Friday, 22 February 2013

Why I love Carles Puyol

I watched the Ac Milan-Barcelona game on Wednesday night, and Barcelona didn’t exactly cover themselves in glory. Slow, predictable passing, poor decision-making, defensive frailty-all there, present and correct. Even Messi, usually so explosive, didn’t seem to be there in spirit. The whole team, it seemed, were just going through the motions, always taking the simple risk-free five-yard pass without any incisiveness, or any desire to be incisive, any attempts to beat a man or power past an opponent, scared of being dispossessed or hurt by the admittedly impressive Italians.

Except for one man. One proud, defiant man, who for 90 minutes before his enforced substitution put everything on the line for his team, one man who can look back on the game from a Barcelona perspective and not be disappointed in himself. Carles Puyol.

One image from the game really epitomises why I love Puyol so much. It was the 84th minute, his team-mates looking like they’d already resigned themselves to pegging back the 2-0 deficit at the Camp Nou, when Xavi swung in a corner and Puyol, bloodied bandage flying off his head, leapt to meet it. You could hear the thud as the ball hit his head on the spot where it had been stapled back together twenty minutes previously, a visceral summation of Puyol’s style, his hair flying everywhere as he put all his power into the header. It was amazing, pure physical effort imposing itself on what had until now been an entirely turgid performance.

In a team that, Wednesday excepted, are usually so clinical, anaesthetising, hypnotising teams with a thousand passes until the operation is completed with surgical precision by Messi, Puyol is like a punch to the face; not elegant, not beautiful, but knocking the opposition out all the same. In a team full of intricate passers with quick feet and quicker brains, Puyol looks like he’d be more comfortable hoofing the ball up to a big man up top; he’s a British player in a Spanish team and he knows it. The other players of Barcelona look calm and assured on the ball; Puyol looks terrified every time it comes near him, and he tries to send it back from whence it came as quickly and frenetically as he can. Not that he can’t play, his record speaks for itself-18 major titles won in 14 years of first-team football- but he knows his limitations and plays to his immense strength, using his heart as well as his head.

He’s a tyrannosaurus rex hunting with a pack of velociraptors, and it’s so endearing. In a team full of clones, small dark-haired Spaniards relentlessly passing the ball to each other, he is the one who stands out, his leonine hair flying free as he leaps into another full-contact header. He makes Barca, and Spain, less boring, not least because when you watch him you feel like Jamie Carragher has put on a wig and snuck his way onto the pitch. Who can forget that header against Germany, world-cup semi-final, 2010, winning goal from a corner as his team looked to be running out of ideas, a thumping reminder that brawn has its place alongside brain. That is Puyol, a meshing of physical strength with a great understanding of the game, a player who’ll never accept defeat and, in a Barcelona team that seems to be finding the going hard, a reminder of the power that sheer determination can have.

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

The Dressing Room: Man United

The mood in the dressing room was as bad as it had ever been. Wazza had gone to swing on his tire, refusing to communicate even with his usual grunts; Vidic was still pumped up from the game and was repeatedly headbutting the wall, making dents in the plaster; and Anderson was once again comfort-eating, as he had been since his half-time substitution. Nobody could bring themselves to look at the door, terrified at what they knew would soon emerge through it.

Sure enough, a gigantic purple nose with a man attached to it entered the room. Sir Alex was apoplectic.

“What the fucking hell was that? You lot are a bunch of shit! Ye aren’t worth the fucking shirt!”

No-one met his gaze; they knew he was looking for a target. His eyes swept over Ashley Young, who was utilising his talent for hiding when it really matters, and Rio, who immediately Tweeted his despair to his legions of followers in broken English. Fergie whirled round to vent his rage on his captain, but Evra was not at his assigned peg, but about twenty yards further up the dressing room. Then he found his target; the young Spaniard De Gea hadn’t seen him enter. Fergie picked up a discarded boot and hurled it at the goalkeeper, who dropped it.

“What the fuck were ye doin’ out there, laddie? A blind fisherman could catch more than you!”

There was a snigger from the left; it was a mistake.

“”What the fuck are ye laughing at, Welbeck? Just ‘cos your strike partner looks like Shrek doesnae mean ye have to play like Donkey!” Turning away from the now crying England international Ferguson focussed his gaze upon Nani, who hurled himself to the floor feigning injury. “Ah, get up, you silly twat! You were really fucking bad out there! God, I’m fed up with the lot of you! I’m having to put Jonesy in more positions than a porn star just to cover your sorry arses! Fuck yez all!”

With that, Ferguson stormed out of the room, pausing only to slap a now moonwalking Nani across the back of the head. Sheepishly, Mike Phelan entered and smiled at the assembled players.

“Still, god win today lads. Same again next week!”