*Editor's Note, a quality article by Manuel Traquete, who is a founding member of Barca Blaugranes.
Less trophies, a better team.
In 2009, Josep Guardiola exceeded all expectations and led FC Barcelona to an unprecedented sextuple of trophies, with an exciting brand of football that brought Barcelona worldwide acclaim. This season, still under Pep, Barcelona can only win two trophies, having lost the Copa del Rey final to Real Madrid in April, but the team is arguably better than in 2009.
As Johan Cruyff once said, reaching the top is not easy, but staying there is even more difficult. How do you keep players like Xavi Hernandez, Andrés Iniesta, Carles Puyol et al, who have won everything there is to win in football, focused, motivated and hungry? Pep took the challenge and proved what a great manager he is; in 2010, he led Barcelona to yet another league title, against a record-breaking Real Madrid that had strengthened their squad with the likes of Kaka, Xabi Alonso, Benzema and then Player of the Year Cristiano Ronaldo. However, Barcelona did fail to retain their Champions League crown, after a disappointing defeat to Inter Milan in the semifinals. Most fans rightly felt that the team was not as good as in 2009; replacing Barcelona legend Samuel Eto'o with Zlatan Ibrahimovic turned out to be a very costly mistake, one which only harmed Barca's European chances. 2009/2010 was still undeniably a successful season for Barcelona: another league title and the emergence of Pedro Rodriguez and Sergio Busquets, who would then go on to win the World Cup with Spain.
This season, the challenge was bigger than ever for Guardiola. In order to win another league title, Barcelona would have to beat the most expensive squad ever assembled in football, led by none other than José Mourinho, the manager who had put an end to Barcelona's 2010 Champions League hopes. To make matters more difficult, the core of Barcelona's squad had just won the World Cup with Spain and negative post-World Cup effects were expected. The general consensus was that Barcelona's domination in Spain was over: Pep Guardiola would certainly be no match for José Mourinho and his army of superstars. Despite "having no chance", Pep, as the stubborn man he is, decided to give it a go. In the summer, he offloaded Ibrahimovic, Thierry Henry, Rafa Marquez, Chigrinskiy... and brought David Villa, Adriano and Javier Mascherano. But according to the critics, that wouldn't change anything; Barcelona's squad was too short and certainly unable to compete with Real Madrid and José Mourinho.
The critics seemed to be proven right when Barcelona succumbed to a shocking home defeat against Hercules on September 10. It was the end of Barcelona and Pep Guardiola, they had been "figured out".
Barely did people know that Barcelona would go on to remain unbeaten in the league for 31 games after that. After drawing with Mallorca on matchday 5, Barcelona went on a 16-match winning streak, breaking the La Liga record for consecutive wins. Among these 16 wins, a historic 5-0 win over none other than Real Madrid. On that unforgettable November 29 night, Barcelona put in their greatest performance under Guardiola and arguably one of greatest collective performances of all-time, throughly dismantling José Mourinho's side. Barcelona humbled Real Madrid, took the lead in La Liga and has never looked back since.
Months later, here we are: Barcelona are champions of Spain again and ready to face Manchester United in the Champions League final. But the road hasn't been easy, far from it. It has been more difficult than ever before. The World Cup took its toll, as the team started to look exhausted in February. Villa and Pedro, for instance, who had been in unstoppable scoring form, have failed to find the net consistently since February, even if they haven't exactly performed badly. But fatigue was not the only issue; injuries started to mount, much more than in the previous seasons, Abidal's situation also affected the team and the entire Barcelona nation. The squad became so short that Javier Mascherano and Sergio Busquets had to take turns playing as centre-backs, which they did brilliantly.
While some expected the team to collapse like in 2007, the opposite happened; the team showed great resolve and maturity and kept winning despite the circumstances. The spectacular free-flowing game of November/December was replaced by an even more possession-oriented style, slightly more conservative and less spectacular. In the first half of the league season, Barcelona scored a record-breaking 61 goals in 19 matches. In the second half, only 31 goals in 18 matches. The stats don't lie, Barcelona lost their early swagger.
But that's exactly why this team is better than their 2009 counterparts, they had to overcome a lot more obstacles: fatigue, injuries, a world-beating Real Madrid in all competitions, accusations of doping, diving, cheating, favoritism, racism... you name it. But they kept it all together and succeeded in the face of adversity. Maybe they're not better than their 2009 counterparts man by man, but they're better as a team, as a unit. Pedro Rodriguez and David Villa might not be better players than Henry and Eto'o, but they certainly have better work ethic. Never has Barcelona's pressure been higher and more asphyxiating and that has a lot to do with Pedro and Villa's relentless work ethic. Besides, Pedro and especially Villa have both sacrificed their personal stats to accommodate Lionel Messi and make the world's best player shine more than ever, something that should be appreciated and valued by fans. David Villa has had an extraordinary first season at the club and has been instrumental to Barca's success. Pedro and Busquets have also fully adapted to the team and are now undisputed starters, having improved the dynamic of the team. Promoting them to the first team was another stroke of genius by Guardiola. The relative ease with each Barcelona advanced to the Champions League final (only Arsenal caused some problems, Real Madrid and Shakhtar were pretty much eliminated after the first leg) seems to confirm that this is the best Barca team under Pep Guardiola.
I've been supporting Barca since the beginning of the 00s and I've never been more excited and proud with a title. There were so many obstacles, both on and off the pitch. Guardiola and the players really showed what they're made of.
That's what makes this title the greatest achievement of the Guardiola era as far as I'm concerned. Besides their huge skills and talent, the players all showed tremendous fighting spirit, an incredible commitment to the club and willingness to sacrifice themselves for the greater good. These are the players, these are the men I want representing the club I support! I had never been prouder as a Barcelona supporter before.
A great example of the hardships Barcelona had to go through is the recent Sergio Busquets situation. I'm particular sympathetic towards Busquets; maybe because he's one of my favorite players and I've defended him ever since he took Yaya's place in the lineup last season, maybe because I've gone through something somewhat similar recently myself. The campaign (especially in the media) against Busquets has been downright disgraceful; even some so-called Barcelona fans turned against Busi on the blogosphere. I can only imagine how hard this last month has been for our talented midfielder. That was pretty much visible during the title celebrations at Camp Nou; Busquets was visibly down, barely able to say anything during his victory speech. It was then that, in a gesture that sums up what Barcelona are all about, Xavi Hernandez asked the Camp Nou to encourage Busquets and show him their full support by chanting his name. It was clear in Busquets's expression that he couldn't be happier that the Camp Nou was with him.
This is why we as fans should be so proud of this team. They're a real TEAM. Not a random group of individuals, but friends who help each other out on and off the pitch, who stick by each other at all times. They leave no man behind; they win together and they lose together. Alone, most Barcelona players are world beaters in their own right. Together, playing as a team, they're a force to be reckoned with, the most devastating force in world football of the past decade.
On May 28 at Wembley, Barcelona will try to beat Manchester United and win their third Champions League in the past six years, and fourth overall. Whatever happens in this match, Barcelona fans around the world (at least this one) will never, ever forget this fantastic season and this fantastic team that has made us all so proud. Still, it'd be nice if they could win it, for Eric Abidal, for Sergio Busquets and for every Barcelona supporter around the world!