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Wednesday, Aug. 8, 2007

Unheralded Giovani leads Barcelona squad past F. Marinos


Staff writer

YOKOHAMA — Japanese fans caught a glimpse of Barcelona's dazzling attacking triumvirate of Thierry Henry, Ronaldinho and Samuel Eto'o, but it was little-known Mexican Giovani who did what the crowd craved from the three superstars with a late second-half goal in a 1-0 friendly win over Yokohama F. Marinos on Tuesday.

The fare served up at Nissan Stadium was mostly dire, with the Barca players' speed dial stuck at training-ground pace for large swaths. But with the Catalans giving the fans what they wanted — Henry,Ronaldinho and Eto'o named for the first time as the three starting forwards in Barca's 4-3-3 lineup — the crowd coo factor was still high.

The 56,681 crowd — and the large number of Barca replica shirts worn within — would have been pleasing to the eye for the club's top brass, which has had to deal with mutterings from players that traveling thousands of kilometers to Asia for three games — they play in China next — prior to the new season isn't the most clever idea.

News photo
FC Barcelona star Ronaldinho controls the ball as Yokohama F. Marinos defender Naoki Matsuda looks on during Tuesday's friendly at Nissan Stadium. Yokohama lost 1-0. AP PHOTO

Money talks, though, and with Barca now regular visitors to Yokohama, Marinos money seems to talk particularly loud.

Still, the Barca players didn't give the impression of being happy to be here in a monumentally dull first half. Henry hardly broke sweat in his position wide on the right, where he hasn't played since his Monaco and Juventus days.

On a number of occasions, Barca's £16 million signing from Arsenal gathered the ball deep but declined the opportunity to gallop along the Yokohama turf in his inimitable style. He didn't return for the second half. In mitigation, the forward is returning from a lengthy injury layoff.

Even so, over the upcoming season Frank Rijkaard may have problems trying to balance the talents and egos of Eto'o, Ronaldinho and Henry — who along with missing Argentine sensation Lionel Messi make up probably the most formidable gathering of forward players ever at club level.

Then again, what a problem to have.

"It's obvious they are great players," said Rijkaard of his forwards.

"They are getting to know each other on the pitch. It was important first for Henry, as he is coming back from an injury, and it was great that he played 45 minutes.

"The trio was very promising. They are wonderful players and great strikers and today was a good thing."

It's not just up front that the Catalans have an enviable embarrassment of riches. They are all the stronger for the arrival of Yaya Toure — brother of Arsenal's Kolo Toure — from Monaco, a hulking midfield destroyer cast from the same mold as Patrick Vieira.

Their other major summer signing, left back Eric Abidal from Olympique Lyon, sat out the game.

Intermittently the game flickered into life in the first half. Marinos captain Koji Yamase drew a fine save from 'keeper Victor Valdes after striking a sweet shot with the outside of the boot.

Up until being replaced with 20 minutes to go, Yamase looked the most at ease in such exalted company, proving again — albeit in a friendly — a national team callup from Ivica Osim is now overdue.

Marinos' only first choice national team player, Yuji Nakazawa wasn't even named to the squad for the match, though.

You get the feeling there would have been few complaints from the central defender after he perused the opposing team sheet.

The Barca forwards did give the Marinos defenders a few more problems in a second half marginally livelier than the first — although not by much.

Substitute Giovani hit the post early on and then saw his close-range effort saved after some devilish trickery on the right from Eto'o, who at least now looked like he was enjoying himself.

It was third-time luck for the 18-year-old Giovani with 15 minutes to go when Ronaldinho, coming to life on a rare occasion, released the breaking forward, who raced into the area and side-footed past Tetsuya Enomoto.



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