A ridiculous question with what should be a simple answer. First, a cursory investigation. Is Barcelona on top of the standings in La Liga? Yes. Has Barcelona obtained sixty-one points from twenty-four matches, one more point than it had at the same point last season? Check. Does Barcelona have the edge in its UEFA Champions League matchup against Stuttgart because of the away goal? True. Does Barcelona have some of the greatest players in the world of football? Absolutely. Has Barcelona been figured out? From all the previous affirmations, the headline answer should be a definitive NO, but peering underneath the surface reveals a few cracks in their perfect facade.
As Chelsea and Rubin Kazan proved last year, one strategy to eke out a positive result against the Blaugrana includes conceding 70%+ possession to the Catalans and hope to capitalize on one or two chances when Carles Puyol’s defensive four play their extremely high line. Many teams have unsuccessfully tried this tactic, but on Saturday evening, Málaga decided to employ this type of football, believing that they can be akin to Chelsea and Rubin Kazan. It almost worked.
After a frustrating sixty-eight minutes, where nearly every Dani Alves cross was cleared and Lionel Messi’s wondrous runs were eventually snuffed by the Málaga defense, it took a special strike from Barcelona’s clutch performer of the season, Pedro Rodríguez, to break the deadlock.
Fernando and Manolo did not close Pedro’s space down, and with only Zlatan Ibrahimovic in the penalty area, Pedro decided tto take the shot himself from just outside the box. He powered it to the point where goalkeeper Gustavo Munúa could only get a hand to it at his left near post despite him covering that side of the goal.
The unthinkable occurred twelve minutes later, when a one-two between Valdo and Victor Obinna at the halfway line sent Valdo free for nearly half of the pitch, and he converted the opportunity with aplomb, as he slotted the ball past a determined Victor Valdés.
Now for 99.7% of teams with a slim one-goal advantage with ten minutes to spare, playing deeper in their own half is not only prudent but the correct tactic. Not for Barcelona. What some might consider naïveté, Barcelona sees as the only way. For the most part, Barcelona executes with total clarity, but on rare occasions, as with Valdo and Obinna, they pay a steep price for their loyalty to the club philosophy.
As with true champions, however, they managed to discover the game-winner in the late stages to make one point into three. Xavi Hernández had an unusually quiet game, but his field vision is incomparable, and he played a cutting, diagonal ball to a streaking Dani Alves on the right wing. A straightforward, first-time squared ball across the six-yard box to an unmarked Messi, and the tap-in gave Barça a 2-1 lead in the 84th minute, a lead they would not relinquish.
For the defending La Liga champions, stringing twenty to thirty passes to find an opening in the defense is normal business for them, but after they took the lead, their passing took more of a defensive nature. They passed it around the field almost in an attempt to wind the clock down rather than initiate another attack. With Málaga producing a dogged and earnest effort throughout the match, this mode was the right move, but it was quite peculiar to witness Barcelona passing it around with no ambition.
The other stratagem falls only for the brave (some might say for the suicidal). It involves taking the game to Barcelona. This inevitably means that there will be plenty of space for the Barcelona dynamos if they retrieve possession. Tenerife was successful for the first thirty-five minutes against Barcelona in their match in January by putting the Barça players on their back heels. A recurring problem for the Chicharreros all season, however, has been their lack of finishing, and when they could not score on some promising opportunities, Barcelona smelled blood, and a 0-5 thumping ensued.
When Barcelona visited the Mercedes-Benz Arena to face Stuttgart, no one would have blamed Die Schwaben if they used the Chelsea/Rubin Kazan strategy. Although their form improved dramatically since Christian Gross took over the manager position from Markus Babbel, they still lied ninth in the Bundesliga and needed to defeat Unirea Urziceni on the final group stage match to advance to the Round of 16.
Cautious in the beginning, Stuttgart ventured forward when Barça could not organize an effective attack. Cacau scored once and could have had another two, and by halftime, the 1-0 score line in favor of Stuttgart flattered Barcelona. According to Gerard Piqué in the Spanish sports newspaper Sport, “If we play as we did in the first half, we are not going to last long in this competition.”
Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s crucial equalizer in the second half gave Barça the precious away goal and the 1-1 result away from home, but that does not take away from Stuttgart outplaying the Catalans for long stretches of the game.
Lionel Messi admitted that his side is not performing up to their celestial expectations. On the club website following the Stuttgart match, he said, “I don’t know what went wrong. It’s true that recently we’ve not been playing the same football we are used to, but now is the key moment and we have to get back to that level.”
Injuries clearly have hindered their play as of late. Xavi and Ibrahimovic have recently returned from injury spells, and Seydou Keita, Éric Abidal, and Dmytro Chygrynskiy remain in the trainer’s room.
Around this same time last season, Barcelona lulled in relative mediocrity. In a span of five matches from February 14 to March 4, they drew three and lost two, including a loss to a then relegation-bound Espanyol and a 2-2 draw with Real Betis, who would be relegated to the Segunda División at the end of the season. What happened from that point forward is now immortalized in Barcelona’s six-trophy 2009, so why would this current momentary slip be any different from last year?
The final three months of the season should provide the final answer to the opening rhetorical question, but for any team to win against Barcelona, they have to believe that they have the solution to the Barça question. Managers now have a large sampling in which to study Pep Guardiola’s coaching tendencies.
The doubt creeping from both the Barça fans and the press corps may be sounding the alarm bell a little early, but now this team cannot evade the comparisons to last year’s Barcelona squad that won every competition they entered. They have only lost three times in the 2009-10 campaign: once in La Liga, once in the Champions League, and once in the Copa del Rey. With Real Madrid breathing down their neck in Spain and other European teams wanting to dethrone the European champions, Barça cannot afford to “struggle” much longer if they want to defend these two crowns.
Has Barcelona been figured out? Hardly, but that air of indomitability that they imposed last season has lessened to a degree.
Fueras de Juego
– Another natural disaster rocked the globe early Saturday morning. This time, an 8.8 earthquake off the coast of Chile crumbled buildings and roads, leaving at least seven hundred dead with the toll rising at this moment. One of the stars of the Chilean national football team, Humberto “Chupete” Suazo, paid homage to his homeland by scoring two goals in Real Zaragoza’s 0-2 victory over Getafe. After scoring each of his two goals, he lifted his jersey to reveal his message, “Fuerza Chile.” We all echo the same sentiment.
– The most surprisingly entertaining match of the weekend was the back and forth affair between Sporting Gijón and Osasuna. A meeting of two mid-table teams that have a lack of scoring, a 3-2 result for the Asturians included a couple of penalties, a lightning pace, and an intense atmosphere rare for a match between teams that do not have much for which to play.
– Apparently, Carlos Marchena wants goalkeeper César Sánchez’s job because Marchena did a wonderful job in slapping away Sergio Agüero’s attempt to dribble away from him inside the box. Neither referee Alfonso Pérez Burrull nor his linesman called the obvious penalty, but after harassment from the Atlético Madrid players and a chat with the fourth official, Pérez Burrull awarded Atlético the penalty kick, and Marchena rightly received a red card. Atlético routed Valencia 4-1, and consistency might actually be arriving at the Vicente Calderón (but if they limply fall to Real Zaragoza next Sunday, no one will be surprised).