Barcelona must avoid a repeat of its profligacy against Chelsea
There are times when the best thing to do is nothing at all. Chelsea's victory over Barcelona last week was a surprise. It brought much praise for Roberto Di Matteo and his tactical approach and much skepticism about Barcelona. Had pep Guardiola's side been found out? Had Chelsea discovered the key to frustrating it? Was this the beginning of the end of the Barcelona domination of European soccer?
Sometimes, though, it's necessary to look beyond the score line. "You can't validate the process through the results," said Juanma Lillo in an interview with Sid Lowe in The Blizzard. "Human beings tend to venerate what finished well, not what was done well. We attack what ended up badly, not what was done badly. The media does that. And beyond the possibility that maybe you don't have the capacity to judge whether the methodological process is the correct one, it's flawed to judge on those grounds. The same process can have very different effects; and sometimes the same effects come from totally different 'causes'... The thing is, después del visto todo el mundo es listo: everyone's a genius after the event. I call them prophets of the past. And yet they are wrong to even evaluate the process in the light solely of how it came out in the end and, on top of that, to keep imposing demands."
Lillo is one of Spanish football's foremost thinkers. Still only 46, he began coaching in his twenties and has taken charge of a vast array of sides, including Tenerife, Zaragoza, Real Sociedad and Almeria. He can be difficult and contradictory, provocative and insightful; but he has also been a major influence over Guardiola which means that he, of all people, surely will not panic. He surely will assess last Wednesday's semifinal first leg rationally and realize that there wasn't that much wrong with his side. Or at least he would have done, until Saturday and the defeat to Real Madrid.
At Stamford Bridge, Barcelona had 19 chances to Chelsea's four. Alexis Sanchez hit the bar and Pedro hit the post. Cesc Fabregas and Sergio Busquets missed simple chances and Sanchez missed one that was only slightly more difficult. Petr Cech made an excellent save from a Carles Puyol header and Ashley Cole cleared a Fabregas dink off the line. That's seven near misses; Chelsea got lucky.
That's not to say it didn't play well. It's not to say Di Matteo didn't get things tactically pretty much spot on. What it is to say is that Barcelona is so much better than Chelsea that seven good chances to one is pretty much the best it could have hoped for. Tactical excellence is about the manipulation of percentages, tuning a 10 percent chance of victory into a 20 percent chance. No tactics ever guarantee victory; they merely make it more or less likely by shifting the battle as far as possible into the areas and toward the style in which you want it fought. The big question is whether Chelsea can be that disciplined, that focused, that fortunate again.
And perhaps also, particularly in the light of Saturday, whether Barcelona will be so wasteful again. There has been a sense watching Barcelona this season of a lack of urgency, a lethargy. It's hard to quantify and the concern is always that we judge them too harshly because we know the brilliance of which they are capable. But take, for instance, the game against Espanyol in January. Cesc Fabregas put Barcelona ahead after 16 minutes after which the pace of the game lapsed to barely more than a stroll as Barca seemed to expect further goals simply to happen; Alvaro Vazquez equalized late on. That game encapsulated Barca's occasional lack of incisiveness.
Is it complacency? Is it a lack of hunger? Is it fatigue? Is it an understandable blip after three seasons of almost relentless success? Or is it luck? Misfortune explains the defeat to Chelsea, but Barcelona was well-beaten by Real Madrid. Suddenly the passes aren't fizzing around midfield with the same pace and accuracy. Suddenly it seems it is possible to mark Lionel Messi into ineffectiveness. Chelsea even managed to pinpoint the mystical weakness everybody has known has existed for years but somehow hasn't been able to exploit: the space behind Dani Alves.
The Messi situation is baffling. Anybody is entitled to a poor game or two, of course, particularly after such sustained excellence, but he was notably more effective against both Chelsea and Real when he came deep, collected the ball in or near the center-circle and was able to run at defenders. To do that, though, he really needs players in front of him, offering the option of a pass even if he doesn't use it. That suggests he ought to be playing as a No. 10 -- that is, behind a front, and yet much of his success has come as a false nine, dropping deep and leaving a vacuum. That's where the absence of David Villa, out for the season with a broken leg, and Pedro, who is still finding his best form after injury problems, is really seen: both are adept at starting wide and drifting infield, giving the option of a pass, providing a goal-scoring edge.
It may be that Guardiola, who is never easy to read, starts with Alexis Sanchez as a center forward pulling wide (a false nine in a horizontal rather than vertical plane) with Messi used as a 10. That would probably mean Dani Alves having to play much higher on the right than he did at Stamford Bridge and that in turn might mean the return of Gerard Pique, who remains supreme when it comes to covering the Brazilian fullbacks surges.
He would also give Barca a second six-footer (with Sergio Busquets). It's not much, but two is still better than one and it might do something to alleviate Barca's clear problem with set-plays and high balls. It is that vulnerability that gives Chelsea real hope; the idea of holding out in a game of defense against attack for 90 minutes is exhausting against any opponent, but particularly this Barca -- who have not become a bad side because of two defeats. But an away goal is feasible, and that would leave Barca needing to score three, in effect giving Chelsea two lives.