Where did it all go wrong for Barcelona?Posted: April 25, 2012
Graham Hunter wrote a book about them recently – Barça: The Making of The Greatest Team In The World. The Greatest Team In The World. Imagine that. Well that very team may well have been knocked out of the race for the La Liga title and the Champions League, all in the space of four days. All that’s left of their memory now is to wonder; how the hell did that happen?
At one point not long ago, Real Madrid boasted an unbelievable ten point lead over Barcelona in the league table. Pep Guardiola described his chances of winning yet another title as “impossible”. Once Real came up against Málaga, who have found their feet in recent months, and a resurgent Villarreal who’ve been disappointing all season, in quick succession, all of a sudden four points were dropped. A couple of 5-1 wins later, and best-of-the-rest Valencia came to town.
In recent history, Real Madrid have had no problem getting past the challenges of Valencia. This season however, in probably the most exciting 0-0 draw of the season, Valencia left the capital with a point. A further two points dropped, with the gap down to four, while José Mourinho and Madrid were still to visit Nou Camp. Add to that the fact that Madrid hadn’t beaten Barça in the league since 2008, and in a grand total of 14 games (in 90 minutes; not counting the 2011 Copa Del Rey Final AET.) Pep’s thoughts then? “Not as impossible.”
But we all know what has happened in the last week. Chelsea beating them in London, Real Madrid turning Nou Camp into Mou Camp, and Chelsea finishing off their Champions League two-in-a-row dreams. That begs the question: where did it all go wrong?
Chelsea performed superbly in Stamford Bridge. It’s never going to be easy against The Greatest Team In The World, but they managed to soak up the pressure and one marvelous pass from Frank Lampard sucker-punched the Catalans at an optimum time, for Chelsea.
For the second half, Barcelona were bereft of ideas. In the past they have admirably stuck to their guns, even at times when going a man or a goal down, and continued to play with their philosophy of quick passing and ball retention. In the past, this has worked for them. In the Bridge, however, it did not. Chelsea were compact enough and organised enough to deal with what Barcelona could throw at them. It ended 1-0, but not the end of the world for Pep, with the return leg in Camp Nou just a week later.
Before that second leg, would be the small task of El Clásico though. Trailing by four points, it was simply imperative that Barcelona won the match if they wanted any realistic hope of winning the league title again. But love him or hate him, José Mourinho is a genius. He learned a lot from the Chelsea Barça game. He saw what the Azulgrana did when the pressure was stacked against them, and how they reacted.
Mourinho in charge of Madrid has tried all-out kamikaze attacking styles against Barcelona, and very defensive formations too. He never found a winning formula. Last weekend, however, he fielded a formation that the players have been used to all season, with a nice balance between attack and defence.
Much more than that though, was the organisation and discipline that Mourinho instilled in his team. Doing this, is by far his greatest victory since he joined Madrid. Other times against their arch-rivals, Madrid have lost matches due to lapses in concentration, poor defensive positioning, or not tracking runners. Barcelona couldn’t break them down the way they’ve become used to. Mou eradicated this sloppiness from his team, and the rewards are clear to see; a 1-2 victory and a seven point lead at the top of the table with four games remaining.
A number of moons later came their second leg clash with Chelsea. This is when the team’s biggest flaw became most visible; they have become a very mentally fragile squad.
When things are going well for them, there is a very obvious ‘bounce’ to their play. They are confident, they are willing to try audacious things because it works out for them most of the time, and they play with that swagger that has made millions the world over sing their praises.
But for the second leg against Chelsea, they had just lost two games in a row beforehand, using the style of play that has never failed them before. The confidence shrunk greatly with each of those losses, resulting in a scared team. The local and also Spanish national media slated them after both of those losses. This clearly played on their mind so much, that it resulted in a team scared to death of losing again. This fear didn’t drive them to force six or seven past a 10-man Chelsea, but instead it shuck them to their very core, making them question their own style of play, forgetting completely about all they’ve won before with it.
In fact, when they were able to break the Blues down at last, you could see the confidence return immediately. For a while, they felt alright, and perhaps things weren’t as bad as they had thought. This confidence was evident for the remainder of the half, especially in their second goal – a move so quick and a wave of attack so powerful, that nobody could have stopped Iniesta from collecting Messi’s through ball before slotting it past Cech. Two up in terms of goals, one up in terms of men – Barça were cruising.
Right on the stroke of half time, perhaps their confidence grew a little too much, as one slip in concentration at the back allowed the space for Lampard to feed Ramires with a pass as fantastic as the chipped finish that came right after it. This goal turned the game on its head. Chelsea were now in the position to go through, by means of that away goal.
The goal did a lot more than just change the scoreboard. It ripped out all of the confidence that the Catalans had grown in the previous twenty minutes. For the majority of the second half – apart from moments like Messi’s long range solo effort off the post, Fabregas winning a penalty from a dive, and Mascherano’s long shot – Barcelona couldn’t create anything. They didn’t expose any space they had on the wings, despite Alves and Cuenca/Tello having acres of freedom out there. They didn’t double up on defenders and play quick one-two passes, something that usually comes as second nature to them. No man in a Barça shirt even had the confidence to take a player on and get past him. Every time the had the ball, it would be pinged from the centre to the right, back to the centre, and over to the left, with a gap rarely opening for them to exploit.
There was no confidence in the team to try anything different, every player wanted to just give the ball to someone else, let a teammate take the initiative. Full credit to where it’s due, though. Chelsea played immensely, losing both of their starting centre halves to either injury or a red card. Barcelona just couldn’t offer anything of real substance to actually test their visitor’s resolve.