It’s boxing day.
Not the traditional kind, but my gloves are on. Why? Because of the Champions League draw in which Barça drew Bayern Munich and culer boots began to tremble in fear.
If Bayern advances against Barça, fair on them, but I don’t think that they are going to, the magic elf that is coaching them notwithstanding. I have my reasons, that boil down to something more than “Because Barça is the best team in the world right now.” So let’s get to it.
Why does it always come down to Messi? Because he is the best player on the planet. But it’s a bit more complex than that because he is also a whimsical force of nature who can alter a match whenever he decides. Atleti discovered this in the 3-1 Camp Nou loss that wasn’t as close as the scoreline indicated. Atleti flooded the midfield, deciding to contest the battle on Barça’s traditional battleground. But from that first attack in which Messi took the ball and ran, pell-mell at the Atleti defense in a way that left it completely devoid of any and all options was when his real power as a player became clear for many.
It has always been true that people assumed that Messi could be stopped in a traditional sense. Foul him, put 4 defenders on him, etc. In the past that has certainly been the case. This season, as he has embraced a true leadership role in doing whatever he thinks needs to happen to help his team win (given carte blanche to do so by his coach), it is increasingly true that the only person who can stop Messi is Messi. Some matches he is unstoppable, other matches he is closer to “normal.”
But I think it is ultimately the player’s choice of which Messi shows up. Messi also knows that he has a limited number of matches at that level in his tank. I would argue for more rest for him to ensure that he has even more matches of that level in his tank, so that he doesn’t have to shuffle around against Almeria, but that ship has sailed. Messi is going to play every match that he isn’t injured or suspended, and that’s that. So it is up to the player to pick and choose which matches That Messi is going to show up.
As pertinent to matters is that Bayern don’t have a player like that, a player who can decide that “Today will be the day that I will win this match for my team by being unplayable.” Robben is an exceptional player, but you know what you are going to get. Ribery isn’t what he once was but even at his best, he wasn’t the kind of player who made the other 21 players on the pitch irrelevant. Yes, Bayern have a fine system and an excellent coach. But sometimes, when you have two teams who are close to equals – and make no mistake, that situation exists here – one player can turn the tie.
Barça has that player in Messi. (I know. I hate him, blablabla. But still.)
The new (old) Barça
Henry/Eto’o/Messi is now Neymar/Suarez/Messi. What are the differences between then and now? In the past, the attacking trident was being fed by a fully in-prime Xaviniesta, and it was amazing. In the present, Xaviniesta is diminished by time, so Enrique has had to devise a different system to work within and around opponents, while still getting the ball to the right players at the right time.
What hasn’t changed is that the front three is not only potent as hell, but the best attacking trident in world football, each capable of individually deciding a match. Suarez isn’t as blindingly fast or as capable of the constant, crazy movement that Eto’o was, but in place of that he brings an array of passing and shotmaking that Eto’o didn’t offer. Henry was Henry. But Neymar, with his array of skills, is a combination of Iniesta and Henry. He can score and create, make space from nothing or drive to the goal himself. And Messi is Messi.
The Barça midfield isn’t the metronomic force that it was back when a world wasn’t ready for what it was about to see. Some of that is a consequence of time, some how opponents are lining up to face the team, in a way that can disrupt a precision attack. The versatility that has been added in the form of Ivan Rakitic is not to be underestimated. He is more than Dani Alves’ babysitter. His movement and intelligence of movement leaves him more often than not, in the right place at the right time. Alves has benefited from this, as has Busquets.
As the players have said, Barça isn’t playing all that differently from how it always has, despite the necessity of people to believe that it is. But the team has added wrinkles and adaptations that I believe make it better equipped to manage against a top-quality European opponent.
The power of memory
In that now famous, epoch-defining 7-0 aggregate loss to Bayern, that distracted, injured, coach-less mess of a team that lacked its best player went down to an opponent that was allowed its way on the pitch. This time, it’s different. There is a coach, the team is fit, focused and in form. There is no sadness, no tragedy or illness of beloved colleagues – just a fit, nasty bunch of players that has delivered against big opponents all but two times this season. And those two times were in the balance, lest we forget. Against RM, imagine how different the match would have been had Neymar and then Messi notched chances that they usually score. Against PSG at Parc Des Princes, the last half-hour of that match has PSG cowering in front of its own net. Only a couple of off finishes and a heroic Marquinhos intervention against Alba prevented that loss from becoming a draw or even a win.
Players remember humiliations, and the core of this Barca team was there for the 7-0. I can assure you that it hurts, even today. Ugly losses always do, and players always crave chances to avenge a beating. Our team has its chance, and rest assured they are relishing and anticipating it.
And I, for one, hope that the Camp Nou gives Guardiola the greeting that a rival coach should get in a Champions League semi-final home leg. Save the respectful applause stuff for later. I don’t expect a blizzard of flying pig heads, but if my Barcelona-based culers make things all nice and cuddly, I will be disappointed. This should be a hostile, away crowd, no matter who coaches them and who is on their roster. The players will need that edge, that buzz. For anyone who has ever been in the stands for a Classic as the RM players take to the pitch for warmups, if a home team can’t hear … nay, FEEL that ire and get pumped to give those folks a beatdown, that team isn’t human.
This history, this karma is the reason this tie is happening, the “ex” factor. Guardiola is the most successful coach in Barça history, and culers still get misty-eyed when his name comes up. Even those like me who don’t, still have the deepest respect for what he did while at the club. He is a brilliant, innovative coach who has an intangible in that many culers believe that much of the reason that he isn’t still at the club, despite what Guardiola has said, is the board. That makes the relationship kinda odd, because the board sucks, so an enemy of my enemy is a friend, right? Well, not quite exactly fully. But that history, those memories of victory parades and dominance will make the feelings of that home leg very odd for many.
