Plymouth away or double Barca? Tough choice

Plymouth Argyle away on the cold and wet English Channel or Barcelona v Granada on the sunny Med?  Difficult choice for the Daggers Diary team.

Today, the Daggers travel to Plymouth, hoping to maintain an impressive start to the season that has seen us in the dizzy heights of a play off spot. Given my pre-season pessimism, I would have said that would have been an insane thought had anyone bought up the possibility back in August.

Dagenham Dan and I though are not heading west. Instead, we are flying out from the Eddie Stobart Aerodrome (a.k.a. Southend Airport) for our first trip of the season to Barcelona.

Up until a couple of months ago, kick off times were not confirmed until around ten days before the game, meaning that booking flights was a nightmare. We could never be sure of when the game you were going to was going to start, meaning that we might be able to book an early flight for the Saturday, but would invariably end up coming back on the Monday. On our early trips to Spain, we would fly in and out of Girona, coming back on the first flight home on the Monday morning. This would mean getting to the bus station for 3am, for an hour’s journey to the airport. There were a couple of occasions where the game had finished around 11pm, so after just a couple of hours sleep, we were on our way home, bleary eyed and very tired. The sight of a conga of people waiting to board the plane back to Stansted in an otherwise deserted departure building is not one I wish to see for some time.

As these trips become more frequent though, the planning has got better. Now, we go for the home game preceding a Champions League fixture. In one of his less busy times, Dan went through the fixtures for the last few years and discovered that Barcelona almost always played on a Saturday before playing in Europe. That kind of detail has helped us out several times, and certainly it has done with this weekend, as we depart early Saturday, and return on Sunday evening. The schedule has us out of the country for about thirty six hours, which is plenty of time for three games.

My Friday lunchtime internet session meant a quick look at the clubs website to see who had been named in the squad. However, it soon became a list of who wasn’t playing. For their game, Barca will be missing Victor Valdes, Dani Alves, Jordi Alba, Xavi, Tello and not forgetting Messi. With all that lot missing, the coach has called up a couple of players from the B side, which means that they will be weakened for their game, which will start just after this one.

By Saturday morning though, the more pressing concern is whether the aircraft will take off on time. As we go through security, both of us get stopped; Dan because he has set the metal detectors off, while I have left my iPad in my bag. Once we are through, we are greeted by the sight of a long snake-like queue for a flight to Alicante. That clears quite quickly, and soon the departure lounge is empty, meaning at we can get a table at the cafe, where Dan is clearly hungry and devours a sausage bap, closely followed by a bacon sandwich.

Our flight is full, and judging by the amount of football shirts visible, quite a few are heading towards the game. With a flight time of 1.40, we might get to Barcelona in a decent time, which would be a great help. Having to rush around like a madman would not be ideal, although our hotel is only a long goal kick away from the stadium.

In the event, we make it in plenty of time. Having landed at 1.10, we took about fifteen minutes to get through passport control, and were through onto the shuttle bus by 1.30pm. Within twenty minutes of that, we are disembarking the bus at Placa Espanya and on the train to Les Corts towards our hotel.

Saturday 23 November 2013, FC Barcelona v Granada, Camp Nou

It’s weird to see the ground in daylight, and it is nowhere near full. In fact, with fifty minutes to kick off, the only people in the ground are those taking pictures of themselves in the arena.

As we wait for the teams to emerge for their warm up, a thought occurs. If we had done this purely as a day trip, then as we left home at 7.30 this morning (the same time as the daggers coach for Plymouth), we would have been able to get out here, do the game and get back even before they arrived back from the West Country. We could even have their drinks ready for when they had got back to the clubhouse at Victoria Road.

Despite the absentees from the Barca team, they are still too good for Granada. They have the ball in the net after just three minutes, although the referee has already blown for a foul on Neymar. The free kick is wasted, but on eighteen minutes, they get a penalty, following a foul on Fabregas. Andres Iniesta has the ball and despite the best effort of the visiting goalkeeper to try to put him off, the shot is dispatched into the net with the minimum of fuss. 1-0 to Barcelona.

