Monday, April 19, 2010

Inter Will Be Close, But Not Close Enough: Champions League Semi Finals Preview

At this stage of the Champions League last year, I was confident that Barcelona would get through Chelsea. Importantly, I did not base my prediction on calculated, rational thought. Instead, what I recognized was that the Barcelona of last year were a team of destiny. I instinctively knew that we were bearing witness to history in the making, and that they would go through not because Chelsea weren't capable of knocking Barca out -- they decidedly were -- but because in a season like 2008-09, Barcelona had Fate (or God, if you prefer) on their side. Here's what I wrote:
My head wants to go with Chelsea, but my heart (and not just the Barca-fan part of my heart) says Barcelona. You just get the feeling watching them that they are a team of destiny; where things have fallen in place for one transient period; when the stars and planets have aligned, when Messi has remained fit, and Deco and Ronaldinho aren't around to wreak havoc in the dressing room; when Guardiola has worked magic beyond anyone's expectations in his first year; where each game has represented a tribute to the footballing gods, each an aesthetic and sporting symphony in its own right, each player partaking in this wonderful experience that we shall all remember for the rest of our lives, so that we can all tell our grandchildren: I was there when Messi and Xavi and Iniesta and Eto'o reduced opponents to tears and brought untold joy to the world, and indeed changed it in their own indomitable way; I was there when all excellence -- and not just the concept of excellence, but the very form of excellence, the way Plato meant the term -- found itself embodied in the Blaugrana; and perfection, that ever unattainable of goals for humankind, was just once flirted with, and brought within touching distance of us all, close enough so that we actually felt its presence, the same way Abelard and Heloise felt the other's presence, even if it was only in their imagination. You just get the feeling.
Well, that was last year.

Though Barcelona have reached those heights at various times this year, it has not been sustained or consistent. Moreover, the very point of being special is that it is unattainable with any regularity. Thus, they have come back to ground this year; a regular football team. Make no mistake, they are a very, very good football team, the world's best. But the difference this year is that they exist on the same plane as everyone else, which was patently not the case last year.

Why does this matter? Because considered logically and empirically, Inter have an excellent shot of beating Barcelona. Let's count the reasons why:

1. Barca are tired. The Inter game will be their twelfth in 40 days -- several of them high profile, high octane fixtures (three CL games, Valencia, Real, the derby). The fatigue has clearly caught up with them, as anyone who saw the nil-nil draw against Espanyol will attest.

2. Inter are exactly the type of team Barca hate playing against. Yes, Barca beat them in the group stages of the Champions League, fairly comfortably at that. But their physicality and rough-and-tumble nature, their ability to launch quick counter-attacks and score on the break, and their tactical acumen will test Barca to the limit.

3. Two words: Andres Iniesta. He hasn't been fit for more than a few weeks at a time this entire season. In essence, the decision to play him in last year's CL final against United was a Faustian bargain -- he hasn't really recovered from that injury all year. He's out for this tie, and his ability to play tiki-taka with Xavi in the center of the park is unparalleled, and will be missed. Especially against a team that will compress space like Inter with the likes of Cambiasso and Motta and Stankovic, players that can function in tight spaces are vital.

4. Pep's strange preference for Busquets over Yaya. Yes, yes, I've read all the accounts of Busquets being more positionally disciplined than Yaya, and that he is better at passing and getting attacks started. Even if that is true, it doesn't deflect from the fact that in these bruising encounters -- and make no mistake, Mourinho will make these as bruising as possible -- you need a tough S.O.B, which Yaya is. Yaya is also less likely to dive and roll around like he's been shot, and cost Barca with breakaways the other way.

5. Samuel Eto'o. I've been on record time and again as saying the Ibra swap was worth it. But I will say this: few players take as much pleasure in scoring against their old teams. Few players score as many big-game goals. And few players will strike as much fear in Barcelona's hearts if it's the last ten minutes at the Camp Nou, second leg, and Inter need just one goal to go through. Wouldn't you expect him to score, somehow, someway?

All this is to say, I'm worried. I'm very worried.

But what gets me from worrying too much is that every single time Guardiola has needed to have this team ready this season, they have been. Every single time Xavi or Messi have needed to drag this team with them, on their slight shoulders, they have. Every single time Barca have hit a so-called lull -- and only in their case is a 0-0 draw away to intense, local rivals categorized as a lull -- they have bounced back, and made their next opponents pay the price. Man for man, Barcelona are a better team. Of that I have no doubt.

If Inter go through, and it must be emphasized how plausible that outcome is, it won't be because they outplayed Barca. It'll be a freak goal or a ridiculous off-side or a stupid penalty or some such. Of course, that can happen. But put a gun to my head, and I have to pick Barca. Inter will be close, but not close enough.

