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Let's hear it for the unheralded heroes

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Phil Minshull | 17:23 UK time, Friday, 9 April 2010

To listen to the debate and comment over the last week, both here in Spain and elsewhere around the world, you might think that only two players will be on the pitch at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium on Saturday for the latest edition of El Clasico between Real Madrid and Barcelona.

The headlines have been dominated by Barca's amazing Argentine and his Portuguese predecessor as the World Player of the Year, who pulls on the predominantly white apparel of arch rivals Real.

You don't need their names, you know who they are. If you don't, then you've obviously arrived at this blog by mistake.

There have been passing mentions of Kaka and Xabi Alonso, as well as Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Xavi Hernandez, but aliens from outer space unfamiliar with football could easily be fooled into thinking that certain Spanish matches, on the evidence gathered from the media coverage of the last few days, are one-on-one games like those that were played out in the park or playground when we were young.

However, as people who have their feet on this planet will know, it will be an 11-a-side affair, so let's hear it for two unheralded players who could play a crucial role this weekend.

They are both European and should be on display for their respective countries at the World Cup in South Africa, where they might just step out of the long shadows cast by their apparently more illustrious club colleagues.

First, there's Barcelona's Gerard Pique.

Gerard Pique
Pique is a product of Barcelona's cantera but spent four years at Old Trafford

He probably thought this would be a good week to launch his autobiography, presumably the first of several as he's only 23. Only he was asked hardly any questions about the book and was instead pestered for his thoughts about his team-mate, the one who wears the number 10 shirt.

It was one of Pique's very few bits of bad timing all season.

The defender has fulfilled all the promise that Sir Alex Ferguson saw in him as a teenager, when he took him to Old Trafford in 2004. Like Atletico Madrid's Diego Forlan, his time at Manchester United may have had its frustrations, but the pair certainly do not regard their time there as being wasted.

Pique has firmly established himself alongside club captain Carles Puyol in the centre of the Barca defence this season, relegating Rafa Marquez to the bench.

He has also become a mainstay of the Spanish national side, doing to Valencia's Carlos Marchena at international level what he has done to his Mexican club-mate.

One statistic in particular makes a telling case for Pique's reliability and importance. He has only been responsible for 4.2% of the occasions when Barcelona have lost possession this season.

For Real, the man who all too often gets ignored but has played a crucial role this season is Dutch midfielder Rafael van der Vaart.

Rafael van der Vaart
Van der Vaart came through the ranks at the Ajax academy and moved to Hamburg before Madrid

At the end of last season, it seemed almost certain that Van der Vaart was going to join the Dutch exodus that has seen Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder and more recently Ruud van Nistelrooy leave Real for pastures new.

However, Van der Vaart has turned into Real's super-sub, becoming the man who Manuel Pellegrini turns to when there is a problem up front.

He has covered for Kaka during his time out injured or come on for him when he is clearly having a bad day. And with the Brazilian still unfit, Van der Vaart is likely to start behind Higuain and Cristiano Ronaldo on Saturday.

His speed and ability down both wings also mean he has stood in for Ronaldo. He's likeable and has also accepted his place in the occasionally chaotic scheme of things at Real.

The virtues of both Pique and van der Vaart, as both Pep Guardiola and Pellegrini have openly said, is that they are reliable, a word that doesn't always get used in connection with some of their more mercurial colleagues. Think of Real's Marcelo or Barca's Seydou Keita.

As Pellegrini is reputed to have said about Van der Vaart earlier this season: "He may not win you a game but he certainly won't lose you a game either."

Barca may be in second place, with the same number of points as their eternal rivals, but, with La Liga decided by head-to-head results, a draw will be enough for them to swap places thanks to November's 1-0 win over Real in the Camp Nou.

With just seven more games remaining after Saturday, that potentially may just be enough to clinch this year's title.

One suspects that most of Barca's supporters, used to beautiful football under Guardiola, will not be too unhappy if the game confounds the staggeringly high expectations and ends up a dour stalemate.

