Unfamiliar homes offer Barca and Madrid fresh challenge

Barcelona’s Lionel Messi in action with Real Madrid’s Casemiro during their March 1 La Liga match at Santiago Bernabeu in Madrid. (File/Reuters)
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Updated 09 June 2020

Unfamiliar homes offer Barca and Madrid fresh challenge

  • Frenzied title race between the league top two takes another step into the unknown

MADRID: “I’ve missed this place,” Lionel Messi said after stepping onto the Camp Nou grass for the first time in three months but when Barcelona return to action he knows it will not be the same.

Instead, La Liga’s frenzied title race will take another step into the unknown as Barca run out into the biggest and now emptiest stadium in Europe after Real Madrid switch to a different home altogether.

Two points separate Spain’s greatest rivals ahead of the return to top-flight games on Thursday, when the derby between Sevilla and Real Betis will end a 93-day hiatus and launch a five-week sprint to the finish.

When games were suspended on March 12, Madrid had handed first place back to Barcelona, just after beating them at the Santiago Bernabeu, a seemingly significant shift in momentum that lasted exactly a week.

Given the many frailties of the two teams, few could predict who will emerge the stronger from the final 11 games of the season but a fresh factor will be who adapts better to strange surroundings.

Instead of their 81,000-capacity stadium in the city-center, under renovation this summer, Real Madrid will play at the 6,000-seater Alfredo di Stefano Stadium, usually the home of the club’s reserve and under-18 teams, at their training ground in the northern suburbs.

Barcelona, meanwhile, will trade the advantage of Europe’s largest home crowd for the challenge of its most empty arena, where the absence of fans will, in numerical terms at least, feel starker than anywhere else.

“It’s the first time we have to play games without the fans,” said Madrid’s Toni Kroos earlier this month. “The team that adjusts best to this situation is the one that will win.”

For Barca, it will not be the first time.

Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, Sergio Busquets, Gerard Pique, Sergi Roberto, Jordi Alba and Marc-Andre ter Stegen all played against Las Palmas in October 2017, when the club closed its doors at Camp Nou in protest against the game going ahead amid political unrest.

They won 3-0 but while that was a one-off, this time there are five home games to navigate, including Atletico Madrid, who would be more easily overcome with the help of a crowd.

Leganes and Espanyol, sitting 19th and 20th respectively, may feel emboldened too.

“I love that connection with the fans, it’s what allows us to feel those moments of happiness, to live them,” said Barca’s Arturo Vidal. “But we will have to adapt.”

On Saturday, the team held their first full training session at Camp Nou in almost seven years and Real Madrid have been trying to acclimatize too, with Zinedine Zidane overseeing regular meetings at their new ground.

The pitch replicates exactly the 105 x 60-meter measurements of the Bernabeu while the club’s groundsman, Paul Burgess, has been moved over to work on the surface.

But innovations are needed, with the club having to improve the lighting for broadcasting, add advertising boards and install the technology for VAR.

For Zidane, the setting is familiar because he led Madrid’s reserve side, Castilla, for 28 games there before taking charge of the first team. He even made his last appearance there in a Real Madrid shirt, to open the stadium in 2006.

Dani Carvajal, Sergio Ramos, Casemiro, Fede Valverde, Vinicius Junior, Lucas Vazquez and Rodrygo all came through the ranks playing on the Alfredo di Stefano grass.

Yet six home games against Eibar, Valencia, Mallorca, Getafe, Alaves and Villarreal offer no guarantees and, unlike Barcelona’s opponents, those teams will not even feel a historic anxiety.

For them, the Alfredo di Stefano Stadium might feel more like a neutral venue.

“Personally, I would prefer to play at the Bernabeu,” said Ramos.

If home advantage is less certain, Barcelona could suffer most. They have collected the most home points so far in the division and nine more than Real Madrid.

But if they find away points are easier to collect, Barcelona have more room for improvement than Real. The unknowns make an erratic title race even more unpredictable.


