The battle is lost, the war is not. Repeat that to yourself 500 times. Feel better about the Copa loss? I sure don’t, but I do find some consolation in the knowledge that while we have tied and lost so far, the two more important Clasico’s have yet to come.
The most interesting thing about the first two games is that Mourinho has effectively laid his cards on the table. We know going into the Champions League games he is going to utilize an extra player in midfield (likely Pepe), Madrid is going to defend tightly, they will try to disrupt play in the middle of the pitch as much as possible, and they will look to play quick counter-attacking football by taking advantage of space behind our fullbacks. Sure, Mourinho has options which alter his game plan slightly – whether he wants Benzema or Adebayor as his striker (if he uses either) for example – but Madrid will continue to play a style like they did in the last two games. We also know that Madrid is going to make tactical fouls, dive occasionally, play dirty off the ball, and generally try to disrupt play. It’s not a pretty style to watch, but I’ll leave it to Di Stefano (and undoubtedly Valdano if Barcelona progresses) to criticize the mentality Mourinho has imposed at Madrid. There’s also no reason to complain about it. It’s like playing foosball with the kid who constantly spins the players, you can’t stop him from doing it, you can only beat him by being a smarter and more technically proficient player.
On the flip side of the coin Pep has been playing his cards extremely close to his chest. In the first game it was quite obvious that possession took precedence over creating scoring opportunities and that a tie would be a good result. In the Copa final Pep chose not to start Captain Caveman, an indication that the match was the least important of the four. While some pundits are claiming Mourinho has solved the Barcelona puzzle, in reality Mourinho has ceded an important tactical advantage – he has given Pep a chance to respond tactically.
He used Dani Alves as a winger in a Clasico last year, Milito as a left back in the Champions League semi-final, Yaya as a center back in the ’09 Champions League Final – Pep is no stranger to making tactical alterations for important games. Despite the injury crisis we are experiencing he still has some serious choices to make. Keita could start in the midfield in one of the games with Iniesta moving up front (this would also give us a game changing forward on the bench). He could revert to a 3-4-3 to try to minimize the space Madrid likes to exploit on the counter. With Adriano injured, should he start Maxwell at left back or risk Puyol there? Should he risk Puyol even if Maxwell does start? Maybe we should look to bypass the midfield and get the ball wide to create space more often. Pep also has the diverse talents of Afellay, Thiago, and Mascherano to give him flexibility in his tactics.
Whatever he chooses to do, knowledge is power, and knowing how Madrid is going to approach the game gives Pep an advantage for the Champions League.
Whatever Pep chooses to do, the players have to come in motivated and execute. In both games the players had mental lapses and to progress in the Champions League the team needs to have absolute concentration. This is why if Puyol is fit he absolutely must play. We have never missed Puyol more than during the first half of the Copa del Rey. With the team looking adrift we needed someone to stand out and provide the team with a rallying cry – “Look! There stands Puyol like a stone wall!” It’s no surprise that Puyol has been absent from all of the last five games we have lost. To progress we need more than Pep scheming, and having Puyol on the field will provide a huge boost for the team.
While Puyol has to start if he is healthy, David Villa’s automatic starting spot needs to be reconsidered. He has just equaled his longest streak without a goal (11 games) and there is no sign that the end is in sight. He has certainly been working hard and pressing well, but we have other players who can do these things and also provide more in their respective roles at the moment. Pep made a mistake in playing and off-form and not completely fit Ibra in the Champions League semifinals last season. Unfortunately the time has come to ask whether Villa might be a better option off the bench in one or both of the upcoming matches.
To be the best a team has to be able to overcome diversity. Due to Barcelona’s dominance in the league over the last couple of seasons a lot of us have forgotten what it is like to have our team lose. However, these are the most exciting times – a team is ultimately defined by it’s ability to battle through adversity. We may have lost the initial battle, but if we win the war it won’t matter.
As a final note – this is how Madrid treats their trophies. We can’t let them disgrace the Champions League like this.