The early stages of the game are mostly dominated by the home team, although there is the occasional break by Granada, one of which results in a shot by Piti, which hits the crossbar, with Pinto beaten.

Five minutes before the break, Barcelona score their second goal, and once again, it comes from the penalty spot. This time the roles are reversed, as Iniesta is fouled. Fabregas is the man with the responsibility this time, although the result is the same as before. With the lead doubled, the second half should be a bit more comfortable.

On previous visits, the game has been won by half time, and as the second half wears on, it is clear that the same has happened today. You can see that there has been a subtle change in the style of play under Martino; now the ball is being played forward that little bit quicker, which has resulted in several occasions when control of the ball has been lost far too easily. Although this is a comfortable afternoon, you can’t help but feel this might not have happened if Guardiola or Vilanova had been in charge.

There is time for two more goals, plus a sending off. The home side has been playing the ball out to the left for much of the game, getting Pedro into the game quite often. Neymar has been trying hard, and over runs the ball too often, but this time around, his run ends with a through ball for Alexis Sanchez to run on to, and he is able to beat the keeper to the ball, chipping it over him for the third goal. Soon after, he is replaced.

Then we have a red card for Iturra (for a foul on Pedro), before in the last-minute, Pedro scores. The substitute, Sergi Roberto, runs at the defence, plays the ball left for Fabregas, who is then able to square the ball across the six yard box for Pedro to score the fourth.

It has been a comfortable win for the home team, who really haven’t had to play well to get the three points. Although missing Messi would affect any team, I thought the player that they missed most was Xavi. At times, when the ball was being lost far too easily in the middle of the field, he would have been able to just calm things down, keep the ball for longer, and start the attack off all over again. Without him, things just looked that little bit too rushed, and the overall display suffered for it. Neymar is obviously taking time to settle, and while he is working hard on behalf of the team, I wasn’t greatly impressed with him today. It is good though that there are younger players coming through. Sergio Roberto is rated quite highly, and there was also a debut for seventeen year old, Adama Traore, who could have had a goal himself.

Having said all that, I have to admit to enjoying watching Iniesta. There are times when watching him is a joy to behold, and I can’t recall him ever having a bad game, whether that be in the stadium, or on television. For me, he was the best player on the park again today, eclipsing anything that anyone else did.

Saturday 23 November 2013, FC Barcelona B v Las Palmas, Mini Estadi

Once the first team game had finished, we were on the move. Handily, it wasn’t far, as with the B team kicking off at 6.30, we had plenty of time to leave, collect tickets then walk across the road to the Mini Estadi.

Although there was an offer of tickets for just €5, there still weren’t that many takers, and despite a healthy following from the visitors, there were big gaps in the home sections.

As for the game, the first half was instantly forgettable. There is a goal though, and Barcelona are the recipients. Attacking the north end of the stadium, the home side have a free kick on the left side of the Las Palmas penalty area. It is an inswinging kick, and not cleared properly, falling to Sanabria, who stabs the ball home.

The home side, although ahead, are not entirely in command of the game, and while it stays 1-0 until the break, there are signs that the young Barca team might wilt a bit in the second half.

The game turns completely around in six minutes early in the second half. First, there is the Las Palmas equaliser, scored by Nauzet Aleman following a good run down the left wing by Chrisantus. His pull back is slotted home, sending the sizeable contingent from the islands behind the goal bonkers.

Better is to follow for the visitors on the hour. This time, the goal is entirely preventable. With the visitors on the attack, a through ball is played down the middle, but it is badly done, and is intercepted by Ilie. His back pass though, is played at the very moment that the goalkeeper slips, and as he recovers, his attempted clearance hits Vincente Gomez on the backside and goes in. The islanders go crazy again, while there is a vain attempt by the goalkeeper to convince the referee that he has been injured. It doesn’t work, and the goal stands. Like the last time we saw this fixture in May 2011, the away team have come from behind to lead.