PREDICTION: Barcelona go through 2-1 on aggregate.
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Quick thoughts on Bayern-Lyon. Not having watched an awful lot of these two teams outside European competition, I advise you to take my words with many grains of salt. My first inclination is to suggest that Lyon are simply a better team. Every time I watch Bayern, they are shambolic defensively. Every time I watch Lyon, I come away impressed with how organized they are, both going forward and tracking back. They've easily been the more impressive team in Europe this year, so I have to go with the form book.

PREDICTION: Lyon go through 4-2 on aggregate.

23 comments:

right side of the river said...

Barca really should've lost the 2nd leg at Stamford Bridge 3-0 at least. But for poor finishing from Drogba and absolutely atrocious refereeing. I guess you can call that destiny. I mean, I'm glad the season ended the way it did but in all of that, this was one game where they were completely dominated and outclassed and should've lost comprehensively.

As for Lyon, watch out for the best goalkeeper on the planet in French national teamer Hugo Loris playing for them. The guy has Spidey-like reflexes and getting past him will take some doing.

Rohan Venkat said...

I dunno if Barca "should've" lost that game. We certainly benefited from the referring (and were paid back by an unnecessary red card), but we still came out to attack and win, holding the ball, despite only having 10 men. But I see the other argument.

As far as Bayern-Lyon, while Lloris is simply brilliant, I wouldn't underestimate former-Barca man Louis Van Gaal's tactical capabilities, I think i'll be tighter than the prediction. But that backline is awful.

Ahsan said...

Right side: I don't want to get into last year's semi again, it was acrimonious for everyone involved, but let me just say that there was only one clear penalty (I watched the highlights again recently) and that was the Pique handball. Moreover, Barca were denied a clear penalty at the Camp Nou when Henry was pulled down, and also Ballack should've been sent off in the first leg, which would've meant (a) playing against ten men in the first leg, and (b) no Ballack for the second leg.

Anyway, that's all I have to say on that topic.

Rohan:

I think Julio Cesar is the best, but again I don't watch Lyon regularly so take that with a grain of salt.

Umair J said...

Ahsan: The Lyon-Bayern match is probably as close to call as the Inter-Barca one (Level of football being a few notches below notwithstanding). The interesting bit is that Bayern more often than not have had to be dragged up by Ribery and Robben who are the only two world-class players on both squads. Lyon have had the bogey over Madrid and they've put in decent European performances over the last 6 years, but that win against United, especially the manner of the win, suggests an almost Liverpool circa 2005 feel to this Bayern team

(not that i'm suggesting they'll go on to win it, but then again no one was backing Liverpool at that time too).

karachikhatmal said...

i do miss last season - the whole barca thing did feel like fate, something very similar to 2005 liverpool. dont think that is quite the case for this bayern team - they have had one good win, which should put them through the semis perhaps, but doubt they would be eventual winners.

that said, oh how grand it would be were inter to asphyxiate barca like espanyol, and then rob them at the nou camp. i wouldn't watch such matches, but then return here for the gloating.

ahsan's barca snobbism, coupled with their inability to lose, has started acquiring man yoo-esque overtures.

Umair J said...

@KK: Barca are a lot more difficult to hate than Manyoo ever were. They're just so very pretty.

adeel said...

ahsan, you forgot to factor in the 10-14 hour (depending on which source you pick) bus ride for barca.

and that long on the bus with their headphones and ipods on probably didnt help team bonding.

can we find any other reasons to help ahsan say I told you so regardless of whether barca win or lose ;)

lala pathan said...

Although i have to say Jose Morhino is the only man capable of knocking out a team like barca , i will say Barca will win the champions league this yr again , doesn't matter if Iniesta is fit or not , they have depth and believe and on top others have fear of Barca and if Messi and Xavi can keep playing like they are , those two alone are quite capable of destroying any defense. The only problem i see with barca is their defense . Barca and argentina are similar when it come to football , great attack but weak defense.

lala pathan said...

oh and one more thing Byern is way better then Lyon, i guess u really didn't see the Utd Byern game .

adeel said...

wow, do I miss Lucio or what, wish he'd never gone to Inter, imagine him instead of dimi....

Butterscotch said...

