Tuesday, April 24, 2012

V-E Day Turns Into The Alamo

Last year, Barcelona came home for the second leg of the Champions League semifinal having played three matches against Real Madrid, two on the road and one at a neutral site.  Barca had salted away a third straight La Liga title, lost a heart-breaker in the Copa del Rey Final, and then beaten Real 2-0 in the first leg of the Champions League semi.  They were like warriors coming home after winning the war, so a hype video using the theme from The Pacific made perfect sense:

This year, the Blaugrana enter a Champions League semifinal trailing 1-0 to Chelsea after a disastrous first leg in which Barca spurned at least six good scoring chances and allowed the Blues to score on their only shot of the match. Barca was described as "unlucky," after the match, but luck implies factors outside of their control. Barca's terrible finishing was within their control, as was the ability to mark Didier Drogba in the box when he was Ramires's only passing target.

Barca then followed that match by being beaten at home by Real Madrid in an entirely deserved fashion. Whereas Chelsea were timid and rode their luck (while Barca were not unlucky, Chelsea were most definitely lucky because they had nothing to do with Busquets and Cesc skying open-goal chances into the stands), Real were powerful, created more good chances, and won their La Liga title in emphatic fashion. In so doing, they ended all sorts of streaks: Mourinho having never won at the Nou Camp, not beating Barca in La Liga in four years, Barca not losing at home in La Liga in almost two seasons, Barca not having lost two meaningful games in a row since the beginning of Guardiola's time at Barca, etc.

So, when Barca deploy another hype video using the theme from The Pacific, this feels more like a last stand than a victory parade:

How did this come to pass for Barca?  I would point to the complete uncertainty up front.  In 2009, Barca won the Champions League with a set front three: Messi on the right, Henry on the left, and Eto'o in the center.  Those three combined to score 97 goals, including both of the strikes on that famous night in Rome when Barca started building their resume for being one of the best sides of all-time.  In 2010, Barca went out of the Champions League in the semifinals in no small part because they were in the middle of a transition away from Zlatan Ibrahimovic as a striker and towards Leo Messi as a false nine.  Ibra started both matches against Inter and was ineffective, in part because he was coming back from an injury and in part because Barca was realizing that he just was not a fit for their style.  By the end of the season, the Blaugrana were playing Bojan Krkic as a starter and Ibra was a very expensive substitute.  In 2011, Barca again had a stable front three: Messi in the middle, Pedro on the right, and David Villa on the left.  Messi dropped off of the front and created space for the other forwards to use.  Those three produced 95 goals and Barca won the Champions League again.

This year has been a lot more 2010 than 2009 or 2011.  I don't have any idea who is going to go on the team sheet and neither do most Barca fans.  Alexis Sanchez seems like a fairly likely bet, despite his pair of glaring misses at Stamford Bridge, because he provides Messi with a runner.  As for the other?  Cuenca because he plays as a true winger?  Tello because he is a dangerous dribbler?  Cesc because he combines well with Messi?  Pedro because he is a scorer of big goals (and was very nearly the hero last Wednesday)?  Dani Alves because he can play right forward?  Barca are 58 matches into the season and they don't know the identity of their front three.  Blame new signings, injuries, or a tendency to sit and watch the best player in the world if you like, but here we are.

The lack of certainty up front has made Barca weaker at the back.  Pep always says that Barca is not a very good defensive team when the other team is allowed to have the ball, so keeping the ball and then pressing hard when turning it over is essential.  If the front line isn't doing its job, then the back line gets exposed.  As Michael Cox explained, Pep has been forced to use quantity up front to make up for a lack of quality, which has created defensive vulnerability:
Whereas Real played their usual 4-2-3-1, Guardiola’s choice of formation was a surprise. He went for the 3-4-3, which meant Dani Alves pushed very high up on the right, Tello on the opposite flank, and Adriano on the left of a back three. This was an attacking gamble by Guardiola – he’s commented before on how dangerous it is to play a back three without controlling the whole game.

In a sense, it also hinted at Guardiola’s lack of confidence in Barcelona’s attacking department – he felt he needed two wingers to stretch the play on either side, yet also an additional midfielder to ensure superiority in the centre. This came at the risk of defensive stability, and Barcelona were particularly vulnerable to breaks into the channels/wings.
Today's match against Chelsea is no time to batten down the defensive hatches, as Barca need a two-goal win to progress.  (1-0 just gets the Blaugrana to extra time.)

So, here we are at the Alamo, Thermopylae, Bastogne, Rorke's Drift, Shiroyama.  Barca are struggling, at least relative to the standard that they have set for the last three years, but even a struggling Barca side can put together a great performance.  They are playing for history (first club to retain the Champions League), so it would figure that they will need a last stand to make that happen.


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