Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Zlatan, Please Remember that this is a Tuesday

I shouldn't be nervous about Barca-Milan today.  A draw on the road in the first leg of a Champions League knock-out tie is generally a good result, especially when one's team was denied an obvious penalty, outshot the home team 18-6, and took the only two corners of the match.  The only time when a Pep Guardiola-coached Barca team was knocked out of Europe, they lost the road leg by two goals.  Pep's Barca sides have drawn the opening leg four times - Arsenal, Lyon, Stuttgart, and Chelsea - and progressed each time.  In the three instances in which they drew on the road, they then won the home legs by a combined score of 13-3.  Additionally, Barca were hampered in the first leg by a suspect pitch.  At home, on a perfect, wide pitch, they should have no problem circulating the ball quickly.  Reason says that they won't have issues today.

And yet, I still fret.  Maybe it's a residual effect of AC Milan's famous red and black stripes, which remind me of the fact that only Real Madrid have won more European Cups.  Maybe it's the fear that Zlatan has been waiting for an opportunity just like this.  Maybe it's the fact that Milan played a good game in the first leg, pressing for the first 20 minutes and then settling into a counter-attacking style that works well with their personnel.  Maybe it's the fact that we're into April and Pep still doesn't know his best XI.  Whatever the case may be, this match has more menace than a win-or-go-home game at the Nou Camp should.

The prevailing sentiment in the lead-up to the match has concerned Barca's lack of width in the first leg.  The consensus is that Pep erred by deploying a left side of Puyol (a solid defender who isn't great going forward), Keita (a defensively solid midfielder who isn't as good a passer as others on the team), and Iniesta (a great midfielder who usually looks to come inside when deployed on the wing).  Barca had no width on the left and thus became a lop-sided team that didn't stretch a narrow Milan side.  Michael Cox spotted this flaw:

Maybe the pitch was to blame, but it was surprising how little Barcelona tested AC Milan down the flanks in last week’s 0-0 draw at the San Siro. Milan’s narrow 4-3-1-2 formation means the full-backs are often left free, and Max Allegri’s side can be vulnerable to a quick switch of play from one side to the other.

Part of the problem was that Barcelona played Andres Iniesta in the left-sided forward position. Iniesta is a fine player, but he prefers playing an attacking midfield role, and when used as a forward he tends to come inside into his natural position anyway. Pep Guardiola probably played Iniesta there in order to give Barcelona more options in midfield – Milan have a four-against-three advantage in terms of pure formations, but it meant Barca were unable to stretch the play. With Carles Puyol used at left-back, they had no width down that side.
Ramzi from The Offside Barcelona also addresses width, but argues that the solution should be attackers who can play between the lines (read: Cesc):

Width is important for offense to be more lethal. However there is another factor needed hand in hand width – aerial threat. Without it, width becomes irrelevant. Even for a team like Manchester City, where you find Dzeko and co, teams made a well calculated risk and decided to defend narrow.

That’s something you can expect from AC Milan, a very narrow, tactically disciplined defense. The only setback for them will be fatigue impact where teams become increasingly prone to mistakes.   Messi’s dribbling quality will drag defenders toward him like magnets. That creates holes. Fatigue plays a role there in slowing down Milan’s players to reposition continuously and close the popping out gaps.  That’s where players capable of moving between the lines comes in handy.

If Cesc is fully fit, he will play. Unlike the first leg, the game at home is a perfect game for a player like the Fabregas. Where will he play? It depends.

There were some whispers that Xavi had a slight injury. If he is not able to play, Cesc may play in the midfield. Thiago is obviously a better alternative there, but he played a very physically demanding match against Athletic Bilbao. Even for a player his age, such games leave some bruises.

If he plays in offense, leaving Keita on the bench, it is important that he plays in front of Messi, not behind him. Alexis on the left and Alves on the right can provide the passing outlets on the flanks to breakthrough Milan’s press on ball holder. Messi on a free role accompanied with Iniesta while Xavi plays in a more conservative role closer to Busquets.
Personally, I'd rather see Tello play as opposed to Cesc.  Alexis Sanchez is coming on, but he does not strike me as a player to provide a lot of width.  I prefer the idea of Messi and Sanchez joined by Tello on the front line with Xavi, Iniesta, and Busquets as the midfield.  With Pedro's form having dipped, this is Barca's best front six and it ought to be the starting lineup today.  Then again, it's possible that Pep knows a little more about soccer than I do, so we'll see what he cooks up.

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