Saleh’s hiring by Jets source of pride for Muslim community

Updated 16 January 2021

Saleh’s hiring by Jets source of pride for Muslim community

  • The New York Jets’ new head coach has families and community leaders excited in neighborhoods all across the US
  • The 41-year-old Saleh, expected to be formally introduced next week by the Jets, is the son of Lebanese parents and grew up in Detroit

NEW YORK: Robert Saleh has made history that extends far beyond any football field.
The New York Jets’ new head coach has families and community leaders excited in neighborhoods all across the country, celebrating the first known Muslim American to hold that position in the NFL.
That’s a source of great pride for a group that has been generally underrepresented in the league’s on-field leadership roles.
“It’s something that shows the growing diversity of our nation, the inclusion we’re trying to achieve at all levels of our society,” said Ibrahim Hooper, national communications director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “And I think it’s a very positive sign.”
The 41-year-old Saleh, expected to be formally introduced next week by the Jets, is the son of Lebanese parents and grew up in the Detroit suburb of Dearborn, Michigan, which is home to the largest Muslim population in the United States per capita.
“I think he’s just a trailblazer for a lot of coaches who are Muslim, to let them know that they do have a chance to be a head coach,” said Lions offensive lineman Oday Aboushi, a practicing Muslim who has played in the NFL for eight seasons — including his first two with the Jets.
“He shows them you do have a chance to be a defensive coordinator, you do have a chance to grow up and have a job at the professional level,” Aboushi added. “As long as you’re professional and you’re passionate about it like he is, I think a lot of people will look to him as a trailblazer, as far as everyone feeling like they could do it themselves and it’s an attainable dream.”
After Saleh’s college playing career as a tight end at Northern Michigan ended, he got his start in coaching by working as an assistant at Michigan State, Central Michigan and Georgia before being hired as a defensive intern by the Houston Texans in 2005.
Then came stints with Seattle and Jacksonville before Saleh became San Francisco’s defensive coordinator in 2017, helping the 49ers reach the Super Bowl last year with his No. 2-ranked unit. He was a popular candidate among the seven teams looking for a new coach this offseason, and quickly emerged as the favorite for the Jets job.
Saleh, known for his energy on the sideline and being well-liked by players, impressed the Jets during his first remote interview. He was flown in a few days later for an in-person meeting with Jets chairman and CEO Christopher Johnson, president Hymie Elhai and general manager Joe Douglas at the team’s facility in Florham Park, New Jersey.
After a two-day visit, Saleh left to meet with Philadelphia for its coaching vacancy — but the Jets knew they found their new coach. The team announced Thursday night the sides reached an agreement in principle.
“As a pioneer in the sports world, Saleh will serve as an inspiration to many young American Muslims,” Selaedin Maksut, the executive director of CAIR’s New Jersey chapter, said in email to The Associated Press. “In addition to the positive impact that he’ll have on Muslims, Saleh’s presence in the field and on the screen will remind the rest of America that Muslims are a part of the fabric of this nation and proudly contribute to society. It’s a step toward tearing down walls and building bridges.
“Welcome to Jersey, brother!”
Ahmed Mohamed, the legal director of CAIR’s New York chapter, congratulated the Jets and Saleh for what he called a “historic hiring in the National Football League.” He’s optimistic it’s a sign of increasing inclusion and recognition of the Muslim community.
“For all the Muslim youth who may be told they don’t belong or can’t do something because of how they pray, we hope that when they see Mr. Saleh on national television, they will say to themselves that anything is possible and will reach for the stars,” Mohamed said in an email to the AP. “We hope Mr. Saleh’s hiring opens the door for other American Muslims in sports.”
Saleh is believed to be the third Arab American to become a head coach in the NFL. He follows Abe Gibron, who led Chicago from 1972-74, and Rich Kotite, who coached the Eagles (1991-94) and Jets (1995-96) — both of whom also had Lebanese roots.
Saleh is also just the fourth active NFL head coach who is a minority, joining Miami’s Brian Flores, Washington’s Ron Rivera and Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin.
“Robert Saleh has made history on the field and off,” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio tweeted Friday night. “Now he’s knocking down barriers in our own backyard. Congrats, Coach!”
While Saleh’s focus will be on restoring the Jets to respectability and not necessarily being an inspiration, he has provided a path for others to someday follow.
“Any person in a new job, their first goal is going to be performance in their job,” Hooper said. “But I think a secondary consideration might be being an example to Muslim and Arab American youth around the country, that this kind of inclusion and respect for diversity is possible.
“But I don’t think he got the job because of his ethnic or religious background. He got this job because he’s good at what he does.”