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Happy Birthday Pep. Now, about that contract…

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SPAINBirthday congratulations have been pouring in all week for Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola, who turned 40 on Tuesday, and it is worth taking a moment to reflect on his phenomenal record since he took over from Frank Rijkaard at the end of the 2007-08 season.

The softly-spoken former Barca and Spain midfielder has helped lift the Catalan club to unprecedented heights, winning eight of the 10 competitions they have contested, including a treble of Spanish league and Cup and European Champions League in his first season and an historic six trophies in 2009.

Records have tumbled during his short reign. They amassed the highest number of points and goals for the first half of a season in La Liga this term: 52 and 61 respectively, with a goal difference of plus 50. They have won all their away matches, surprisingly slipping up twice at home with defeat to promoted Hercules and a draw with Michael Laudrup’s Real Mallorca.

Perhaps most pleasing for the Barca faithful, maybe even more than the silverware, his team have won all five “Clasicos” against great rivals Real Madrid, a run that included a 6-2 success at Real’s Bernabeu stadium in May 2009 and last November’s crushing 5-0 romp at the Nou Camp.

Five things we learned, or had confirmed, in Monday’s “Clasico”

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SOCCER-SPAIN/CLASICO1. Lionel Messi is a more effective “big game player” than Cristiano Ronaldo.

The Portuguese may be the world’s most expensive player but Argentina forward Messi has got the better of the man whom he succeeded as World Player of the Year on their last four meetings.

Messi’s legacy assured in 10 years at Barcelona

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Ten years ago to the day, Lionel Messi stepped off a plane in Barcelona as a scrawny 13-year-old blessed with extraordinary gifts but in need of a big break.

The club’s decision to take a chance on the kid from Rosario and pay for costly treatment for a growth hormone deficiency turned out to be one of the best decisions they or any other club have taken. According to Barcelona legend, his first contract was signed on a paper napkin after Carles Rexach, then Barca’s youth team coach, was persuaded here was a player he could not afford to let slip away.

Time for Spain coach Del Bosque to reward Valdes?

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SOCCER-CLUB/It’s hard to believe Barcelona goalkeeper Victor Valdes has yet to win a cap for Spain and that he isn’t even in the running for the World Cup finals this summer.

The 28-year-old has been Barca’s number one since the 2003-4 season and was a fundamental cog in Pep Guardiola’s Barca machine that swept to an unprecedented six trophies last year.

Barca blame bad luck but Rubin coach is wilier than most

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Has Lady Luck deserted holders Barcelona as their players suggested or did Rubin Kazan coach Kurban Berdyev and his players pull off the tactical masterstroke that has eluded so many others since Pep Guardiola took over at the Nou Camp at the start of last season?******It was probably a bit of both that led to Barca’s 2-1 defeat on Tuesday, their first Champions League reverse in 10 matches and a first home defeat in any competition since they lost to Osasuna last May when they had already secured the La Liga title.******The match was reminiscent of last season’s semi-final first leg against Chelsea, when the visitors defended stoutly in numbers and several times came close to grabbing a goal on the break.******Rubin went one better than the London club, exploiting the indifferent form and lack of pace of Barca’s Mexican central defender Rafael Marquez for Gokdeniz Karadeniz’s excellent winner on the counter attack.******The wily Berdyev, an intensely private man, watched impassively from the sidelines fingering his prayer beads, and Barca’s rivals, both in Spain and beyond, will doubtless try to learn from his success.******Whatever the reasons for Barca’s shock defeat, the hacks at the Madrid-based sports sheets were rubbing their hands on Wednesday, gleefully pointing to last weekend’s goalless draw at Valencia in La Liga and proclaiming the demise of Guardiola’s record-breaking side.******“Russian revolution at the Nou Camp!” trumpeted Marca.******“The ‘Pep Team’ lost their identity and were unable to produce the rhythm the match required. This Barca is not the champion,” was the headline in As.******The Barcelona-based papers preferred to focus on the fact that the European champions remain top of Group F after three out of six matches and have their fate in their own hands ahead of the trips to Kazan and Dynamo Kiev and Inter Milan’s visit to the Nou Camp.******“Crisis? What crisis?” asked Gabriel Sans in El Mundo Deportivo. “Barca have lost some fluidity and tactical freshness but their fate still depends on their own results.******”The glass is half full and they’ll drain it in Russia and drink to the health of whoever wants it.”******“Damn woodwork!” wrote Sport, referring to Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s acrobatic volley that shook the crossbar in the second half and Yaya Toure’s header at the death that crashed against a post.******Guardiola seemed to take the loss in his stride, although he had a minor altercation with a Russian journalist at the post-match news conference when he was bizarrely asked if he even knew Berdyev’s name.******“This is why football is special,” he said of the match. “In any other sport, with our statistics, we would have won.”******PHOTO: Barcelona’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic reacts as Rubin Kazan’s Vital Kaleshin (R) gestures during their Champions League soccer match at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona, October 20, 2009. REUTERS/Albert Gea

Are Inter struggling in Europe because Serie A is too easy?

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A half empty San Siro didn’t even whistle after Inter Milan’s 2-2 draw with Dynamo Kiev in the Champions League.

The Nerazzurri faithful are very used to average performances in Europe, they’ve not won in eight games and haven’t triumphed in the competition since 1965.

Barcelona v Atletico: Is there a more entertaining fixture?

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You are guaranteed goals when Barcelona take on Atletico Madrid each season, and Saturday’s encounter at the Nou Camp was no exception as the European champions romped to a 5-2 victory.

Barca were 4-0 up within 41 minutes after goals from Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Lionel Messi, Daniel Alves and Seydou Keita, before Atletico pulled one back through Sergio Aguero.

Who will win the battle between Ibra and Eto’o?

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Boy, the Champions League is back with a bang. How much juicier can you get than holders Barcelona at Inter Milan in their first game?  

If the Spanish champions against their Italian counterparts wasn’t enough, we’ve got the added spice of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Samuel Eto’o playing against their former clubs at the first possible opportunity following their extraordinary close-season swap deal.

Should Barcelona let Eto’o go?

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While Real Madrid were tying up their deal to sign Kaka from AC Milan, Barcelona seemed curiously ambivalent about the possibility of losing one of their big-name players, the  Cameroon striker Samuel Eto’o .

The 28-year-old has a contract until 2010 when he will be able to leave free of cost, unless an extension can be agreed or the club decide to cash in on him now.

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