Although that ends the scoring, it doesn’t end the fun. As the game looks like it is going to end, there are a couple of red cards, both for Las Palmas. In the ninetieth minute, Aythami Artiles is dismissed for his second yellow card. He takes his time about leaving, during which time there is enough going on to increase the temperature on the pitch by a couple of degrees. Indeed, part of the friction involves Artiles, who is kicked by Patric; this helps to develop what happens next, but although it probably warrants another red card, the home player is only cautioned, and is lucky to stay on the pitch. The free kick is wasted, but within a minute, we get a second red card. This time it is Apono who is dismissed, following a dust-up on the touch line which involves several players. Although Las Palmas have been awarded a free kick, players from both sides wade in, which results in the red card, plus at least one more yellow. Once again, the dismissed player takes his time leaving, although Barca are unable to do anything with the two-man advantage, and they eventually lose 2-1.

We take our time to leave the ground, and head to the nearest branch of the Golden Arches, where groups of young kids are running riot and screeching. It’s not the best end to the day, but eating quickly, we are soon on our way back to the hotel.

Sunday 24th November 2013, Montanesa v Asco, Estadi Nou Barris

For our regulation third game of a weekend trip, we ventured to the end of metro line 4, to take in a game between the second and third place teams in group 5 of the Tercera division. With a delay leaving one of the stations pushing us behind schedule, it was a good job that the station was only a two-minute walk from the stadium. As we paid our €12 at the ticket office, the teams emerged onto the pitch to a very upbeat club anthem, and we prepared for our last game of the trip.

Like many clubs at this level, they have an artificial pitch, but this has to be one of the worst I have seen. Normally, they are like a billiard table, but this one seems to be a patchwork of various shades of green, and as the game goes on, the ball actually bobbles like a cut up, normal grass surface.

I think that there is a general perception that all Spanish teams, no matter what the level, play the ball around on the ground like Barcelona. I can tell you now that they don’t. A lot of games that we have seen at this level have had copious amounts of time where the ball has been propelled towards the sky, and this was no different. Whether the pitch was short I don’t know, but with both sides going for the big, aimless hoof towards the strikers, there were a lot of goal kicks in this one.

The first goal though, owed nothing to a hoof forwards, but the inability of the Asco goalkeeper Lopez to deal with a corner. His flap at a left-wing corner after twelve minutes allows the home side to score first through Amantini, which clearly delights the majority of the crowd, seated in the main stand.

With several balls disappearing into the area outside the stadium (and even one making its escape down the main road), we are treated to more replacement footballs that we normally get at a daggers home game.

There is definitely an undercurrent to this game, and there are several yellow cards dished out, as well as a few decisions which infuriate the home support. The game itself though is still good and holds the attention enough that neither of us are reaching for our mobile phones.

Just as it looks as though Montanesa are going to hold out for the win, Asco equalise thanks to Virgilifort, and while the away team celebrate their goal, the home fans are out for blood, giving the referee what for. A minute later, and the final whistle is blown ending the game at 1-1. The away team celebrate their good fortune, but the home fans are certainly not happy, and congregate at the front of the stand, waiting for the officials to head for their changing rooms. Once the away and officiating teams have gone, Montanesa reappear for a show of appreciation to their fans, before trooping back to the dressing room. We take that as our sign to depart, and head back to the station.

Once again, we have had a good weekend. Three games, nine goals, three red cards have happened this time around, and while we may not have had the goal fest that we have had in the past, there has been enough in the three games to hold our attention, however long it was in coming. As is usual on these trips, we have already had several ideas about next time around, but those will have to wait for now. A late Sunday night flight home is beckoning, and while I still enjoying our trips out here, I just want to get home.

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