The best team on the planet? Certainly. Unbeatable? Certainly not.
Much has been made of the current Barcelona team, and quite rightly so. They’ve had a truly blistering season in La Liga, racking up 100 goals in 34 games. Whichever way you look at it, that’s one phenomenal stat. They have a goal difference of +72 in the league and find themselves once again at the semi-final stage of the Champions League.
Before the first leg at the Nou Camp, many people wrote Chelsea off altogether, “you can’t stop them scoring” they said, and to be perfectly honest I agreed, but I didn’t think that meant they would lose. Because the thing about Barcelona is that they’re a little bit unsteady at the back. If you can get the ball off them (and that is a difficult task, granted) there are definite weaknesses to expose.
In the first leg, Chelsea stopped them scoring. It wasn’t pretty, and it sort of ruined everyones hopes of a classic match, but fair play to Hiddink and his players, they came away with probably the least expected result. But still, many people will see Barcelona as favourites, because to win Chelsea have to attack, they have to score, and in going forward, they will have to remove some of the bricks from the defensive blockades that kept Messi & co. at bay in the first leg, and so away goals could be forthcoming for Barca.
Of course, just when people had started to doubt Barcelona though, they throw out a performance to reassure everyone that they really are brilliant. They beat Real Madrid by six goals to two at the Bernabeu last night. This is the Real Madrid side that are domestically the in-form team in Europe. This is a Real Madrid side that had won 17 and drawn 1 of their previous 18 games in the league. And Barcelona came out and put six past them.
It’s a devastating result that should all but seal Barcelona’s first La Liga title for a couple of years, and will shatter the pride of their fierce rivals who had gotten close to catching them up and clawed their way slowly back into the title race. For Chelsea too, it must go down as a dire warning. To beat a team of Real Madrid’s calibre, and in such imperious form, in such convincing fashion surely has the Londoners a bit worried. Don’t get me wrong, Chelsea are probably a better side than Madrid, but that may not be enough to cope with Barca in full flow.
However, I watched the goals from El Classico just before, and I have to say, in a strange way, Chelsea might actually find some hope there, rather than despair. Because yes, Barcelona scored six good goals, but Chelsea are better defensively than Madrid and should be able to cope with the attacking prowess of Barca better than the current Spanish champions.
However, it will be Madrid’s two goals that give Chelsea hope. Chelsea beat Liverpool in the last round thanks to some really poor defending on set plays from Liverpool in the first leg, which allowed Ivanovic, one of Chelsea’s many aerial threats to score twice and give them a good lead. The second leg went a bit mad, as I’m sure we all remember, but it was that defencive weakness that set up Chelsea’s progression.
Watching Barca’s defending for Madrid’s two goals will give Hiddink a very good idea of how best to attack Barcelona. For the opening goal of El Classico, from Higuain, the ball was centred by Sergio Ramos and the Argentinian found himself completely unmarked in the very middle of Barca’s penalty area, and had the very simplest of tasks to nod a free header past Victor Valdes.
The second, in the second half when Madrid had collapsed to trail 1-3, came from an Arjen Robben free kick. The Barcelona defenders picked up their men and established a line across the six yard box, but when the ball was struck and swinging in, they allowed their players to simply run off them and so Sergio Ramos was given a free header inside the six yard box to power past Valdes and give the hosts brief, fleeting hope.
As it transpired of course, these defensive lapses weren’t fatal for Barcelona, and cost the nothing but a slightly more emphatic scoreline. But considering that Chelsea possess a wealth of aerial threats: John Terry, Alex, Branslav Ivanovic, Didier Drogba and Michale Ballack being the main candidates; Pep Guardiola will surely have to look seriously at improving their defensive discipline ahead of the second leg clash with Chelsea.
Hiddink, on the other hand, will have spotted an opportunity. Because he will know as well as anyone, and will have been reminded each time the ball hit Real Madrid’s net, just how good Barca are going forward. He knows that it will take another outstanding defensive performance to restrain Barca and prevent any away goals, and he knows that achieving that while also looking for goals themselves requires a very fine balance to be struck.
But, he will also know that if he can field a team that can soak up Barcelona’s pressure as they did at the Nou Camp but break quickly when they grab possession, and get the ball into the area, they have a chance. I strongly expect Hiddink to play with at least one natural winger who has a lot of pace, eg. Malouda or Kalou, so that when they gain possession they can look to release them quickly. These wide players (and Anelka could play on the other side perhaps) will be encouraged to hit the byline and get the ball in, or at the very least, win a corner.
When the ball does break like this, Drogba will make a b-line for the penalty area, as will Frank Lampard and perhaps Essien or Ballack, but one of those should stay and anchor the midfield, and the defence will remain in position, in case possession should be lost. If the ball goes into the box, Drogba, Lampard, one winger and Essien/Ballack will hope to take advantage of some slack marking and power in a header. If it goes out for a corner, the big guns will come up from the back and pose a real goalscoring threat.
If this is Hiddink’s strategy, those wishing for a classic free-scoring encounter may be disappointed, but those hoping for a second all-English final may not. It will be a game which sees Barcelona in possession quite frequently, but will see Chelsea play with discipline and occasional, hopefully devastatingly incisive counter attacks, with very much an element of cat and mouse about it.
So in all, I must give credit to Barcelona for their emphatic win against Real Madrid, and will certainly say that they just about pip Everton to being crowned the greatest team on the planet at the moment (just kidding, Everton all the way) but that that by no means renders them unbeatable. Pep Guardiola has certainly got them functioning as a nigh-on unstoppable attacking force, but as is often the case with such teams, they lack defensive solidity.
Guus Hiddink is a top manager, and no doubt far more tactically aware than I, but this strategy that I’ve outlined in this article seems to me like it could work. Whether he employs this or some variation, he will have taken great heart from Barcelona’s triumph in Madrid. Their attacking prowess was no secret, even if we never expected them to destroy Madrid quite so convincingly, but the match did underline Barca’s only weakness.
It may not be El Classico on Wednesday night, but I think there is a very good chance that Chelsea could upset the script, because although the glory always goes to the goalscorers in football, defence is just as important, and while Barca are unrivalled going forward, they’re no great shakes at the back, whereas Chelsea are pretty damn good at both ends of the park, and while it may not be the feast of attacking football that some are hoping for, I think that this contrast ensures that it will be an epic match all the same.