I'm sure you'll have also noticed that I've also assiduously avoided mentioning Lionel Messi by name so far. After all, what more can be said about him that hasn't already been written?

As the Spanish sports newspaper Marca wrote on its front page after his four goals against Arsenal on Tuesday: "How are we going to stop this guy?"

Comments on the blog in the space provided below. Other questions on European football to I don't need your full address but please put the town/city and country where you come from.

After a blog about the big game in Spain this weekend, here are two Serie A-related questions.

Q) I want to know your views on Dejan Stankovic of Inter Milan.
Subodh Kannan, Mumbai

A) Since I was talking about unsung heroes above, this seems like a good question to answer as I don't think Stankovic gets the public recognition he deserves. He might be one of the best midfielders in Europe at the moment but he is inevitably getting overshadowed by the likes of Samuel Eto'o, Wesley Sneijder and Diego Milito. At least Jose Mourinho and Raddy Antic recognise his talents and his hard work, although he plays more defensively for his country than his club, and was crucial in Serbia getting to the World Cup finals.

Q) What are your thoughts regarding Roma´s Francesco Totti making himself available for selection for the World Cup?
Grant Cunningham, Ayr, Scotland

A) For people who don't know the background, Totti has not played for the Azzurri since the 2006 World Cup final, at first taking a sabbatical from the national team because of injury problems and then announcing his international retirement. He decided to make himself available for selection again in January, but, with such a wealth of options, some of which were discussed in my recent blog on Antonio Di Natale, I don't think Marcello Lippi will be calling on him, despite his good club form this season.


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  • 1. At 6:56pm on 09 Apr 2010, darlingreddevil wrote:

    Great blog Phil the last time these teams played there was alot more hype and build up which has been overshadowed by a big champions league week.
    Its great to see a blog/article not just building up the tie as Messi vs Ronaldo. There will be world class players in abundance for both teams. There are plenty of matchwinners within both teams in terms of performances, goals and even goal saving.
    I don't really like the head to head concept. However i don't really think it will matter as i think Barca will win. They are playing very well and despite people calling them a one man team, i think as a collective team they are better in the way they play.
    However Real Madrid's week off might come into play like Chelsea last week ... oh and the fact that they Madrid are at home (last years scoreline being a freak result).

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  • 2. At 7:01pm on 09 Apr 2010, AlanJC7 wrote:

    Cant wait for the game on sunday. Really hope it does live up to expectations. Barcelona to win it 2-1

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  • 3. At 7:02pm on 09 Apr 2010, AR4 - Mr Chris Brown - Samivin fabilson wrote:

    i agree with you but i think the other two unsung heroes are higuain and pedro, these two have scored some very crucial goals this season. higuain can score a hatrick in a game and if ronaldo scores just one, ronaldo gets all of the recognistion for that game. pedro can be as good as messi in my opinion (close to messi, becuase messi is marca said, howe are we gona stop this guy)

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  • 4. At 7:03pm on 09 Apr 2010, Saxon Star wrote:

    good blog :)

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  • 5. At 7:05pm on 09 Apr 2010, darlingreddevil wrote:


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  • 6. At 7:11pm on 09 Apr 2010, lorus59 wrote:

    It's a great pity that Kaka won't be fit for the game. To see three world superstars on the same field would have been awesome.

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  • 7. At 7:26pm on 09 Apr 2010, darlingreddevil wrote:

    AR4 i would love to get beat up by cesc and samir
    I agree Higuan is underated i think more effective and efficient than Kaka. However Pedro is not anywhere close to messi know body is at the moment, you should know that being an arsenal fan ... I would say pedro maybe has some simialar characterstics in the way he plays but no more.

    I'm glad Kaka isn't playing he would have been great for commercial reasons to play. However, i think he is grossly overated and Real Madrid play better without him. Hes probably more overated than Ibra and thats saying something!