Year of bad prediction ahsan. Special one proved how special he is. Pep isn't destined for greatness. Mourinho is
nou camp will be a towering hill for Barca

karachikhatmal said...

umm butterscotch that's a tad harsh isn't it?

as a player, pep was part of the original dream team, and won everything there was to win.

as a manager, in his debut season, he won six trophies, aka everything there was to win, and he did it with a team playing the most breathtaking football seen in a decade. already, people are contemplating whether this barca group can challenge for the all time great teams list.

he's perhaps also the only man in europe who's dressing can make mourinho look like he's shown up for casual friday.

not sure what else he would have to do to be designated a legend in your eyes...

that said, whattan inter. and the best part is they didn't win with the expected rough house approach. they were really playing full throttle.

zeyd said...

I know Sneijder and Milito will get the plaudits and deservedly so, but just how immense was Zanetti? Fantastic player and a great professional. That twat Balotelli could learn a lot from him.

Another masterclass by Jose, superbly executed by his players. The number of offside calls illustrated their strategy - win possession and immediately look to release. Barca play a dangerous game with their pressing and resultant high line, and a swift counterattacking team can take advantage of that. Inter, with Etoo, Pandev, Milito, and Sneijder linking midfield and attack are a real threat on the counter and showed that.

Still just halftime though, and Barca will certainly feel they have a 2-0 result in them, but man it'll be tight. The longer it remains goalless the more they'll push forward and be susceptible on the counter. It's going to be tense.

Anonymous said...

@karachikhatmal

pep was an amazing player. part of a legendary team. but legend? getting carried away aren't we?

and in the world of management he's got nothing on jose yet. one season does not make one a great manager.

in 8 years if pep has got something close to 5 league titles, 3 cup titles and a Champions League trophy (maybe 2 now?)... then we can discuss the merits of your argument.

oh did I mention his 5 league titles came in 3 different european leagues and he won the champions league with PORTO.

like i said, guardiola might be great, but let's not jump the gun just yet - he was tactically outclassed last night and it showed.

vics said...

wow! I don't think many would've predicted that scoreline but fine play or rough, I'm scared of Inter's back four... now more than ever! Bloody ankle-kicking shin-assassins!

Butterscotch said...

Anon
Precisely my point. First year in management, already achieved great success, bringing the concept of 'total football' but lets not forget the contribution of Frank rijkaard. Pep has built up on that success. In cricketing term a team left by Mark Taylor taken to greater heights by Steve Waugh
I would still like to see how Pep is able to carry on with this kind of success. For now hats off to him
You know the semi final last night almost painfully reminded me of last year's 2nd leg between Chelsea and Barca. A match gifted to barca due to some atrocious refereeing. Barca were on the recieving end last night with at least 2 sure penalties being turned down. Its only coming back to them.
Mourinho has proved to be a better tactician and more importantly turned messi into something of a mortal:)
Having said everything i still feel barca will make it to the finals

karachikhatmal said...

anon, butterscotch:

firstly, i never said guardiola was a legendary player, only that he was also a great one who accomplished a lot. its an important point, because many great managers - ferguson, mourinho, wenger etc - were not good players, and many good players, are shit coaches. guardiola has achieved success - once in a lifetime, dream team moniker earning success - both as a player and a manager.

secondly, pep has a tally of possibly 2 league titles, 4 cup titles, and one champion's league title - in one year. if the merits of our argument are based on numbers, i'm sorry, no one else's hold up.

thirdly, the good point about guardiola inheriting a great team ends up undoing mourinho's success as well. the chelsea team he got from ranieri was runners-up in the league, and CL semi-finalists. he never managed to improve the CL record. the inter team he got was an even greater behemoth. i don't think these points detract from mourinho's achievements, but then they shouldn't detract from pep's either.

fourthly, let me make an emotional plea here, as a fan. i love mourinho for his brash style, great comments, his sense of drama. but in purely football terms, who the hell thinks poetic, flowing, gorgeous football is inferior to clever, wily, pragmatic football? in fact, the cricket analogy works best here. steve waugh had all the records, but would you rather see him bat, or would you see prince charles of trinidad and tobago? guardiola's side plays like lara, with the flourish, the flow, the imperiousness, the breathtaking beauty. in my book, playing like that, at the very top level, is a rare rare thing. winning with that style is legendary.

if you wanted to see barca being tactically asphyxiated, you could have tuned into the getafe match last week. are we saying that victor munoz is as good as mourinho? or rather, just as tactically gifted? of course not. but my point is that dragging down great teams in the mud is smart work, and leads to great achievements. but even a moment of sublime genius will outshine it forever.

if you don't believe me, try and see how many members of the 1954 world cup winning west german team you remember. then look up puskas. legends are made on the basis of genius, joy and flair - not on the basis of medals and trophies alone.

Anonymous said...

