Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Three of Three

If you asked me before the game to draw up the perfect game for Barcelona, how would it have gone? I would have asked for an early goal to calm everyone's nerves. I would have asked for Eto'o to strike as a reward for turning his attitude 180 degrees and being the embodiment of the difference between last year's team and this. I would have asked for Leo Messi to score to cement the Ballon D'Or. I would have asked for Xavi and Iniesta to boss the midfield as an advertisement for the way Barca teach players to play at La Masia. I would have asked for Puyol to make Ronaldo his bitch, reducing Ronaldo to his arsenal of pouty faces. I would have asked for Paul Scholes to embarrass himself as punishment for knocking Barca out of the Champions League in 2008. I would have asked for Manchester United to wear white uniforms so they look like Real Madrid when getting beaten. I would ask for the final minutes of the game to play out with Barca stroking the ball around, as if to say dismissively "We don't need to score anymore. You've had enough."

In other words, I would have asked for exactly what happened on May 27, 2009 in Rome.

So how did this happen? How did a team that was unbeaten in 25 straight Champions League games get undressed? I'm glad you asked:

1. Whether he wanted to prove a point after last year's semifinal or he was suckered in by a makeshift back four, Sir Alex decided to attack from the start. This was a mistake because it gave Barca's front five oxygen. United played well at the start, but they were creating space for Barca. Look at what happened on the first goal. Iniesta played a one-two at the center circle and suddenly had lots of space to attack. He never had that space against Chelsea or United last year. He freed Eto'o in the box and Samuel made no mistake. Where's the left back Evra when Eto'o cuts in from the right? Where is Anderson covering Iniesta when Carrick goes towards Messi at the start of the play? The amount of space forced United's players into decisions and they often made the wrong choices.

2. United decided to use the new Happy Fun Ball by shooting a lot from distance. This played into Barca's hands as Valdes is a good shot-stopper and United didn't test the Barca backline with crosses. Ronaldo was the worst "shoot from anywhere!" offender. As great as he is, he can be the Iverson of football: a volume shooter who does not involve his teammates. That's fine when he's scoring, but I don't see him as being the right guy for a very talented United frontline. (Then again, United's midfield is not full of creative types, so an individualist makes some sense.) This is the best argument in the Messi-Ronaldo debate: look at the assists.

3. United played the wrong formation. If Barca's weak link was left back, then why play Park, an offensive non-threat, at right forward? Rooney was positioned opposite Puyol, Barca's best defender. In the second half, Ronaldo was opposite Puyol and had no success.

4. Xavi and Iniesta were the men of the match. They assisted on the two goals and dominated United in midfield. Giggs and Anderson are not in their class and Carrick had an off night. I felt bad for Rooney. His midfield was getting bossed and his striker was hogging the ball every time it came forward. He was totally absent and it wasn't his fault.

5. For all of Barca's struggles against English teams, they haven't played with the lead in the last two years. Once Eto'o struck, Barca's possession game came into play and they dominated. Despite a possibly suspect defense, Barca are the perfect team to play with a lead (or in a road first leg) because of their passing style. United had to open themselves up further and play into Barca's hands. (Looking back four years, this is why Arsenal fans were insane to retrospectively want to concede a goal instead of a red card in the '06 Final.)

6. United were not as good as we thought. The Arsenal win over-inflated their value and obscured the fact that they were not very good against top teams this year.

7. Barca were better than we thought. They struggled against Chelsea, but great defensive teams can make great offensive teams look bad (and Barca had the game at Real in between the Chelsea match, so they couldn't be 100% invested). Once Barca's players had two weeks off after the Copa del Rey Final, they were able to recharge and show their best form.

Bullet-point thoughts:

  • If you want two unlikely means of goals for this Barcelona team, then you wouldn't do much worse than Eto'o cutting in from the right (a role in which he was woeful in the second leg against Chelsea and even the chorreo at the Bernabeu) and Messi scoring with his head.

  • I feel like a damned fool on a night like this coming up with a negative, but there is one. If you were a manager looking to beat Barcelona in 2009-10, what approach would you take? Would you take Manchester United's approach of trying to attack the Blaugrana and thus create space in the midfield for Xavi and Iniesta or would you take the Chelsea approach of packing ten behind the ball and being as physical as possible? Which approach pushed Barca to the brink of elimination and which leaves them astride the football world as a colossus?

  • One other sad thought: I couldn't help but think as the final minutes ticked away about what Ronaldinho was doing watching the match. He could have been on the left side of the trident, receiving pass after pass from the dominant midfield. Instead, he let himself become a shadow of the World Player of the Year. That was three short years ago. Imagine the regret he must feel now as he rides the pine for an average Milan side.

  • So what does Barca look to buy in the offseason? How do you improve upon this team? I need to give this some thought, but the only answer I can come up with right now is that they need more depth, especially in the midfield.

  • After the Chelsea matches, it was nice to watch a match that was played with few fouls and cards and little controversy. The game flowed very well.

  • Though we will all choose to forget it, it sure seems like a long time ago that Joan Laporta was barely surviving a no-confidence vote and then the fans were waving white hankies in protest when Barca took one point from the first two games of the season.

  • Does anyone know off the top of their heads the list of players who have been reigning European Champions on both a club and a national team level like Puyol, Xavi, and Iniesta are now?


Jesse said...

"for Puyol to make Ronaldo his bitch, reducing Ronaldo to his arsenal of pouty faces."

