Wednesday, May 06, 2009
Once More into the Breach...
I'll admit that Sid Lowe's
description of how Barcelona struggle against English opposition has me concerned. The vulnerabilities that Barca have against big, physical sides that can score in the air have hurt it generally against English teams and specifically against Chelsea in the past. With a fifth-choice center back playing a prominent role next to the 21-year old Gerard Pique, it's quite possible to imagine Chelsea having some offensive success when they see the ball. The Blues survived their suspension crisis at left back; we'll see if the Blaugrana survive their suspension/injury crisis in the center.
Barca are also likely to be without Thierry Henry, who was one of the heroes on Saturday at the Bernabeu. However, this does open up an option for Barca. Andres Iniesta will play as the left forward, a role in which he excels. He'll be closer to goal. Guardiola will then probably move Seydou Keita into midfield. Although an obviously inferior passer to Iniesta and Xavi, Keita gives Barca two elements that the magical dwarves do not: a pile-driver shot from outside the box and the ability to head home a cross. If Barca make it to Rome on the strength of Keita heading in an Alves cross, remember where you heard it first. It wouldn't be the first time that an African headed Barca to a win at Stamford Bridge:
And the full highlights of my favorite Barca gave since becoming a fan 12 years ago:
(Also, check out the play preceding the Eto'o goal if you want an example of the refereeing that I'm expecting today. John Terry runs over Leo Messi in the box, then lands on the ball with his hands. Twice. No call.)
Keys to the game:
1. Does Victor Valdes control his area? Valdes is a good shot-stopper, but he is suspect at coming for crosses. He could be faulted for Madrid's second goal on Saturday because he didn't come to punch Robben's free kick. Valdes was definitely to blame for Valencia's opener the week before when he came for a corner and missed it. Chelsea know where Barca are weak defensively, so Valdes has to play the game of his life by confidently and aggressively claiming or punching crosses. Puyol and/or Marquez normally marshal the back line. With those two out, Victor has to be assertive.
2. Does Didier Drogba's physicality/flopping get free kicks near the Barca box? I won't deny that Barca players will occasionally exaggerate contact as well. The difference is that Chelsea are a greater threat with a free kick.
3. Does Leo Messi turn in a performance of the ages? Messi's coming out party was his outstanding performance at the Bridge in 2006. He was off his game in the first leg, but he was terrific on Saturday when Guardiola played him in a free role in the center as opposed to his normal role on the right. Does Pep play him there again and if so, what is the Chelsea countermeasure? Ronaldo threw down the gauntlet yesterday with a sterling performance at the Emirates. It's time for Messi to respond to set up a meeting of the two best players in the world.
4. Does Xavi have space to make passes? With all of this talent on this Barcelona team, Xavi is the key. He plays the role that Guardiola once did for the Blaugrana, only with a little more speed. Xavi had four assists in the Chorreo in Madrid. If he gets time and space, he will carve Chelsea to pieces. The Blues did a great job of denying him the lanes to do so in the first leg. Is anything different this time around?
Overall, I don't have a great feeling about this game. Chelsea are going to come on very strong in the first 20 minutes and I fear Barca going a goal behind and pressing. This center back thing gives me nightmares, as do the memories of the most recent trips to Anfield and Old Trafford. I keep telling myself "Barca are the better side and Guus clearly agrees based on the way he parked the bus at the Camp Nou," but the best team doesn't always win.