Friday, March 11, 2011

Beating Barça is all in the mind

With nature wreaking havoc in Japan (and not forgetting Libya and other man-made trouble spots), it's a good day to remind ourselves that despite what Bill Shankly/Henry Russell Sanders joked, football is not a matter of life and death. Our thoughts and prayers go out...

*Tottenham's historic advance was deemed well-earned in England, but Italy's best-selling daily instead screamed "The Best Team Are Out" (Milan) - a game of two halves indeed...Yet Spurs are worried - they may not make the Champions League next season so are scurrying to use their cup run as leverage for a new ground, having lost out to West Ham for the Olympic arena. They will soon lose their coach Harry Redknapp too, as Fabio Capello's England contract is up after Euro 2012.

*Well done Shakhtar Donetsk for making the last eight of the CL, although sterner tests await for the Miners, and bravo too to Schalke for coming from behind to knock-out Valencia - nice to see some smaller names in the quarters; though all three have won the UEFA Cup before.

Which brings us to Barcelona, whose swatting of Arsenal has put the frighteners on the rest of Europe, Graeme Souness going as far as to call them "the best team ever" ! I saw Barça terrorise Valencia in a similar fashion last week in Spain and they are clearly ahead of the competition at home and abroad, but not unbeatable; Arsenal could have won, yet skillful sides like Arsene Wenger's are finding their well-honed passing games nipped in the bud by pressing so depressing they cannot even get out of their own half. What can you do when the opposition are that good?

'Parking the bus' is the conventional way to frustrate a great attacking team until they run out of steam, ideas or motivation. Inter parked a fleet of them at the Camp Nou last season and lost only 1-0 to pass 3-2 on aggregate. You cannot accuse Pep Guardiola's boys of lacking ideas - they have reams of them, and although they waste a lot of scoring chances, it has not cost them dearly. In terms of fitness they seem capable of maintaining their high-pressure game for the duration of the 90. Which leaves us with motivation as a possible Achilles' heel. Could Barcelona possibly be complacent?

Keeping your self-belief while upsetting Barça's psychological equilibrium is probably the key and the way to do that is to manipulate the phases of the game, as Guus Hiddink, when in charge of Australia, told me was his aim as a coach. The Catalans are so used to steamrollering whomever has the audacity to take them on, they may have forgotten match narratives other than their own. So when they are not winning at a canter and strangling the life out of the opposition, confusion and self-doubt could creep in.

But how do you play when that terrifying trident of Messi, Iniesta & Xavi can run rings around you? Crowd the middle with 4-2-3-1 maybe and throw a spanner in their tiki-taka works...Even better - attack them. Barça's current full-backs Adriano and Dani Alves follow their Brazilian instincts and tear upfield, leaving acres of grass to exploit on the counter behind them. The full-backs stay very wide and the midfield and attack very central, so there are spaces between to play in...But you have to be lightning quick yourself - nobody swarms so suddenly around opponents in possession as the blaugrana do at the moment.

The alternative to a counter-attacking approach is to be brave and take the game to them, pushing men upfield instead, as Inter did at San Siro last year to win 3-1, and the Gunners did in the second half of their home leg this season, eking out two goals and an unexpected victory from a losing scenario. Giving Barça some of their own medicine by pressing them high up the pitch is risky, but if you can manage to keep the ball for long enough and use it in areas of the field where it hurts, the tables will turn.

Then there is the set-piece weakness Arsenal exploited in the Camp Nou. The Barcelona back four and goalkeeper are clearly very good but not quite on the same level as their midfield and attack.

Arsenal apart, the only teams who have beaten them this season are Hercules in La Liga (2-0 in Barcelona, astonishingly) and the two Seville teams who both won 3-1 at home - Real Betis in the Copa del Rey and Sevilla in the Spanish Super Cup. In all three games Barça seemed oddly subdued, not harrying their opponents as ferociously as they are at the moment. Perhaps they were not taking their two domestic cup competitions too seriously, while the Hercules loss was their first home game of the league season when they looked a bit rusty.

Then we come back to that old chestnut of confidence. Like the hopeless side in Shaolin Soccer (!), or the South African rugby team in Invictus, you have to believe you can beat a stronger enemy, in this case one who has four World Cup winners and the No. 1, 2 and 3 in the FIFA Ballon d'Or in their starting eleven! Més que un club certainly, but més que humà (more than human) Barça are not.

Talk of this blaugrana emulating the European Cup dynasties of Real Madrid, Liverpool or Milan is certainly premature, and I can see two or three of the remaining CL teams defeating them, especially Real, who despite the 0-5 hammering earlier this season still have Jose Mourinho at the helm, and plenty of reasons for revenge.

-Sean O'Conor

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