a result, Nadal was seeded ninth and Federer 17th going into January’s Australian Open.

However, the Swiss beat two of the top 10 seeds in Tomas Berdych and Kei Nishikori in the early rounds, before defeating Mischa Zverev (Andy Murray’s victor in the fourth round) to become the oldest player to make it to a Grand Slam semi-final since Jimmy Connors in 1991.

Federer battled past fellow Swiss Stan Wawrinka in five sets to become the oldest singles male player to make a final since 1974, where he would meet old nemesis Nadal.

The Spaniard himself had beaten Zverev’s impressive younger brother Alexander and Gael Monfis before coming out of his five-hour, semi-final grudge match against Gregor Dimitrov victorious.

This was Nadal’s first Grand Slam final since 2014, whilst Federer had not been in a major final since the 2015 US Open.

The subsequent match at the Rod Lever Arena was almost a reincarnation of that exhilarating Wimbledon final of 2008, but this time it was Federer – who was playing in his 100th match at the Australian Open – who came out on top in five sets.

Federer’s win was his first Gram Slam title for five years, but it was also his first Grand Slam win over his old rival since 2007 and the first that wasn’t at Wimbledon.

That win in Melbourne was a historic one for the illustrious Swiss. He became the first man to win five or more times at THREE of the four Grand Slam events and the second-oldest man behind Ken Rosewell to win a major singles tournament.

Titles at Indian Wells, Miami and Halle swiftly followed, but Federer had his eyes on one prize that was close to his heart and had evaded him for half a decade: Wimbledon.

From round one all the way to the final, the Swiss maestro dominated his opponents, and after defeating Marin Cilic 6-3, 6-1, 6-4 in the final, he managed to win his eighth Wimbledon title without dropping a single set.

Federer became the record holder for most Gentlemen’s singles Wimbledon titles, surpassing both Pete Sampras and William Renshaw who had won it seven times.

He won more trophies in Shanghai and in his native Switzerland at Basel to cap off his best season statistically since 2007.

As for Rafael Nadal, defeat at the Australian Open only spurred him on for the rest of the year.

In April he won his first title of the year at Monte-Carlo, before winning both the Madrid and Barcelona Open back-to-back in his native Spain.

Much like Federer, Nadal had an eye on the one prize he had won so many times- the French Open title.

Roland Garros was like a second home to the 31-year old, and once again he was at his very best in Paris.

He comfortably made it to the final where he would face Wawrinka, but even he was powerless to stop Nadal from winning ‘La Decima’ (“the tenth” in Spanish) and become the first tennis player to ever win 10 titles at the same Grand Slam.

Nadal dropped no sets and only 35 games at Roland Garros this year, the second-lowest return in Grand Slam history.

The final Grand Slam of the year – The US Open – was again dominated by the old guards. After overcoming a difficult test in Juan Martin Del Potro in the semi-finals, Nadal comfortably beat Kevin Anderson in straight sets for his 16th career Grand Slam title.

His final victory of the year came at the Chinese Open in Beijing in October.

In December, the ATP Rankings saw Nadal and Federer ranked as world number one and two respectively, sending a message to the ATP Tour that despite their age they are both far from finished. At 31, Nadal is the oldest man to ever end the year top of the tree.

Despite his and Federer’s successes, 2017 wasn’t so rosy for Novak Djockovic and Sir Andy Murray.  These were two of the leading members of this new, younger, ambitious group trying to push Federer and Nadal out, but now it looks like they will all need to go back to the drawing board.

Djokovic and Murray have both had injury problems this year, with the former splitting with coach Marian Vajda in April.

Beforehand the Serbian had lost to a player outside the top 100 for the first time at a Grand Slam in his career in Australia.

He appointed Andre Agassi as his new coach in the summer but an elbow injury at Wimbledon saw him retire during his quarter-final match with Berdych and ultimately ruled out for the rest of the season.

Murray went into 2017 as world number one following his best season to date the year before. However, an early exit at the Australian Open was just the first of many shock defeats that the Scot endured during the season.

He lost in the first round at Queen’s Club before also exiting Wimbledon at the quarter-final stage.

A hip injury saw him miss the remainder of the season and drop as low as world number 16 in November, his lowest ranking since 2008. He also split with Ivan Lendl for a second time in the autumn, as he now prepares for the new season which starts next month.

All of these developments set up an exciting 2018 for Men’s tennis. With Djokovic, Murray and Wawrinka all set to return from injury and both Nadal and Federer in their best form for years, we could see fireworks in the months ahead.

One could even argue that there has never been a greater anticipation for an upcoming ATP Tour since it was established back in 1990.

Real Madrid look ordinary and have no plan B.

Real Madrid’s 3-1 defeat to Tottenham Hotspur last night capped off a miserable week for the Spanish giants.

Fans and pundits alike were expecting a response from Zinedine Zidane’s side following Sunday’s embarrassing 2-1 loss to Girona.

