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Barcelona - Leaving the back door open?

16 September 2011

By Jacob Steinberg

Barcelona are in crisis. They haven’t won a game this month. They haven’t even won a trophy since August. Much more of this and their fans will be calling for Pep Guardiola’s head.

In Jose Mourinho’s dreams, perhaps. The above is, of course, utter nonsense. The only crisis likely to unfold at Camp Nou in the near future is making space in the trophy cabinet for yet more silverware this season. The reigning champions might be two points off Real Madrid in the league after the opening two games, but they are still expected to win the title and although no team has retained the European Cup since AC Milan in 1990, if any side can finally put that statistic to bed, it is Guardiola’s Barcelona.

Not if they defend like they did in the 2-2 draw against Milan in their opening Champions League match on Tuesday night, goals in the first and last minute allowing the Italians to escape Camp Nou with a point. No-one had seen this coming. Milan arrived without their big-name striker, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and were also deprived of the injured Robinho, but ultimately Barcelona’s defensive shortcomings let them off the hook, when at one stage it seemed certain Massimiliano Allegri’s side were going to be on the end of a thumping.

That they weren’t can be put down to the absence of Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique at the heart of Barcelona’s defence, meaning that Guardiola was forced to pick two defensive midfielders, Sergio Busquets and Javier Mascherano there instead. Both have deputised in defence before - the latter performed notably alongside Pique against Manchester United in the Champions League final - but never as a pair. It took all of 25 seconds for Milan to capitalise on the weakness, Alexandre Pato picking up possession 40 yards from goal, knocking the ball past Busquets and Mascherano, outpacing both and finishing coolly past Victor Valdes.

Unsurprisingly Barcelona had 70% of the possession but in one swift, individualistic moment, Milan had stunned them. Pato’s speed and Barcelona’s high line, necessary due to their pressing game, was initially disastrous for the home side and in the early stages, the Brazilian forward had to be denied by last-ditch tackles from Daniel Alves and Seydou Keita. Against Villarreal in the league, Guardiola played just one defender, Eric Abidal, and his side won 5-0, but Milan gave them a reality check; even the best teams have to defend - and even those that are arguably the best of all time.

There wasn’t much wrong going forward, of course, with Lionel Messi as brilliant as ever. He could have scored four, but in the end he had to settle for a marvellous assist, his awesome turn of pace embarrassing Alessandro Nesta and Ignazio Abate. Pedro finished the move off at the far post, and then David Villa made it 2-1 with a sublime free-kick early in the second half. That should have been that, yet Milan hung on and then in the last minute Thiago Silva headed an equaliser from Clarence Seedorf’s corner.

Let’s not bring up the Stoke question - but it is true that Barcelona, due to their lack of height, can struggle to defend set-pieces. Real Madrid scored twice from corners against them in August, and Arsenal were also given hope in the second leg of their tie last season when Busquets headed into his own goal. Famously in that game, a surer touch from Nicklas Bendtner late on would have sent Barcelona crashing out. Add to that the vulnerability displayed against Pato’s speed and a certain weakness begins to become obvious. Against the majority of teams, this will not be a problem. It could be against their rivals.

It is nothing that cannot be solved by the return of Pique and Puyol, though the latter, getting on in years, has barely played all year due to injury. Is it down to complacency or simply an unerring belief in their own ability that has meant Barcelona have not addressed their lack of cover in defence? Certainly they remain more than good enough to overcome it, even against the likes of United and Madrid, though it still seems remarkably short-sighted for the European champions to be compromising in such a key area. Abidal can be moved across from centre-back, but then that leaves a hole at left-back which may not be solved by the buccaneering Adriano, while Andreu Fontas could be too inexperienced.

These potential dilemmas have been addressed in attack. Alexis Sanchez offers a challenge to Villa and Pedro, though he is currently injured, while on Tuesday there was a pertinent rebuke to those who scoffed that Cesc Fabregas would be nothing more than a bench-warmer at Barcelona when Andres Iniesta went off injured. This is precisely why Fabregas was bought: to lift the burden on Xaviesta. In previous seasons, Iniesta’s injury would have forced Barcelona to rely on Keita, a decent squad player, but not in the same class as those he was replacing. When Inter beat Barcelona in 2010, Keita played instead of Iniesta in both games. He was there again when Madrid won the Copa del Rey last season.

Yet he still had to start against Milan, a direct consequence of the injuries in defence, which meant neither Busquets nor Mascherano could play in midfield. In the past two years, Barcelona have released Dimitry Chygrynskiy, Rafael Marquez and Gabriel Milito and have not bought a replacement for any of them. How appropriate that Milan, the club of Franco Baresi and Paolo Maldini, were the ones to take advantage.

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