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  • 8. At 7:53pm on 09 Apr 2010, flaminhaggis wrote:

    Whats the betting that its one of the 'unsung' heroes that gets the winner in the clasico? The likes of Pique, Van Der Vaart, Pepe or even Yaya Toure are all well capable of scoring the winner-one thing I do hope though is that the game doesnt go the way of so many top-two games this season in various leagues-ie Man U v Chelsea or Inter v AC and that we see some good open play instead of two teams trying not to lose.

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  • 9. At 8:00pm on 09 Apr 2010, ShivMufc wrote:

    Barcelona are a much better team then Real, and that will show.

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  • 10. At 8:05pm on 09 Apr 2010, GigiBuffon1 wrote:

    I apologise for going off topic, but I was wondering if you were planning on doing a blog about the latest developments in the Calciopoli scandal Phil?

    Potentially big news in Italy as this could lead to all sorts of possibilities.

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  • 11. At 9:00pm on 09 Apr 2010, manutd1982 wrote:

    Haven't Real been awesome at home domestically?

    Although I think Barca are the better team you can not underestimate what Real have done as well, both teams have broken the record for points at this stage of a season and had Ronaldo been available for more games this season who knows, Real could be a few points in the lead by now.

    Barca are definitely beatable and in Ronaldo and Higuain you have got 2 world class strikers who would strike fear into any team, add to that the fact Real are home I can see a narrow victory for them.

    I guess most Barca fans would take that if you told them they would win their 4th CL at the Bernabeu though.

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  • 12. At 9:25pm on 09 Apr 2010, owboll wrote:

    Once again good post, Phil. Its good to see the other players also being mentioned because there will be 22 of them on the park.

    I think its going to be an interesting match with Real having the best home form in La Liga at the moment. Real hasn't lost nor drawn at home and has so far won its 15 home matches scoring half a century of goals and conceding 13.

    But the good news for Barcelona is that it has the best away form of any team and has lost just once away from Nou Camp in the league.

    So Barca has a huge challenge to make Real drop points at home for the first time this season. Also the last team not to concede three goals or more at the Bernabeau is Malaga and that was way back in January.

    Full time analysis

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  • 13. At 9:51pm on 09 Apr 2010, cliveeta wrote:

    Yes there are a lot of players in the Barca team that dont get the limelight but play pivotal roles and Pique is definately the most important. Messi will probably be so well marked it will take an act of genius from Keita or Pedro to win this game for the Catalans, especially if Real are well organised.

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  • 14. At 10:24pm on 09 Apr 2010, Virtuet wrote:

    Higuain ratio of goals per minutes on the pitch is 1 goal every 70 minutes. Nobody can better this especially as he does not take penalties or free kicks. He always been this good, often coming on as sub and turning games around, so why did Real waste so much money on Benzema ?

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  • 15. At 11:33pm on 09 Apr 2010, zomgbat wrote:

    Pique is a great player however, "One statistic in particular makes a telling case for Pique's reliability and importance. He has only been responsible for 4.2% of the occasions when Barcelona have lost possession this season."...

    is ridiculously pointless statistic.

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  • 16. At 11:41pm on 09 Apr 2010, Anti-war wrote:

    After watching Barcelona outplay Arsenal, Gus Hiddinks name comes to mind. In the games against Chelsea his insight and tactics were enough for Barca to revert to the other equal passion of that city - basketball !! The rugby(was it League or Union!) tackle tactics that Jose Maurinho successfully employed against Chelsea (with the aid of the anti PL bias of the European referees-Overbo & Co) leads me to think he will watch Hiddinks earlier tactics seventy times and snuff out Messi & Co. Also in his pre-match comments we can expect him to make sure the referee for that match does not dare do an Overbo again.Only after that match can any accolades be placed (if any) on the Barcelona team members.

