It was far from a scattering of football fans who cheerily greeted the ruthlessness of Bayern Munich as they clinically closed off their semi-final tie with Barcelona last April. Many had found themselves dangling over a dichotomised hole of incalculable awe and simultaneous frustration in the years which led to this astonishing point. Barcelona had been the definition of all that football could give and similarly take away. When they had triumphed in battles with Ferguson’s United, Mourinho’s Madrid or Wenger’s Arsenal, it was always executed with a touch of absolute certainty; as if no other result could truly have been plausible. Perhaps more sickeningly still, their infrequent losses were consistently tinged with the feeling that the temporary victor had simply assumed the role of an ardent reactionary, and was only successful because they could so carefully resist Barcelona’s smothering style of football. Implementing this defensive tactic was no mean feat in itself, yet, perhaps most strikingly in the case of Mourinho’s Inter Milan, it was not an approach that inspired love or admiration.
‘The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated’
It was Bayern Munich’s ability to beat Barcelona while staying true to their own attacking style that allowed for such universal satisfaction. Far from wishing to insult or belittle Barcelona – they still remain the footballing embodiment of Churchill’s comments regarding so many being grateful to so few – their defeat last April merely reinforced the fact that they were at the end of it all still human. Now, ten months after that resounding defeat, Barcelona are, in the words of José Mourinho, the worst that they have been in years. Their lead at the top of La Liga is scant. Their style of play – although still heavily indebted to their passing ability – is not quite as intensive as it once was. The contribution of Lionel Messi finds itself often disturbed by the practicality of his being more frequently injured while players such as Xavi have discovered the practicality of ageing. This 2013/14 edition of Barcelona is indeed weaker than previous models. Yet, will their latent humanity not simply serve as a new means to measure their success rather than a hindrance to stunt it once and for all?
It is difficult to consider any utterance made by José Mourinho without first considering the motive he may have in mind. When his fractious affair with Spanish football came to a head in the summer and he sought out instead the reliability of a loving wife in Chelsea, it was unlikely that he would have little to say on the subject. In the absence of Sir Alex Ferguson from this year’s managerial tête-à-têtes, the mantle of chief shit-stirrer seems to have fallen nicely into Mourinho’s lap – at least one role held by Ferguson that Mourinho was deemed ideal to fill. In alignment with the domestic disturbances he has happily enabled, Mourinho’s comments regarding Barcelona indicated that the travails of Wenger, Pellegrini & Rodgers may now take a place on the back-burner as he chases down the one challenge that awaits him in club football; winning the Champions League with Chelsea.
His barbed negativity cannot have come as a surprise to those within Spanish football of course. He was for all intents and purposes moderately successful as the manager of Real Madrid, a painful adjective for one so proud of his prior ability to exceed expectations. Regarding his thoughts on Barcelona, it is fair to say that as they escalated to the peaks of their power no other manager would have encountered them in high stake matches more so than Mourinho. His fastidious nature of constant consideration for possible opponents lends itself to the belief that outside of Barcelona itself, not many men know more of what to expect of them than Mourinho. It is difficult therefore to simply disregard his comments on their current crop as being simply an act of skulduggery. What is actually worth considering is what this means for Barcelona going forward. Taking their first leg 2-0 win over Manchester City, let us consider the possibilities that lie ahead for this relatively awful side.
To those for whom the Champions League provides the only outlet through which to view the rest of what Europe has to offer, there cannot have been much about Barcelona’s performance to suggest they were any worse off than before. For large periods of the game Manchester City were forced to look on, helpless to hinder the consistency of Barcelona’s passing game. Although City’s counter attacking reactionary style would yield them more chances at goal than Barcelona in the first half, it was not to be forgotten that Barca were the away side in this tie. Also, given City’s pedantic knack for scoring goals this season, it was unlikely that they could not pounce on any inch Barcelona were tempted to present them. Seemingly content on having the ball, the first half gave us exactly what we would expect from a tie of this magnitude at this stage of the season. It was cagey, with neither side too concerned with scoring so long as they didn’t concede. It would take the second half and a brief flash of pace from Lionel Messi to put the tie to bed and raise serious doubts about Barcelona’s apparent demise.
While I do not like to wish ill on any player, it seemed startlingly clear from the off that Martín Demichelis was a little out of his depth on Tuesday night. For most of the first half his ability to regain the ball was supreme, it was when he wished to release that problems emerged. The growing frustration of the City fans however knew no limit when a beautiful pass from Iniesta unleashed what had been until this point the rather tame figure of Lionel Messi. With very little option given that he started his run after Messi had fled, Demichelis went for broke and lost the house. His sending off, and the subsequent converted penalty that would follow allowed Barcelona the opportunity to what had been until then a pretty open affair. While ball retention had seemed straightforward against eleven City players, Barcelona’s Dani Alves and Jordi Alba were now able to push further forward as Negredo, and subsequently Edin Dzeko felt the isolating knock on effect of Demichelis’ dismissal as they were kept company by Pique and Mascherano, and rarely anyone else. Barcelona’s second goal would come via the inherited freedom of their full-backs. Dani Alves’ wonderfully worked pass and run with Neymar allowed for a precise finish that excused the opportunity he could well have taken but had missed minutes earlier. It was certainly not an evening in which all their talents were displayed, but it similarly didn’t feel like a team on the wane.
Where Barcelona will go from here will rest largely with Gerardo Martino, their assured Argentinian manager. The considered thoughts of Guillem Balague on ‘Tata’ Martino and what he has brought to Barcelona revolve around the fact that Martino is not phased by the prospect of squad rotation. Where they had looked exhausted by April of last year, they now appear on the cusp of hitting a physical peak. If Tuesday night was an example of the best Barcelona can offer, you would be better off keeping your money on Bayern Munich as likely winners in Lisbon come May. However, perhaps when Mourinho assessed that this was the worst Barca team in years, he was not attempting to insult, rather, he was welcoming them back to the realm of normality. Munich represent the general consensus of who the best team in world football currently are. Under Guardiola it is fitting that such a man will forever be understood as the enabler of Barcelona’s greatest years and not just a thankful passenger now that his talents have spread continentally. Barcelona, like other great teams but unlike the greatest team that they were, will find solace in the fact that as this season approaches its pinnacle, they look a side who is evolving in tandem. Mark Twain’s comments regarding coming face to face with his death allowed for a pithy response from a wonderful writer. Who would really dare to say that Barcelona are incapable of a similar response in kind? Champions League football is back and we really couldn’t be happier.