I really don't want to be the stereotypical Barca fan who whines any time the side don't win a match 5-0 with at least three of the goals coming at the end of 20+ passes. That said, Barca won a road first leg at Schalke and managed to underwhelm while doing so. I should be happy because road victories in the knock-out stages are not a common occurrence. Manchester United had all of two such wins this decade until last night, while Barca have two in this year alone. In their defense, Barca played well in the first 45 minutes, so my criticism is really of the second half performance. Barca maintained possession in the first half, which limited Schalke's attacks, and they created several good chances. The goal was a classic Barca 4-3-3 goal:
Iniesta was given too much space and his pass to Henry was a thing of beauty. (Mirko Slomka didn't listen to my advice that he pack his team behind the ball. On an unrelated note, I think he's the best dressed coach in football.) Henry's shot wasn't especially impressive, but he handled the rebound perfectly and Bojan was in the right place at the right time. Barca then spent the rest of the half monopolizing the ball and creating a few half chances. sadly, the attack was impotent on the right side, where Samuel Eto'o was stationed. You can see how much Barca miss Messi, as Eto'o just isn't especially dangerous when pushed off onto the right wing. He works really hard, but he needs to be in the center to be effective. Even though Bojan scored the goal, he's a much better fit on the right side. I'm also joining the Barca fans who would like to see what a 4-4-2 looks like with Henry and Eto'o up front. Rijkaard was willing to change to 3-4-3 last year, so why can't he try another formation change? Would it really be that hard to instruct Iniesta to play wide? And wouldn't it be better to be able to play a more defensive formation against Manchester United?
Schalke totally dominated the second half. I suspect that Rijkaard decided to shut up shop and take the 1-0 lead back to the Nou Camp, Unfortunately, Frank appears to be the only person on earth who doesn't realize that his defense, on current form, cannot function when the opponent has the lionshare of possession. Schalke created chance after chance. It's a miracle that the Germans didn't score. Barca's marking on set pieces is truly appalling. This has always been a problem for them, especially against Northern European sides (the two legitimate goals they allowed in the '06 knockout stages were wing free kicks by Chelsea and Arsenal), but last night was a new low. You would think that after blowing two points at Almeria as a result of excessively casual marking of attackers on corners, the side would learn its lesson, but the defenders appear too disinterested to mark properly. Abidal is the worst offender. He can't be this lax for France, right? By the end, the announcers were almost shocked by the end at the number of free headers that Schalke had. I can't explain how a team of professionals struggles so badly at what should be a fairly basic task: don't let your guy get a free header.
I've read that United were flattered by the scoreline against Roma last night, but after watching Barca's defense struggle for a solid month now, I can't shake the feeling that United is going to smoke Barca if the Catalans don't blow it next week against Schalke. I like the idea of Barca being the decided underdogs in a tie, as they would be against United, but that doesn't trump the reality that a backline that can't mark Kevin Kuranyi and Heiko Westermann is going to be unable to keep out Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Roonney. I am left hoping for Leo Messi to come back healthy (Alex Ferguson is famously conservative on the road in Europe; facing a Barca side with the one player in the world as dangerous as Ronaldo will make him even tighter) and Barca's defense to shake off their bizarre funk and return to the unit that was so effective in January. United isn't an aerial team, so that's something, I guess. I'm looking for small consolations at this point.