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  • 17. At 11:55pm on 09 Apr 2010, margaretthatcher07 wrote:

    I like that players such as van der Vaart, Higuain and Pique are being mentioned as they have all played brilliantly for their clubs this season and have been consistently good for two years. Higuain has managed to displace van Nistelrooy, Benzema and even Raul who had two great seasons before this one simply by scoring goals and working for the team. Pique has shown he has all the qualities needed in a centre back; strong tackling, aerial ability, good on the ball, great reading of the game and even has a bit of pace. The dutchman too can pick a pass anywhere on the field, is versatile - being able to play anywhere across midfield or even as a striker and has kept his head down when not in the team, easily outshining Kaka. Along with the likes of Casillas, Puyol, Xavi, Alves, Alonso if fit and Albiol this should be a game not only dominated by the star names of Ronaldo and Messi.

    PS. Granero has been shocking and I have no idea why he is getting a game ahead of Guti.

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  • 18. At 00:17am on 10 Apr 2010, i-should-be-in-charge-of-lfc wrote:

    I cannot wait for the game. Lots of credit has to go to Pellegrini, he has Real playing some good football at home atleast and it looks like its going to be a close season. I dont see this game been a decider as both teams will drop further points but Real have to win more than Barca I would say just because of the head to head rule.

    As for the blog I think Barca have more unsung heroes than Real and have more collective quality but its a derby game, Real will be fresh, the pressure on Barca to repeat their midweek performance, all in all looks like its going to be brilliant

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  • 19. At 01:11am on 10 Apr 2010, redxand wrote:


    I am big fan of Van Der Vaart and he is a top-class midfielder with good passing, technique and set-piece ability but pace is not one of his strong attributes.

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  • 20. At 03:40am on 10 Apr 2010, Sevenseaman wrote:

    Is it possible to mark Messi? How do you arrest wafting wind?

    No I do not think it will be a draw.

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  • 21. At 04:29am on 10 Apr 2010, blackandblueblade wrote:

    Re: #8 - flaminhaggis wrote:

    I do hope that the game doesnt go the way of so many top-two games this season in various leagues-ie Man U v Chelsea or Inter v AC and that we see some good open play instead of two teams trying not to lose.


    This is a strange, almost stereotyping comment. True, top two clashes are usually dire in England but that isn't the case on the continent. In any case, this season Man United v Chelsea has produced 8 goals in 3 games, and Inter scored 6 in two games v Milan without reply. Hardly signs of two teams trying not to lose!

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  • 22. At 09:12am on 10 Apr 2010, Frank Machumu wrote:

    Gago has the qualities to play than Lassana

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  • 23. At 09:33am on 10 Apr 2010, Dan wrote:

    Poor blog Phil. Starts off with the essence that everyone is talking about Messi, Ronaldo, Xavi, Xabi Alonso, Ibrahimovic and then you go on to talk about Piqué and Van Der Vaart. As you mentioned this is an eleven a side affair. It would have been nice to hear your comments on the players in other positions too.

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  • 24. At 09:53am on 10 Apr 2010, revieboy wrote:

    Enjoyed the blog, nowadays many tabloids focus on the individual performances of superstars rather than the team as a unit. It is impossible to ignore the contribution of Messi in terms of his goals but I saw something extra from him against Arsenal in respect of his teamplay. In previous seasons Barca have relied on Messi's magic to contribute goals whilst the rest of the team mainly retained possession and created opportunities (with a certain flair). What I saw from Leo on Tuesday was a new maturity, a need to control the flow of play and link up passing moves. In many ways he is showing an ability to run the show at a young age that only Zidane has achieved in the past decade and when Zizou had matured.

    We cannot ignore that Guardiola made a massive contribution to this side when he took over by getting rid of bad influences in the squad, ie Ronaldinho and more recently Eto'o. As a result Barca are a fluid and tight knit unit that allow the skills of Messi, Iniesta and Henry to flourish. With Xavi and Busquets they now have a central midfield that ticks like clockwork allowing Barca to be masters of tiki taki.

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  • 25. At 10:06am on 10 Apr 2010, alexsongisbetterthanmessi wrote:

    Is it decided on goal difference then if Madrid win 1-0?