Instead everyone got the opposite, as a Delle Ali brace and Christian Eriksen strike condemned the reigning European champions to their heaviest defeat in the Champions League since their 4-1 defeat to Borussia Dortmund in 2013.

This is only the second time during the Zidane era that Los Blancos have lost two matches in a row, yet it’s already looking a sorry sight for them. They currently sit third in La Liga, eight points behind leaders Barcelona.

Defeat at Wembley was the club’s first in a Champions League group stage match since October 2012, and although they only need one more point to guarantee themselves a place in the last 16, many would have expected them to win this group (which is also contested by Dortmund and Apoel Nicosia).

So what exactly has gone wrong for Real Madrid this season? Injuries have played a part with Dani Carvajal, Raphael Varane and Gareth Bale among those sidelined. But there are other superstars currently on the pitch that just aren’t playing to the high standard we have come accustom too.

The often-influential Cristiano Ronaldo has this season looked a shadow of the player that has been competing with Lionel Messi for the Ballon d’Or in recent times. Sergio Ramos and Marcelo have not been as colossal at the back as one comes to expect, whilst Toni Kroos and Luka Modric have failed to unlock defences or stretch the play with their usually exceptional passing.

Because of this, Real Madrid have looked ordinary so far this campaign and have no Plan B to fall back on.

Zidane relies on his best players to perform week in, week out because there is no squad depth. Looking at their bench last night, you’d be forgiven asking who exactly some of those players were. Many of Real’s substitutes often play in the youth side, and aren’t yet ready to challenge for a first team place.

For that reason, players like Karim Benzema haven’t got to look over their shoulder or worry about being dropped, as there is no one waiting in the wings to take their place.

The sale of Alvaro Morata to Chelsea and letting James Rodriguez go to Bayern Munich on loan have both looked more and more costly. Had they remained at Madrid, they would have at least provided competition for places and perhaps got better performances out of others.

As a consequence, Zidane now faces the toughest period of his tenure to date. His rotation policy that worked so well last season has backfired on him this campaign. He now needs to work out how he can get his players back on top form, scoring goals and beating every team that comes in their way.

Real Madrid return to La Liga action on Sunday evening when they host Las Palmas, where anything less than a win could spiral the current situation at the Bernabeu from disastrous to catastrophic.

Masters 2017: Is this finally the tournament Sergio Garcia gets rid of the ‘nearly man’ label?

The Spaniard has a share of the lead at Augusta alongside Charley Hoffman, Rickie Fowler and Thomas Pieters. 

Sergio Garcia is a golfer with a monkey on his back. With 22 top-10 finishes in major championships, it seems the 37-year old has done everything but win one of golf’s big prizes.

However, after scoring a three-under-par 69, the Spaniard is in a good position to challenge for this year’s green jacket.

Along with American Rickie Fowler and Belgian Thomas Pieters, the trio have a share of the Masters’ lead alongside overnight leader Charley Hoffman.

The American shot a three-over-par 75 to knock his score back to -4.

Should Garcia go on to win the tournament on Sunday, it would be a fitting tribute to old friend Seve Ballesteros, who would’ve been celebrating his 60th birthday.

A large amount of the golfing audience has a lot of time for the Spaniard, who is one of the game’s friendliest and most consistent players.

The closest the 34-year old has come to a Masters victory was back in 2004, where he finished tied fourth.

He has also placed runner up twice in the Open back in 2007 and 2014.

A sign of his mental strength occurred during the back nine of his round yesterday, as a scoring error nearly cost him his current position.

Garcia bogeyed the par four 10th, but was hit with a triple-bogey by the scoring system to slip down the leaderboard.

Instead of complaining, the Spaniard carried on playing his game, and when the score was made correct, he birdied holes 15 and 17.

It’s the sort of mentality that major champions have. Day three is projected to have the best weather conditions, making it much easier to score under-par as it has been on days one and two. This could play to Garcia’s advantage.

Even though the Masters can throw up some memorable moments, it can also be a place of nightmares if things go wrong.

That was certainly the case for Danny Willett. The 2016 Masters champion missed the cut, making him the first winner to not make it to the weekend since Canadian Mike Weir in 2004.

The Yorkshireman quadruple-bogeyed the opening hole, followed by two more bogeys on the fourth and 11th.

Other big names who missed the cut include reigning Open champion Henrik Stenson, plus former Masters winners Bubba Watson and Zach Johnson.

For the full leaderboard, click here.


The Pros and Cons of the Athletic Bilbao Cantera Policy.

Athletic Bilbao have produced some great footballing talent in the past. Fernando Llorente, Javi Martinez and Ander Herrera to name just a few. The secret behind Bilbaos excellent young talent is through their Cantera policy. The club is unique in the way it only uses players from the Basque region of Spain. They recruit the hottest prospects that the Basque region has to offer and bring them through the ranks before they move on to bigger and better things.

