Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Barca stake a balanced claim for ‘big ears’

Champions League round of 16, second leg, Barcelona 1 v Chelsea 1 (3-2 on aggregate)

A fortnight ago we were privileged enough to witness a maestro in the making, but this morning Barcelona proved they not only have the individual brilliance but the tactical smarts to double their return from Europe’s premier club competition.

THE job just about done in London two weeks ago thanks to some brilliance from Argentine wonder-kid Lionel Messi, Barcelona have marched into the quarter finals of the Champions League on the back of an authoritative display against Chelsea over two legs and at last stamped themselves as a legitimate threat for the title currently held by Liverpool FC.

The Catalan giant, who has remarkably only won ‘the trophy with big ears’ once, compared with the nine won by its fiercest rival, Real Madrid, is poised to make it a second if it can replicate the tactical discipline it showed over two legs against Jose Mourinho’s English heavyweights.

While we know all about their attacking prowess, in these two games they showed they have added shrewd defending and tactical awareness to the team that was somewhat meekly bundled out by Chelsea last season and has flattered to decisive over the past few Champions League campaigns.

Twelve months ago they relied exclusively on their ability to out-score the opposition. It didn’t work.

Naively, they defended high up the pitch and got caught by some classic Chelsea counter-attacking, but here they were prepared to defend deeper, rarely allowing Chelsea’s fast-men to get in behind them.

Add to this a rarely seen ability to stifle Chelsea’s midfield, particularly Frank Lampard, and manager Frank Rijkaard may just have a team capable of lifting the trophy in Paris in May.

Personnel and positional changes have played a big part in this turn-around, but most importantly it appears the brains trust at Barca were prepared to take a long hard look at themselves and make the necessary adjustments.

Patently, they realised that the all out attack approach isn’t a formula for success in the Champions League and that a more pragmatic approach, balanced between defence and attack, was required.

Rijkaard’s move of Mexican Rafael Marquez from midfield to his original position in central defence has been the key in Barca’s improved fortunes at the back, providing a strong presence alongside Carles Puyol.

It has allowed Presas Oleguer to move to the right in place of Brazilian Belletti, who exposed Barcelona last year with his constant overlapping, which left holes that Chelsea exploited.

Another pivotal move by Rijkaard has been the conversion of Brazilian Edmilson from an at times carefree central defender to a disciplined holding midfielder. As he did in London, here Edmilson teamed up with Portuguese superstar Deco and Thiago Motta to stifle the creative instincts of Lampard and Claude Makelele.

Neither was allowed any space in midfield, where they are normally the launching pad for Chelsea’s rapid counter-attack. By stopping it at the supply, the likes of Arjen Robben, Damien Duff, Joe Cole and Didier Drogba never got into the game.

Deco in particular is remarkable for his ability to both work back in defence and then inevitable do something with the ball when he wins it. He is the complete midfielder, perhaps more ‘special’ than his compatriot in the opposition dug-out. Here he knocked out his old boss and former Porto teammates Ricardo Carvalho and Paulo Ferrerira.

With the defensive platform a major improvement on past years, no wonder Barca have been able to express themselves so confidently going forward, and while Messi and the great Ronaldinho did it in the first leg, here it was the Brazilian who ran the show after Messi limped off a quarter of the way in.

There is very little you can do about Ronaldinho when he’s in this mood, which is just about every game he plays. Ferreira, with the help of Joe Cole, did a decent job on him early, only for his delightful flicks and back-heels to come into play, eventually creating openings. Later he drifted infield, where he really made the difference, scoring a wonderful individual goal that demonstrated his vision, strength, balance, pace and finishing ability, all in the one run.

On another occasion he clipped a ball through John Terry’s legs so quickly it was as if the England defender had been pick-pocketed.

Envy the regulars at the Nou Camp who get to witness this dissection of defences almost weekly and pity the poor Socceroos who have to find a way to deal with him on June 18.

Yet for all this assuredness and balance against Chelsea, there is one key weakness that Rijkaard will hope doesn’t cost his men in the coming rounds, goalkeeper Victor Valdes. The goal Chelsea scored a fortnight ago was a result of the keeper’s hesitation and lack of authority in dealing with a Lampard free-kick.

In a tighter tie, the Catalans can ill afford such largesse.

Who they draw in the quarter-finals will go a long way to deciding their fate, but after knocking off one of the major contenders and doing it so emphatically, confidence will be high they can conquer whoever is in their path.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

You can only describe Ronaldinho as genius. But what is scary for other teams is the depth of Barca this season. Messi, Eto'o, Deco -- which you have correctly pointed out. Let's hope your comments ring true in Berlin.

Frank Lopez

Thu. Mar. 09, 12:21:00 pm AEDT  
Blogger The Round Ball Analyst said...

After the draw on Friday night our time, which pits Barca against Benfica, I think Barca should get through that one. Benfica beat Liverpool, but thanks as much to Liverpool's poor finishing. Should they not underestimate Koeman's men and get through, a potential stumbling block awaits in the semis, where the they could face Milan or Lyon. There's no doubt theyve been drawn in the tougher half of the draw, which I guess makes for some mouth-watering ties to look ahead to.

But if they use the same tactical flexibility, Barca have enough individual brilliance to march on.

Mon. Mar. 13, 03:44:00 pm AEDT  

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