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  • 26. At 11:19am on 10 Apr 2010, goonergetit wrote:

    The somersault by a Barcelona player against Arsenal was spectacular, the Barcelona players feigned injury on many occasions, they rolled around the floor, the crowd chipped in too, the Referee was conned and he booked Arsenal player's for what? Then there was the legitimate tackle that took Nasri out of the game. It was like watching an Italian team of the 80's playing against Liverpool and journalist's want to call it beautiful football ?

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  • 27. At 11:44am on 10 Apr 2010, Fizmo1337 wrote:

    Good blog Phil. Maybe in your next blog you could focus on the 3 players that left Real Madrid this season (Sneijder, Van Nistelrooy & Robben) and how they flourished under their new teams (resp. Inter Milan, Hamburg & Bayern Munchen. All 3 of those teams are in the semi-finls while Real Madrid was out in the firt knock-out round. Pretty interesting thought.

    Hopefully it's gonna be a cracker tonight.

    Prediction: 1-2 barca

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  • 28. At 12:01pm on 10 Apr 2010, GabbyOk wrote:

    24. At 09:53am on 10 Apr 2010, revieboy wrote:

    We cannot ignore that Guardiola made a massive contribution to this side when he took over by getting rid of bad influences in the squad, ie Ronaldinho and more recently Eto'o.


    exactly how were Etoo and Ronaldinho bad influences on the team? Did they not both contribute immensely to the re-emergence of Barca as a force in Europe again?

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  • 29. At 12:23pm on 10 Apr 2010, itsonlyagame - R9 The Number of the Beast wrote:

    25. At 10:06am on 10 Apr 2010, alexsongisbetterthanmessi wrote:
    Is it decided on goal difference then if Madrid win 1-0?
    Yes, only Madrid would be holding a 3-point lead going into the final stretch, which might very well be enough the way the season's developed thus far.

    @ 16, maurinhoforPM:
    Barça have already played Inter twice this season. In Milan, they comfortably earned a draw. At the Camp Nou, without either Messi or Ibra, they walked all over them. In fairness, Sneijder was out too, but based on their two prior confrontations, Mourinho has a huge amount of work to do.

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  • 30. At 1:08pm on 10 Apr 2010, SummersIron wrote:

    A two-legged tie is very different to a couple of games in the group stage, Professor X. Last season for instance, Arsenal beat United 2-1 in the league and got a 0-0 draw against them as well. We all know what happened in their CL tie. I wouldn't write Internazionale off just yet. Barcelona, however, are obviously favourites as they are the best team in the world.

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  • 31. At 1:15pm on 10 Apr 2010, SummersIron wrote:

    Fizmo, that's a really good idea. I really hate Real Madrid because of their habit of taking all the world's best players and mis-using them. We've been more or less deprived of the talents of all three players you mentioned as a result. These are some of the world's best and I'm glad their resurgence comes in time for the world cup.

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  • 32. At 1:50pm on 10 Apr 2010, Smongler wrote:

    "who pulls on the predominantly white apparel of arch rivals Real."

    Predominantly white apparel...

    What kind of fatuous and inane description is this?!

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  • 33. At 2:14pm on 10 Apr 2010, IL76 wrote:

    #28 - Ronaldhino was taking the mick - getting paid for doing the minimum. I think Guardiola actually said he was getting fat at one point. As for Eto'o, he was too outspoken, and too arrogant..I think he got his team mates backs up on quite a few occasions. Real shame for Barcelona to get rid of them as they are cracking players.

    Cheers for the great blog Phil, are you at the match tonight? I live in Spain, but unfortunately can't get to the match. So next best thing, off to the local bar with a few mates to enjoy it!

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  • 34. At 2:21pm on 10 Apr 2010, IL76 wrote:

    #26 - unfortunately, over-acting when players get supposedly injured is part of the game over here (in Spain). Don't get me wrong, the standard of football is fantastic, but referees get conned far too often. I don't blame the players, they're just trying to get any advantage that they can, it's the referees who need to clamp down on it. You do get used to it when watching La Liga games, but it does become quite apparent how much 'drama' there is in this league when the Spanish teams play British opposition.