This policy began back in 1912, however it has had to tackle opposition in order to still function today. During the reign of General Franco between 1939-1975, the Basque people suffered terrible oppression; their unique language, culture, customs and style were all banned because they didn’t fit in with the ideal of a one-nation Spain. Support for Bilbao from the Basque region was a vote against Franco.

The fans of the club adore the Cantera policy. A poll in the 1990s revealed 75% of the supporters would rather see the club relegated than abandon the policy. It brings the club its identity. The fans own Athletic, making that link between the team and the supporters that even more special. Los Leones has never been relegated from La Liga (one of only four teams in Spain to hold such a record). This must mean that the Cantera policy works and it makes the side more successful, surely? Top European clubs import foreign players in order to gain success- but somehow Bilbao still fight strong in arguably the best quality league in the world. They finished 2013-14 in fourth position and made it to the group stages of the Champions League for the first time in 15 years.

But as more plaudits come in to praise the system, it also has its critics. As the club only uses regional players, it is believed that this hijacks their chances of success. They haven’t won a league or cup competition since 1984 when they won both La Liga and the Copa del Rey.

Some of the players to have played for Athletic have caused a stir. The policy of using players that were born and raised in Basque country has seemingly loosened up on occasion. Former Centre back Fernando Amorebieta was born in Venezuela but was eligible to play for Athletic because he grew up in the Basque Country as well as his parents being from the area.

Enric Saborit, now 22 years old, was signed by Athletic in 2008. The unusual thing was that Saborit was born in Barcelona. However, his mother is Basque, and that seemingly gave Athletic the right to pursue the player.

Ander Herrera is another who raises doubts to whether Los Leones kept to their ‘strict’ policy. He grew up in Zaragoza and played in Real Zaragoza’s youth system before playing for the senior squad. He could be signed by Athletic because he was simply born in Bilbao.

What does this say about the club? Do they actually deserve the plaudits of sticking to a system that through this evidence has it’s own loopholes? The game is growing each year, meaning more foreign exports are being driven into the major European leagues, including Spain. Can Athletic therefore keep their policy going?

With Real Madrid and Barcelona splashing out ridiculous sums of money for players, (Madrid spent £85 million on Gareth Bale and Barcelona spent £75 million for Luis Suarez), it seems that the Cantera will not be able to provide Los Leones with a team capable of mounting a serious title challenge. Fans will therefore need to make a choice. Do they want a team that wins trophies? Or do they want a team that keeps to their tradition, their identity and their pride in sticking with the Cantera?

They haven’t been able to keep hold of their prized assets either. Big money moves have come in for star players. Yes, Athletic need the money as the economics surrounding La Liga means that the lesser teams need to bring in as much income as possible through transfers, merchandise and ticket prices. But this means they start each season back at square one. It’s like a cycle. Over three to four seasons they bring up the talent from the Basque country, finish strongly in the league, and then sell their best players.

Ernesto Valverde for me is an underrated coach. He has a clear philosophy and is taking Athletic forward with clear direction and ambition. Currently the side is on a five match-winning run in La Liga. However the club are eighth in the table, ten points behind Villarreal, who occupy the last European place. Had the players Athletic natured in the past stayed in Bilbao, Valverde would possibly have a competitive team up there with Barcelona, Madrid and Atletico Madrid. They would not just be in the fight for Champions League qualification, but genuine title contenders.

So lets look five maybe ten years down the line. Will Athletic start looking down the table rather than up? It’s hard to tell but personally I don’t think much will change regarding their status. They will still produce the class of players that can play at Bayern Munich, Manchester United, Juventus, Real Madrid etc. It’s a system that has worked for the club for over 100 years. Nobody can scrap a tradition that’s lasted as long as this. The Cantera has been the heart and soul of Athletic Bilbao. It has produced talents for decades and will continue to do so. Yes they will have a tougher battle with the economics and so called ‘globalisation’ of the game, but the supporters are behind the team and the club will fight to continue their excellent standard of bringing up the best from the Basque country. As I mentioned before they have never been relegated from La Liga. That record speaks for itself.

Could English clubs benefit from this? I believe so. Greg Dyke is always moaning not enough home grown players are playing in the Premier League. There are even talks of reducing the amount of foreign payers in a squad down to 13. If a team such as Southampton kept to a policy like the Cantera then they would be a force to reckon with. They have one of if not the best youth system in the country. Gareth Bale, Alex Oxlaide-Chamberlain, Theo Walcott, Calum Chambers, Adam Lallana and Luke Shaw are all players to have come from the academy. Had they all been in the same team we would definitely have Champions League football at ST. Marys.

I for one would be proud to be a Los Leones supporter. I love the way the club goes about things and hope that the Cantera system remains to be successful. It for me is how football clubs should approach the game- with the addition of four maybe five foreign players to boost their chances for success in league and cup competitions.

Keep it up Bilbao!