@kk, bs

firstly, appreciate the lengthy response but the point remains you need to wait and see how he does over a period of time. one amazing season does not make him a great manager.

secondly, your numbers include mickey mouse cups which nobody includes in stats and which we've ignored for mourinho - take only each country's major knockout cup and we'll see how pep compares in 8 years. also, how do you win two league titles in one year? :-S

thirdly, it is a whole different skills set to be able to become a successful manager in different countries with their varying styles of football regardless of the team you inherit. for all we know pep might be incapable of this (or might be amazing). to take the league and cup in 3 different countries (more than twice in 2) is phenomenal.

fourthly, to be honest it was more enjoyable to watch inter last night than barca. their edgy, counter-attack based approach made them far more entertaining to watch. and to do this with a team from italy, the home of dour tactics, is an even greater achievement (in spain you'd expect it, and in that sense, pep is standard issue).

karachikhatmal said...

Anon:

hehe, apologies for the contrived stats, i realised the 2 league titles after i posted. :P

also, i am not trying to challenge the notion that mourinho is a legend - i am one of his biggest fans myself, so no issues there.

as for pep, in my book he's a legend. his mentor, cryuff, also didn't win the trophies one stipulates as requisite for greatness, but for me, these two are like zappa or even pink floyd. there has always been a rigorous prioritization for the aesthetics and intellect of the game, above the results. this kind of thinking never lasts very long. they are brief shining moments to be cherished.

i protest the usage of stats because imagine 30 years later, your child turns to you and says, "that lara was good, but he never won anything for his team. i think hayden and langer were the greater players, look at how much they won. look at their stats." if it happens to me, i would slap my kid and sit him down to watch that 153.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mc1SRpo1NMU

but i guess we can keep doing this forever. i know that some prefer seeing how a manager performs over time, and fair enough, its probably the better criteria. and yes, watching inter last night was sublime. but then again, as a real fan, watching barca lose or even draw is always a great source of joy. :)

Butterscotch said...

KK
strictly in context of puskas, the genius, the flair and the sheer beauty can only be taken into consideration after impressive statistical record.
Puskas for one was a part of mighty magyars the legendary hungarian team of 40s 50s.
Played along the likes of De stefano in the mighty Real team of 50s.
Scored more international goals thn the games he played for hungry.
And last but not the least the political reasons, his rebellious attitude that contributed to his legend
Summary
Statistically the most impressive footballer of all time playing for two of the most impressive footballs teams of all time made him an icon. Apart from 1954 worldcup he was pretty much the part of every winning team:)

adeel said...

as far as shooting ones self in the foot goes, bayern are top dog...

got a clean sheet first half for once but ribery sent off, what a stupid tackle!

Ahsan said...

Quick comments here. One, I don't see Barca overturning this. Not against a Mourinho team so comfortably ahead in the tie. It's basically over barring a miracle. Barca will go all out though. The template is provided by being knocked out of Sevilla in the Copa del Rey, where Barca went so hard and so mightily at them that it almost didn't matter to me that they didn't succeed. It was beautiful to watch, that beauty coupled with that intensity. We'll see it again next Wednesday, I assure you, but it won't be enough, I don't think.

Two, on the Pep debate: he's a fantastic manager, brilliant motivator, excellent tactician, but an impulsive buyer and seller (Chygryinski 25 mil? Getting rid of Caceres so soon?). People who think he took the same team with talent that Rijkaard had conveniently miss out the fact that that team ended 18 points behind Madrid and were crap for 18 months before he got fired.

Pep changed a number of things, both on and off the pitch. All that pressing high on the pitch you see is all Pep; Barca NEVER did that under Rijkaard, even in the heyday of Ronanldinho, Deco, etc. Second, he pushed Xavi further up the pitch; same player, different results. Third, he made a ball-playing CB the central component to Barca's attacks -- Marquez was huge to Rijkaard's teams but he doesn't begin to compare to the responsiblity Pique has for Pep. Fourth, he's made Messi more central, who almost regularly plays as a false 9 now in big games, and drops deep when he needs to, which never happened under Rijkaard.

Off the pitch, he was more important, making them responsible, instilling team spirit, making them more disciplined etc.

So yes, it's just been over a year, but Pep already belongs amongst the top two or three managers in the game. I have no doubt were he to go to England or Italy he would succeed in equal parts there.

lala pathan said...

Did Morhino achieve what Pep has in his first yr of management? think no1 else has not even fergie or wenger , it is early to say that he is a the greatest but surely is in the making and Ahsan i am a little disappointed , Barca will win it , this just makes one hell of a game now since Inter will be all 11 with in their half and counter attacking and thats the only time they hav a chance since barca has a very dumb defense but i still say barca is gonna go through , think about it all they hav to do is score 2 goals , Messi alone can do that at Camp Nou , never underestimate a great player , all they need is one magic moment and its on .