Quote of the week

“To be a great champion you must believe you are the best. If you're not, pretend you are.” – Muhammad Ali

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Bayern catch Barcelona slippin’

The end of an era, no; but a wake-up call, yes. After a humbling 4-0 loss to Bayern Munich last night Barcelona’s 2013 Champions League dreams are most likely over. Still, it’s never all doom and gloom.

Here are few talking points from yesterday’s stunner in Munich.

Bayern Magic...
Bayern celebrate during their 4-0 demolition of Barcelona
Bayern were, perhaps, more ‘desperate’
A point was raised – that Bayern Munich had more to play for; and it is a valid one. Last season Bayern suffered the heartbreak of losing the Champions League final, on penalties, in their own stadium. They were vanquished finalists in 2010 as well.

So, Bayern have been building to this moment for several years. There’s a greater need to succeed, more desperation, with memories more painful than is the case with Barcelona.

Although Barca are super competitors, they’ve been at the top for several seasons. It’s difficult to maintain the same level of hunger and desperation. Last night Barcelona met an opponent that was hungrier, more desperate.

Brilliant Bayern
Credit to Bayern, though. They were brilliant. They physically overwhelmed Barcelona and, tactically, played a perfect game.

The tone was set early with the chasing and hard-work of their wide players, Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery. They were fundamental in Bayern’s victory never allowing their fullbacks to be exposed, something Barcelona exploit so well – especially with Lionel Messi’s tendency to drift to the right and play penetrating one-twos with Dani Alves.

Javi Martinez and Bastian Schweinsteiger were also outstanding in midfield, always snapping at Barcelona’s midfielders and using the ball effectively when they had it themselves. Then, of course, Bayern were precise in the final third and took their chances – the German way.

There is now a template for how to beat Barcelona. Chelsea and Real Madrid used it over the past 12 months. Bayern perfected it last night.

Not the best night for Barcelona
The emotional load
Nonetheless, before proclaiming the end of Barcelona some perspective is needed. The emotional element Barcelona’s had to deal with this season shouldn’t be disregarded. Barca lost its coach and leader, Tito Vilanova, for a significant period.

Forget not; Barcelona were on course for a treble when Vilanova had a relapse in his fight against throat cancer in December. When Vilanova left for treatment in January they were on 18 wins and a draw in the league, comfortably through to the Champions League last 16 and qualified for the Copa Del Rey semi-finals. But in the ten games afterwards Barcelona lost three, winning just five.

It’s a dip they’ve struggled to get out of.

It may be understandable. Apart from dealing with Vilanova fight for his life Barcelona’s squad also had to cope with teammate Eric Abidal’s gruelling battle against a liver tumour. It’s a heavy emotional load to carry in the already high-pressured environment of pro-football.

It’s maybe going too far to say Barcelona are a one-man team. But it’s clear they are very dependent on Messi.

In many ways it’s normal. Messi has taken the game over so much in the last two seasons. Naturally his teammates look to him. It’s the gift and curse of Messi. The fact he’s scored 44 percent of Barcelona’s goals in La Liga this season says it all.

But Barcelona doesn’t have to be Messi-Lona. Certainly, they didn’t have to be last night. They have enough top-class players The flexibility they showed at the start of the season was absent.

Yes, a Champions League semi-final isn’t the time to experiment, but playing Cesc Fabregas – to be a threat from midfield – and Cristian Tello – for a dynamic outlet upfront – were better options than a half-fit Messi.

Messi no longer a free spirit
Speaking of Messi, it’s been clear for a while that he’s sacrificed his child-like flair to be an unprecedented goal-scoring machine.

There’s no doubt Messi has become one of the greatest scorers the game has seen. There’s no doubt he is a once in a lifetime talent. However, he isn’t the free-spirit he was in his earlier days; not like Diego Maradona or Roberto Baggio were able to maintain through their careers or Ronaldinho was in his prime. He is being manufactured into a machine scorer, not the Messi that picked up the ball on the halfway, dribbled everyone, and scored.

Against the very best systems and defenders things are different. Teams find a way to minimise his danger.

Messi is still a marvel, but he’s drifted away from the unpredictable genius that can supersede a system – both his and the opponent’s.

Uefa Champion?
The trials and tribulations of Messi-Lona
Not the end of era, but there are problems to fix
Barcelona have set the benchmark but they’ve been a bit guilty of being too stubborn in their insistence they don’t need a central defender, for example.

Evolution is the only constant in football.

Gerard Pique’s sudden loss of pace has drastically diminished his powers and it’s perhaps what Pep Guardiola saw when he experimented with a back three during his final year at Barca.

Upfront Barcelona continue to refuse mix it up with occasional diagonal balls into the box, more crosses, or with shots at goal. And their variation upfront – first with Samuel Eto’o and Thierry and then with David Villa and Pedro – was Barca’s danger previously.

Defending against Barcelona has become more predictable.

La Liga is weak

Speaking of gifts and curses; La Liga has become so easy for Barcelona and Real Madrid in recent seasons that it affords them a rest. But it also leaves them less battle-hardened for this time of the season.

Meanwhile, the English Premiership is too much the other way. It’s extremely taxing and it’s difficult to double up domestically and in Europe.

The Bundesliga may be the perfect balance – a competitive league that keeps players battle-ready but also has a winter break and a season that isn’t as long.


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