Wow, this is so far from the truth. If either of the two were a little bitch with an arsenal of pouty faces, it would be Puyol. Don't get me wrong, anyone has watched Ronaldo knows he most assuredly pouts anytime things don't go his way, more often than a lot of players, but yesterday he maybe complained about contact once or twice. Not once did he throw out any form of pouty-ness or flopping unlike Puyol, who rolled around on the ground after he misplayed a header off his face, then later rolled around like his leg was broke after he practically tripped himself and only after he thought ManU was going to break with the ball. After that last one, he attempted a head-in from the free kick his acting got Barca, clearly showing his leg was anything but hurt.

I wouldn't say Puyol played great defense either, decent enough, but definitely not great. It's unfortunate that he had to resort to flopping when it was clear from the first whistle that ref was going to let the players play and not call every incidental contact. It just made his acting stand out in stark contrast to me.

Moving on though, I totally agree with your #3 point. I didn't understand why United played Park from the start, much less the side he played. Unfortunately I think Sir Alex was receiving pressure to start Park, when he may have been a better fit coming off the bench later in the game when United had an idea of how Barca was going to play them. He contantly played out of position and got beat because of it. He also made a lot of bad decisions and I think this all resulted in some of the lackluster attacks by United.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I am just now getting back to following the international scene so while I have currently choosen United as the team to follow, I still enjoy watching all of these guys play. It clear that these two teams are the best and both lineups are stacked. Yesterday Barca was better than United, but I'm not sure I am willing to say that United isn't as good as we thought or Barca is better than we thought. These two teams could play just about any team in the world, club or national, and still comes out as the best two. Makes you wonder what the end result would be if they played a best-of series versus a single match.

For United, I wanted to see a lot of hard drives and fast paced attacks, which early on I thought they did. Once Eto'o scored that first goal though, it was like they played beaten and with no confidence that the game could still be won. They played slow and started making bad decisions. I guess I just expected more from Rooney and Ronaldo. They also should have started Tevez over Park, but he didn't do much when came in so maybe there wouldn't have been much of a difference.

For Barca, I was not all that impressed with Messi i this match. Maybe like Rooney and Ronaldo, I expected to see something more from his ground game. I guess that happens to those of us that live off youtube highlights. He was in great position for that head-in and it was a well placed ball by Xavi, who I was impressed with. Pique was also very very solid and I would say he played the best defense for Barca.

In the end, I think I would have liked to see a slightly faster paced game with more shots on goal, but overall it was a great game and I'm glad I recorded it. Its unfortunate that someone had to lose between those two teams, because they are both very good teams. Next year I hope to catch more regular season matches from both of these teams so that I have a better unerstanding of their styles of play before the final.

phats_away said...

milan won it on 06, so whomever on that team who played for the azzurros

Kanu said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kanu said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kanu said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kanu said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kanu said...

Reigning European Champions for both club & country- off the top of my head I could only think of Platini, winner of Euro 84 with France and European Cup in 85, and Zidane if you give a 2 year bump {Euro 2000, CL 2002}. FWIW, note that both men scored the game winning goal in the CL final.

The trick is, you can slice this a few ways. I suppose the true double would be to win the CL in the same year as the Euros, so for example if there was a Spaniard on last year's ManUtd team {there wasn't}. The 3 Spaniards you mention this year won the CL in the year after the Euros, so you could look for European champs on winning CL sides in same year as Euros and the following year. Well technically, you could also then look at the next 2 years as well {any Spaniards on 2010 & 2011 CL title sides would be just like CP5, X6, AI8 this year}.

Going back to 1980 I found:

Putol, Xavi & Iniesta, Euro2008 Spain & CL 2009 Barcelona

Zidane, Euro 2000 France & CL 2002 Real Madrid

Lizarazu, Euro 2000 France & CL 2001 Bayern Munich

Illgner, Euro96 Germany & CL 1998 Real Madrid

Sammer, Euro96 Germany & CL 1997 Borussia Dortmund

Rijkaard, Gullit, Van Basten, Euro88 Holland & EC 1989 and 1990 ACMilan

Van Breukelen, Koeman, Van Aerle, Vanenburg & Kieft, Euro88 & PSV EC 1988 Eindhoven

Platini, Euro84 France & EC 1985 Juventus

Kaltz & Hrubesch, Euro80 Germany & EC 1983 Hamburg

Maier, Breitner, Schwarzenbeck, Beckenbauer, Hoeness, & Muller, Euro1972 West Germany & 1974/1975/1976 EC Bayern Munich

Anquiletti, Lodetti, Rivera, & Prati, Euro1968 Italy & 1969 EC AC Milan

Zoco, Amaro, Martinez, Euro1964 Spain & 1966 EC Real Madrid

Suarez, Euro1964 Spain & 1965 EC Inter Milan

I think that's it.

That was certainly more fun than doing work the past 45 minutes...

Kanu said...

OK, taking this one step further, let's look for players who were at one time reigning World Cup champions, European Champions, and Champions League winners with their clubs; this gets the list down to 8, with 6 coming from the same team.

technically, albeit only for the two months between the 2002 CL final and 2002 World Cup:
1998 World Cup France, Euro 2000 France & Champions League 2002 Real Madrid

1998 World Cup France, Euro 2000 France & Champions League 2001 Bayern Munich

Euro 1972 West Germany, 1974 World Cup West Germany, 1974 European Cup Bayern Munich

Euro 1972 West Germany, 1974 World Cup West Germany, 1974, 1975, & 1976 European Cups Bayern Munich