CL Preview: Tuesday 2:45pmET (8:45 Central European Time), Fox Soccer
The final whistle blows and one team falls down, head in hands or head between knees. One set of fans clutches at their scarves as they wander away through what should be a drizzle at least, maybe a cleansing downpour. They go home and sit and stare off into space, wondering what could have been, maybe what should have been. In the morning the sun still somehow comes up and life resumes all around them. Such is the pain that a semifinal can cause.
Count yourself lucky, though, win or lose because there are plenty of other teams that would gladly trade positions with you. Would you rather reach the semifinal and lose or never reach the semifinal at all? Would you rather be an early 90s Buffalo Bills fan or a Cleveland Browns fan at any point in the history of the NFL? Would you rather be runner up in La Liga or relegated like Wolves? Would you rather watch Leo Messi week-in, week-out or demand Genoa’s shirts?
Whoever wins tomorrow—Chelsea or Barça—this has been another amazing season from Pep Guardiola’s team. A stunning fight in the league that could the see the winner requiring 94 points to win, a Champions League semifinal berth, and a date in the Copa del Rey final. And to think, the team could end up with 2 major trophies and the first back-to-back CL victory in the current format, could defeat a Europa League semifinalist (and maybe finalist) in the CDR final while their star player smashes scoring records left and right.
After all of that, here’s the thing: I think Barça will go through to the final. I realize the odds are stacked against the team: down in the scoreline with no away goal, injuries riddling the lineup, fatigue setting in after 813 matches in a 3-month span, and the team’s unshakeable fortress well and truly shaken. Yet there’s also the hope that if Chelsea can win 1-0 at home, why can’t Barça pull of a 2-0 or a 3-1? Why not? Putting several beyond Chelsea is no easy feat, but what is to say it’s impossible? Arsenal put 5 beyond them (and the final score, 5-3, would be fine by me). Aston Villa beat them 1-3 at Stamford Bridge. Liverpool beat them 0-2 at the Bridge in the Carling Cup. And yes, those are the only times this season that Chelsea has ended with a scoreline that would see them out of the Champions League (as best as I can tell, anyway), but then again, Barça has put a good enough scoreline beyond quite a few teams.
Valdes, Alves, Pique, Puyol, Adriano, Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta, Cesc, Messi, Alexis.
While I absolutely love Tello and Thiago, I do think their inclusion in the lineup against Madrid was an act of desperation forced upon Guardiola by injuries and circumstance. Then again, why not Cuenca? Why not make a move earlier to rectify what was going on? But I don’t mean to question Pep—I feel both like I’m not smart enough to understand it and incredibly annoyed that I think I understand what he did wrong. Tello wasn’t ready, was too frisky to put out there when calmness and control were necessary. Thiago was simply put in an untenable position: dominate the midfield, make runs, fight fires, break them down, etc.
But how do you not include the immense Mascherano in the lineup? Can Puyol play LB effectively enough? Is Pique ready to step back on the field and prove—once again—why he’s world class? Thiago, Pedro, Cuenca, they all deserve a look here, for width, for pace, for understanding of the system. But who do you sacrifice? I’m not the biggest Cesc fan, but it seemed on Saturday that there was a lack of verticality, that the team was setting up chances and then failing to do anything about them because no one made the run. It’s not that verticality is good, but rather that if the team sets up a vertical game plan, maybe there should be someone there to collect the pass or at least open up some midfield space?
And, of course: put away your chances. If you don’t put away your chances, you lose. Simple. It’s the story of the last 2 matches, really, and it can’t go on if the season is to continue. Simple. Messi needs to wake up, but he needs support too, he needs space and players not barfing their chances into the upper deck (Cesc, Xavi, Alexis, and Busi).
I think we do it. I think we crush. I think we play like Barça can play. Official Prediction: 3-1. Goals by Messi (2) and Alexis. Play to win. Win to keep playing.
I believe. Do you?