In the aftermath of Arsenal's European death in the Camp Nou, the football world is wondering just who if anyone can beat the behemoth of Barcelona to the biggest prize.
The Gunners could yet turn out to be the English champions in 2011 but will not be making the trip to Wembley in May for the Champions League final. A 4-3 aggregate loss to the blaugrana sounds like no disgrace but the vital statistics paint a devastating picture - 738 completed passes from Barcelona to 199 from Arsenal, 19 shots to none.
Forget the harsh second yellow card for Robin Van Persie; the Gunners were outgunned and imprisoned out of possession for the best part of the match. The Londoners failed to fire a single shot on their opponents' goal and only registered two touches inside the Barça box throughout the course of the contest. Robbed? Hardly when even their equalizer was an own goal scored by Sergio Busquets. How good were Barcelona? In the following night's clash between Tottenham and Milan, no slouches themselves, neither side looked like they could hold a candle to the Catalans.
Domestically, Arsene Wenger's team are accustomed to guarding the ball from their opponents and circulating it with a sleek élan. At home against Barça, they were forced to play like an away team and in the Camp Nou cauldron hardly had a sniff of what could be called possession, struggling to string sequential passes together in the face of some truly fierce pressing high up the field. The sad irony was that Arsenal play the closest thing there is in England to Barcelona's style yet clearly have an awful lot of ground to make up.
Wenger and Gunners diehards bemoaned the red card as their fall guy and have every right to release their frustration on something. The Frenchman has sweat blood and tears for years forging an Empire at the Emirates only to be cruelly reminded Rome was not built in a day.
The hosts' attacking wizardry was as expected, the ferocious closing-down a shock to the English system. The pressing game properly began with Liverpool in the late 1970s before being honed by Milan in the early 1990s. Barça's pack of hounds haring after the ball were matched by their silky attackers ganging up when bearing down on goal. Playing so close allowed them to unfurl the tiki-taka tactics which let a blue and burgundy-inspired Spain bag both the World Cup and European Championship over the past three years.
Lionel Messi's opener came with some quick feet and an exquisite split-second chip over the advancing goalkeeper, while Xavi's goal was a textbook example of how to zig-zag right through the middle of a tight backline. Their crack troops are primed for short sprints and talented enough to dart through tight angles. When the gaps appear, Barça's artisans have the skill to craft something magical. By contrast, when Arsenal's golden chance arrived late in the day, the sturdy yet gangling Nicklas Bendtner failed to control Jack Wilshere's pass properly and the chance was lost.
The actual gap between the blaugrana and the rest of Europe is worrying. Last week I watched Barcelona defeat Valencia 1-0 away with another goal from Messi. The hosts were third in La Liga behind the big two but looked a good division below in quality as their visitors outclassed them utterly on their own patch. Barça could have scored a hatful in the first half at La Mestalla, torturing their hosts with the same harrying tactics they used to destroy Arsenal. Surely no team in the world is using space as ruthlessly as Barcelona at the moment.
So how do we beat them? Once your team has done the basics of keeping its shape and its marking tight, it could try to tempt Barcelona upfield and then hit them on the break, but you have to be lightning quick as they scurry back after the ball faster than anyone. Nevertheless, full-backs Adriano and Daniel Alves stay true to their Brazilian blood and fly up the flanks into attack, leaving yards of grass behind to exploit on the counter.
Their goalkeeper Victor Valdes and back four are not as stellar as their midfield and attack, and can crack under pressure and at set pieces, as Arsenal's goal proved. Applying any pressure is the hardest thing to do as Barça not only fight like tigers for the ball but run like cheetahs on the counter, making committing men forward a highly risky business.
But Pep Guardiola's men are certainly beatable by a well-organised team, as Inter showed last year on their way to the trophy. Perhaps it is only Real Madrid, buoyed by their historical feud and by Jose Mourinho, who would take Barcelona on without fear and give them a run for their money.
More than a club? Certainly, but more than human they are not.
(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile
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