Saturday, April 11, 2009

Barcelona: Dominant, Devastating and Delightful

Barcelona have delighted those who have had the pleasure of watching them this season. Their beautiful, free-flowing style has captivated fans across the planet and it is not without some merit that they are now being compared to the great Ajax and Bayern Munich teams of the '70s and the AC Milan side of the late '80s.

When Barcelona play, it is as close to total football as you can get. Every player is as comfortable with the ball as if it were a newborn child: they caress it, care for it, love it, and never want to let it go.

Their real strengths are pretty obvious to anyone who has eyes, be they football fans or not. After hundreds if not thousands of young Argentinians straining under the weight of being the next Diego Maradona, one young man has come forward with the strength of character to bear the weight.

Lionel Messi is undoubtedly the best player in the world and has been for the last three seasons. When the young prodigy gets the ball, you draw breath because you know something magnificent is about to happen.

His goal last week against Bayern Munich was beautiful in its simplicity. Cutting in from the right with rapier-like swiftness, he left the Bayern defence in his wake, and when Hans-Jorg Butt advanced from the Bayern goal, he calmly passed the ball into the back of the net.

He placed the ball with precision, where others would have tried to burst the net and missed.

He is ably joined up front by rejuvenated players Thierry Henry and Samuel Eto'o.

The other two players in Barca's devastating trident of attacking power have also been sensational this season. And when you consider their poor form last year, when it looked as if both would leave during the summer, the turn around is even more dramatic.

And this trio are ably backed up ex-Chelsea star Eidur Gudjonnson, the Icelandic forward has not scored as many as he would have liked this season but his selfless performances sum up the general team feeling under Guardiola.

Under the previous manager, Frank Rijkaard, both players were obviously unhappy and were allowed to switch their attentions away from the game. As they faltered, so too did Barca's league campaign, as Real Madrid swept to the title.

A summer of change saw Pep Guardiola take over the team as Rijkaard was sacked. His first action was to allow former World Player of the Year, Ronaldinho, leave the club. Guardiola, the club's reserve team manager, had deemed the Brazilian to be a bad influence at the club.

The club's best player had let himself go, his mind was obviously elsewhere, and he had put on a shocking amount of weight for a professional footballer. Ronaldinho was sold to Milan, and Guardiola went to work on Henry and Eto'o.

The effect is there for all to see. Henry, who many had felt was a spent force, is now probably Barca's most influential player behind Messi. So far this season, he has weighed in with 22 goals from 30 starts, most impressive I'm sure you'll agree.

With Messi on the right, Eto'o through the middle, and Henry on the left, Barcelona have the most devastating front line in world football. And when they combine, they are unstoppable.

But the forward line is not the only place where Barca excel. Their midfield is also one of the most accomplished in world football.

Injuries have been kind to the engine room this season, and with players like Sergi Busquets, Iniesta, and Xavi—the latter two from Spain's European Championship winning team—joining Yaya Toure, Seidou Keita, and Aleksander Hleb, their midfield is one that inspires fear the minute they take to the pitch.

Xavi and Iniesta provide the guile and creativity, and are probably the two most creative central midfielders in world football at the moment. Yaya Toure, brother of Arsenal's Kolo Toure, is the power-house in midfield, providing cover to the defence and breaking down the oppositions attack time after time.

Without this amazing midfield, the triumvirate of Messi, Henry, and Eto'o would not receive the service their play deserves.

The manager deserves great credit for Barcelona's style. He has integrated a team full of superstars with massive egos together into a team where the individual skills of the players are harnessed for a team where everyone plays for each other.

His credo of honesty, effort, and hard work, which he stuck to as a player, has come through as a manager.

Much has been written about Barcelona's weaknesses in defence, mostly by British-based journalists. They say Barcelona are susceptible to high balls through the middle and that the attack-minded full backs leave gaps behind them that English teams would exploit.

The simple fact of the matter is that Barcelona play in Spain, not England, so their style suits their country.

Should Chelsea progress to the semi-finals of the Champions League to meet Barcelona after last week's superb results against Liverpool (1-3), and Bayern Munich (4-0) respectively, then they will face a foe armed with skills that they have not had to face this year.

The aerial dominance that Chelsea enjoyed over Liverpool is quite significant. The Anfield team are no pushovers in the heading department, and the fact that Chelsea dominated such a physically strong team will have set Guardiola's mind racing on how to combat this alien tactic to the Spanish game.

Rafael Marquez and Carlos Puyol are not blessed with great height, but they are superb man-to-man markers so it looks likely that this tactic will be employed during set pieces.

Much will be expected of Victor Valdes. The 27-year-old goalkeeper has had to live in the shadow of Real Madrid's phenomenal Iker Casillas for a long time, and these next couple of weeks could establish him as the country's best 'keeper. With the World Cup in South Africa only one year away, it would be a perfect time to strike.

Barcelona have played the best football in Europe this season, there is no questioning that. The Catalan team have always played an expansive style; their fans demand it.

If they keep playing the way they have so far, they will garner even more attention, and even more fans...with the same demand.

We want football played the way we dream. Barcelona bring that and more, some of the goals that they have scored this season can only have been created by a divine hand.

The last player to command such affinity with the divine used the "Hand of God". I think we have finally met his match.

twitter / WillieGannon