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  • 35. At 4:13pm on 10 Apr 2010, domlfc14 wrote:

    Can we all remember Arbeloa marking Messi out of the game for Liverpool against Barcelona the other year? Don't bet against Messi getting frustrated by being shown the inside all game.

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  • 36. At 5:43pm on 10 Apr 2010, Geordie2004 wrote:

    Good blog. :) Looking forward to the game, should be a cracker!

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  • 37. At 7:34pm on 10 Apr 2010, curieux wrote:

    In reply to 28, yes but both had become (in their minds) bigger than the team. Not only that, they had both begun not to perform at their best. In the case of Eto'o the wake up call seems to have worked, but the playboy seems to be finished.

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  • 38. At 7:47pm on 10 Apr 2010, I am Wengers Optician wrote:

    Out of interest, if La Liga is done on head-to-head record, then surely if Barcelona and Madrid are level on points and Barcelona have won the only meeting between the two this season, Barcelona should be top of the league?

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  • 39. At 8:00pm on 10 Apr 2010, TaconazoRedondo wrote:

    I just can't call this one tbh... home advantage used to be so significant, but after the last el clasico result in Madrid (which was simply astonishing) I'm not so sure...

    I'll go for a Barca victory... or a Desmond.

    @ 38 - yip. Barca would be top on the basis of the 1-0 against Real @ Camp Nuo

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  • 40. At 8:19pm on 10 Apr 2010, U14357625 wrote:

    Pedro has been impressive for Barcelona this season. Clearly not as talented as some of his colleagues but plays to his strengths, works hard and chips in with a few goals.

    As for the match, while Barca clearly won't play for a draw (would they know how?), they would probably settle for a point and take the lead at the top via the head to head record.

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  • 41. At 8:46pm on 10 Apr 2010, Phil Minshull wrote:

    GigiBuffon1: “I apologise for going off topic, but I was wondering if you were planning on doing a blog about the latest developments in the Calciopoli scandal Phil?”

    Fizmo1337: “Maybe in your next blog you could focus on the 3 players that left Real Madrid this season (Sneijder, Van Nistelrooy & Robben) and how they flourished under their new teams (resp. Inter Milan, Hamburg & Bayern Munchen.)”

    Both of these are great ideas and are possible topics for future blogs. The only ‘problem’ in general is that I’m only writing one blog a week and we are now getting towards the sharp end of the season when there will inevitably be more of a focus on the Champions League and the World Cup.

    Re: Calciopoli, I’m very interested in future developments and it has certainly not been ignored. Re: Sneijder, Van Nistelrooy & Robben, this may get incorporated into an overall look at the Dutch team ahead of the World Cup or an end-of-season look at how things went in Spain, Italy and Germany.

    All other ideas for blogs are gratefully received.

    Zomgbat didn´t like the statistic I dug out about how few times Pique lost the ball but here’s a couple from another perspective. He’s won the ball 201 times – more than any other Barca player - before tonight and that’s despite missing six games through injury or suspension. He’s also only committed eight fouls in the entire season, although it’s fair to say that when he does commit a foul it usually has consequences as he’s had six yellow cards and one direct red.

    Right, it’s time to concentrate on the game itself.

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  • 42. At 10:34am on 11 Apr 2010, messiisgod and ozil is a genius wrote:

    Well, surprise surprise. Three things are certain in life: death, taxes, and Messi outshining Ronaldo. The last is possibly the most obvious though.

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  • 43. At 7:26pm on 18 Apr 2010, zomgbat wrote:

    Sorry Phil, the rest of my comment was cut off didn't mean to sound so abrupt. Yes, he is an incredible player indeed, having an even better season this one than last which didn't seem possible. Strange how he never made it in England.

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