Friday, 17 April 2009

The weak points of Barcelona

author: Ian Hawkey
source: The Times

date: 12 April 2009

Joan Laporta, the dapper president of Barcelona, called the first 45 minutes against Bayern Munich "the best first half in the history of Barça". Franz Beckenbauer, the honorary president of the defeated Germans, called it the "worst half in Bayern’s history".

According to Laporta’s history, Barcelona’s first half at Camp Nou against Olympique Lyonnais in the previous round of the Champions League would have to rank high in an all-time list, too. Against Lyons, Barca scored four times before the interval, their trio of strikers, Leo Messi, Samuel Eto’o and Thierry Henry, sharing the goals, just as they did against Bayern. But, oops, just before half-time Barça conceded a very careless goal, headed in from a corner by the diminutive Jean Makoun. And, oops, they let in another against the French side just after the break.

Guus Hiddink enjoys advertising his gimlet eye for spotting an opponent’s Achilles heel. He will need it to exploit those areas where Barcelona can be vulnerable. They do exist. One feature of the demolition of Bayern was that the eye was not drawn especially to the attacking energy of Dani Alves, who plays at right-back but interprets the position loosely. On one of the very rare occasions when Bayern shovelled something resembling a counter-attack beyond the halfway line, Franck Ribery engineered it by slithering cleverly past Alves. An in-form Florent Malouda might be encouraged by that, even it seems just a chink of light.

The footage of Barcelona that Chelsea would do best to study would be taken from the four consecutive matches the Catalans did not win, between the middle of February and the second week of March. Lyons drew 1-1 with Barcelona in the last-16 first-leg meeting in France, their goal coming from that master of the dead ball, Juninho.

Defending free kicks, either direct ones or crosses hoisted into a busy, crowded penalty area, used to be a significant flaw in the Barcelona teams built during Laporta’s successful reign as president. When Frank Rijkaard’s Barça were eliminated from the Champions League by Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea in 2004-05, one such goal, when Ricardo Carvalho seemed to impede goalkeeper Victor Valdes, was their undoing.

Under Pep Guardiola, who took over from Rijkaard last summer, and with the tall Gerard Pique adding some inches to the centre of their defence, they have tidied up their efficiency in this area, though they often concede an overall height advantage defending dead balls in the penalty area. Messi, Xavi and Andres Iniesta have magic in their soles but no special springs in their heels. Valdes is no giant, either, and is prone to errors in higher-profile contests.

When Atletico Madrid beat Barcelona 4-3 in the Spanish capital last month, they exploited the space behind the adventurous Alves. They tested the other flank, too, where the France international Eric Abidal is nominally Barcelona’s first-choice left-back. His cover is captain Carles Puyol, who is right-footed, fast, strong and more accustomed, since he assumed his senior status at the club, to playing at centre-half.

But Pique’s rising reputation has discouraged Guardiola from disturbing the partnership between the 22-year-old, sold by Manchester United last July, and the Mexican Rafa Marquez. His trust has every justification. In 20 matches as the middle pairing in his back four, Pique and Marquez have let in just two goals from set-pieces. Hiddink may still have something to surprise them with, though one imagines the card that is Branislav Ivanovic as spare, unpoliced target man is a joker that has now been used up.

Marquez is an important footballer for Barcelona, often responsible for the initial impulse to move their play forward from defence. Hassle Marquez and you can disrupt the finely tuned passing machine operated by Xavi and Iniesta. Atletico did that to good effect in Madrid and won.

At Camp Nou, Barcelona have lost only once in La Liga under Guardiola. That was against Espanyol, in the city derby, a defeat that had some familiar symptoms — a Valdes error; a cross headed in by a titch, Ivan de la Pena — and, alas for purists, some reward for the sort of strategy other big rivals have brought to Camp Nou over the past nine months.

Espanyol were pugnacious and sly in their 2-1 win, a match of 14 cards, including the red that deprived Barça of Seydou Keita from the first half. When Real Madrid came to the home of the league leaders back in December, they lost 2-0 after setting out to be hard and aggressive, apparently sharing around the XI the task of fouling Messi.

Guardiola thought he saw Bayern doing the same — around 85,000 shared his view — which explained his hot-headed reaction when Messi was booked by Howard Webb for simulation. The Barça coach thought the English referee had mistaken victim for villain. He may even have remembered how Jose Mourinho once tried to persuade the public that the diving Messi was a “good actor who should be in the theatre” after one of the feistier Barça-Chelsea confrontations of recent years.

Barcelona fans laughed about that and printed thousands of T-shirts saying “We don’t do theatre, we do great football”. Many will be soon be dug out of wardrobes, ironed and ready to wear again for another Chelsea visit.

read the full and original article here

Read more:
Why are Barcelona scoring so many goals?
Barcelona Is Winning With Style

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