I don’t know the “real” reason Guardiola left. Only he, his friends and family do. But I know he left in circumstances that were complex. In many ways he’s like the ex that just moved on. You still love them. They cooked, cleaned and the house always smelled like peppermint, except on waffle days. That’s what you remember. And it’s wonderful, right? Good.
And then there is Thiago. Many workplaces have challenges retaining young, talented employees, who are in demand. They leave for better jobs, and as much as employers gnash teeth and rend garments, the person is gone, nonetheless. Football is different from the real world in that you often get recompense for losing an employee in the form of millions of Euros, which leaves a fan base to debate whether the fee was sufficient/board was stupid/etc, etc.
Irrespective of the real reasons, which are as murky as the ultimate reasons for Guardiola leaving, Thiaga Alcantara left for a better job. Guile, a mean ol’ board, Xavi, Iniesta, Fabregas, a coach who didn’t cherish and play him enough, ambition, who the hell knows. But he activated his buyout clause that was low because of a negotiated contract stipulation, and left for a big European rival. And you know what? I would do the exact same thing in his situation. At Barça you have tradition, Xavi, Iniesta, Fabregas and a Neymar running around. At your potential new job, you have a beloved former coach (at both key levels) who is saying “I want him and only him,” and that team is a European juggernaut. You get a raise, primo status and you start, without question. I wouldn’t be able to pack my bags fast enough.
But that complex history makes both the Thiago and Guardiola situations fraught for so many culers. Both are the “ones that got away,” history that will make this tie pulsate with even more of that “morbo,” a word traditionally reserved for Spain-on-Spain encounters.
What about weaknesses?
Every team has weaknesses. If the front three don’t add their work rates to the defensive side of things, Barca is going to be in trouble. Robben is big, fast and strong and will vex Jordi Alba to a level that he hasn’t yet seen this season. Lucas Moura in the away PSG group stage leg might have been as close as he’s come. It will be a challenge. Might Enrique opt for a big, fast, physical LB presence and slide Mathieu over there? Possible, but unlikely. Even though the performance of Mathieu in the away Classic has grown (or more correctly, diminished) in its folkloric status, it isn’t like Enrique to disturb the balance of his gala XI, except in cases of injury or substitution. So Alba will have a hard time, which means that Neymar will have a hard time because it will be up to him to buttress the defensive efforts against Robben.
On the right, Messi and Rakitic are going to have to help against Ribery, who is more than capable of dealing killer blows. In the cases of Messi and Neymar, this will detract from their offensive efforts of necessity, but a 2-1 win is better than a 4-2 loss. It will be more important to not concede goals, as it is without question that Barça will score.
Suarez is a potential weakness even as he is also a point of unquestioned strength. This is as deep into the Champions League as he has ever been, even as he has seen big stages before in international competition. At those moments we have ignominy in a handball and an Italian meal. We also have a pair of spectacular goals against England. As the stakes mount, so does the pressure. A player will either crack, thrive or implode. Suarez has demonstrated that he is capable of the last two. Let’s hope that he isn’t capable of the first, or it will be a very long pair of matches against Bayern.
Barça should be working on finishing, because Neuer isn’t going to allow that many chances. He is the best keeper in the game, without question. But because he also functions as an outfield player, he has the opportunity to influence play in a way that a more traditional keeper doesn’t offer. So he might well be the one tackling Neymar at a key moment of a match, or stonewalling Suarez outside the box should his first touch get a bit loose.
Last season’s defense would have worried me a lot more – even as its weakness was exaggerated – than this season’s, which is demonstrating the hard work that Enrique and his coaching staff have put in.
Bayern is a formidable opponent. Even Enrique has said that Guardiola is the best coach in the game right now, even though Mourinho might argue with that (imagine that!). The strength of their team isn’t a series of transcendent talents even as they have exceptionally talented players. But they offer a depth of quality that is enviable, a depth that has served them well in this year’s European campaign.
But they are not unbeatable, not supermen. As Guardiola said, if they make the kinds of errors that they made against Porto, the tie will be over at the end of the first leg. That 3-1 away loss was cold water in the face for Bayern. Against Barça it would be a death sentence, and Guardiola knows that. He will be devising a way to neutralize Messi, Neymar and Suarez while ensuring that the flank play of Alves and Alba won’t be a problem. In the new Enrique system, the biggest passing numbers have moved from midfielders to the fullbacks, particularly Alba. This means that if Robben isn’t defending as well as he attacks, Alba will be giving Bayern almost as much trouble as Robben will, so the Dutchman had better be on his toes.
Without question, Barça will be the most formidable challenge that Bayern has faced. Last season they ran up against RM and got their clocks cleaned. That RM wasn’t as good as this Barça. The individual brilliance that has been scoffed at by purist culers this season might be the exact trick that will be required to get Barça over the edge. A system can be coached against, simulated and accounted for. A bit of crazy brilliance can’t be managed. Ancelotti had everything right except that Suarez match winner. Because you can’t control crazy.
I think that Barça will advance, but it will be tight. The first leg being at the Camp Nou is less of a disadvantage for Barça, who will be playing the same whether at home or at the Allianz. Away goals are obviously crucial and potentially tie-deciding. I think the away leg will be the decider. Though scorelines are always impossible to predict, I see a low-scoring draw at the Camp Nou and a Barça win at the Allianz, with Neymar and Suarez being more decisive than Messi.