1. Various writers have tried to grapple with the difference between this year's Barcelona, a side in position to win everything before them, and last year's side, a stumbling shadow of their former selves. There are three new players in the rotation and a new coach, but the strength of the team - the front five of Iniesta, Xavi, Henry, Eto'o, and Messi - is basically unchanged. One instance from last night's destruction of third-place Sevilla is a great example of what's different:
At the very start of the clip, you see a Barca player dashing back in the midfield to knock the ball off of a Sevilla defender and directly to Andres Iniesta. The player who did that is left forward Thierry Henry. In 2007-08, Henry could not be bothered to track back. I got annoyed with him repeatedly for losing the ball and then simply giving up on a play. Last night, Barca took the lead after 150 seconds because Henry worked his tail off to retrieve the ball after Barca lost it and knocked it to Iniesta, who then did the rest.
2. I recommend this article by Simon Kuper (certified expert on all things Dutch and, therefore, Barcelona) on Xavi's role as Barca's fulcrum. (HT: FCB News.) Kuper makes the point that Barcelona have a defined way of playing and Xavi fills the role of a #4 - the central midfielder who initiates the attack and sprays the ball around - perfectly, just like his coach Guardiola did before him. Here's the money graf:
Xavi did not seem to want to become a Catalan hero like Guardiola. He did not do the things that get footballers headlines, like squabbling or being transferred or scoring lots of goals. He never spoke much. At 5ft 7in tall, he was no superhero. All he did was hit passes, left to right, up and down, like someone filling in a crossword puzzle at top speed. Just as the legendary Chelsea defender Ron “Chopper” Harris incarnated the foul, Xavi incarnates the pass.
The article describes Xavi in the same way that adoring Manchester United fans describe Paul Scholes: an unassuming guy who just wants to play midfield properly and then go home at the end of the day. Everything that Deco was off the pitch, Xavi is not. He's Chelsea's problem now. Speaking of United...
3. I'm not assuming that Barca are going to beat Chelsea. Of the three remaining EPL sides, Chelsea are the most challenging match-up for two reasons. First, Michael Essien presents a serious challenge in terms of his ability to disrupt Xavi's role as the fulcrum. To me, the talk of Essien filling in at leftback is ludicrous. If Chelsea omit him from the midfield, then Barca will run roughshod around Ballack and Mikel. Last night's game illustrates that Barca can score plenty of goals without Messi, so Chelsea with Essien at left back would find themselves in a position where their efforts to negate Messi would leave them exposed everywhere else. Second, Guus Hiddink is the best knock-out manager remaining in the Champions League. I worry about his ability to tactically address what Barca do, although I'm a little comforted that a Dutchman won't try the ten behind the ball approach that Mourinho or Benitez would in this situation. The fact that Barca have the second leg on the road three days after a trip to the Bernabeu doesn't help.
That said, if Barca do get past Chelsea and into the Final, I'd rather play Manchester United there. This isn't because I think that Barca match up better with United. Arsenal would be a good match-up for Barca because of the injuries to their backline and because they try to play Barca's style, only with slightly inferior players. United have a solid defense and the sort of offensive players who can win a match against the run of play.
That said, Barca are coming close to completing one of the great seasons in recent memory. The Blaugrana are in the Final of the Copa Del Rey. They are six points clear in La Liga, having dropped only 15 points out of a possible 96 and having scored 19 more and conceded nine fewer than any other side in the Primera. They are in the semifinals of the Champions League, having won the first two knock-out rounds by a combined score of 11-4. If Barca finish the season with a treble, they'll go down as one of the best teams in recent history. They're not just playing for titles; they're playing for history. With those stakes, the perfect conclusion to the season would be to beat the defending European champions and two-time defending champions of the form league in Europe. The risks are greater if United is the opponent in Rome, but the rewards are greater. And after having listened to Arsene Wenger piss and moan after the final in Paris, I'd love to hear Sir Alex Ferguson, a guy who is so noted for being magnanimous in defeat, do the same.
And if it doesn't happen, this has been a helluva run.