BARCELONA, SPAIN - MAY 29: Lionel Messi of FC Barcelona holds the UEFA Champions League Trophy during the celebrations after winning the UEFA Champions League Final against Manchester United, at Camp Nou Stadium on May 29, 2011 in Barcelona, Spain. (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
It’s that time of the year again, ladies and gentlemen, when it’s all there to play for. In a few hours, this year’s Champions League draw is due. It will be revealed with whom Europe’s top teams are paired with in the group stages, among those teams, FC Barcelona. Like most of you, I’m filled with a feeling of apprehension. Allow me to say that again, just so you get the significance of what is going to happen:
Apprehension- In the dictionary, I believe, it is defined as ‘nervous excitement’. I want to know who Barca are going to play, but until that moment when they start announcing the teams, I will continue to have this feeling. I don’t doubt our beloved team, not for their footballing skills at least. No, what I cannot help but question is their motivation and desire.
The team’s highly venerated coach, Pep Guardiola, will have to work his magic (something we, as fans, have gotten used to seeing and maybe even taking it for granted?) and give this squad, that has won everything, a strong chance to keep on winning.
The previous paragraph was the cause for excitement. After all, the Blaugrana have the top three players in the world at the moment. Who among us does not want to watch Xavi Hernandez delivering the perfect pass to Lionel Messi, who finishes with aplomb? A visionary, Xavi will need to be at his best for Barca to win the elusive trophy once more, and in consecutive seasons no less, a feat not repeated since the inception of the Champions League in its current format.
Ol’ Big Ears is jinxed, as there isn’t a club that has won the Champions League in consecutive years since the format was introduced. The Blaugrana is the team that could change that. This team could make history with hard work and a little bit of luck. As for being nervous? Well, below is the list of clubs that I think have a squad capable enough to give Barca a headache:
· AC Milan
· Olympique Lyonnaise
· Shaktar Donetsk
· Manchester City
· Borussia Dortmund
This doesn’t mean the other teams in the four pots are a walk in the park as opponents. I just feel that the teams above are the troublesome seven (in the group stages). As I mentioned before, winning the Champions League isn’t just hard work. It involves a degree of luck for a team to reach the finals, let alone win it. I honestly believe Manchester United F.C got a free pass, of sorts till the finals (last year). In my opinion, the competition they faced last year didn’t really give them much trouble. A low on self esteem Chelsea side was as tough as it got for them. Whether drawing an easy group is good or bad I will leave for you (the reader) to decide, because technically, everything is easy till you meet this Barca squad.
Like I’ve mentioned in a previous article, any squad with the ambition to win what is arguably the most important trophy of the season, has to consider the possibility that they might face FC Barcelona. The Blaugrana, widely accepted as the best team in the world, with certain pundits going as far as to say that this current squad is the best the world has seen, have been the target of most managers. Solving ‘The Barca Question’ has become an obsession for Jose Mourinho for example.
In my understanding, before a team can plan tactics to find a permanent solution on how to defeat Barca, they have to ask themselves a question. The answer to this particular question is usually the same all over Europe. The question itself?
Is this squad good enough to go toe-for-toe with FC Barcelona?
Can a team take the game to the Blaugrana? Theoretically, the answer is ‘yes’ but realistically? No, there isn’t a club side in Europe, with the exception of Real Madrid C.F, that can hope to win by attacking the men in blue and maroon. Since, Barca won’t meet their eternal rivals in the group stage, I shall refrain from writing about the all whites (quite frankly, I’m tired of Madrid and their antics and choose not to give the translator the time of day).
If the answer to the first question is ‘No’, then what exactly does a team do to beat Barca?
The solution is as mundane as can be. Soak up the, inevitable, pressure and hope to hit them (Barca) on the counter- attack. The variation on that tactic is, ofcourse, ‘the Real Madrid way’ which is the same with a slight addition, when the team defends, conditioned specifically to break legs.
Another team, capable of playing the game in a physical manner is A.C Milan. In my opinion, Gennaro Gattuso is Pepe’s Italian cousin and a red card away at any point of time. Barcelona’s passing game will only encourage tough tackles from them and the Blaugrana would have to focus on quick passes and a touch of magic from La Pulga. Add to that equation, ex-Barcelona player, Zlatan Ibrahimovic (I had to google his name because I got too used to calling him ‘Ibraflop’) with his height, black belt in martial arts, and his hatred for Pep Guardiola, and the Spanish giants could have a problem or two (like a broken rib).
Ibrahimovic RED CARD Punches Marco Rossi - Ac Milan 1-1 Bari 13 03 2011 (via HDPremierleague)
French side Olympique Lyonnaise is another potential hiccup on the road to Champions League glory for F.C Barcelona. Any club side which can beat Real Madrid in Europe’s premier club competition deserves Barca’s full attention. Personally, Lyon are one of the side’s I enjoy watching, with what seems like the French version of one touch football, they have all the necessary talent to beat F.C Barcelona. Lisandro Lopez, Michel Bastos and Hugo Lloris are, in my opinion, their star players. Michel Bastos in particular, seems to be in good form and has an extremely dangerous left foot, to either score or cross.
Ukraine based football club Shaktar Donetsk are one of the teams that Barca knows well. The talent their squad possesses is surprisingly steep. Last year, the Ukrainian outfit caught their opponents off guard. They have extremely quick forwards and look to ‘shock and awe’ with a midfield capable of supporting the strikers and is in general a team that demands respect.
Teams like Napoli, Benfica and Borussia Dortmund can also produce the goods, although it’s hard to evaluate Napoli after their woeful performance in the Joan Gamper trophy. Bundesliga champions, Borussia Dortmund are dark horses for the Champions League trophy. Nevertheless, they did win the coveted prize in the 90’s. Frequently praised for their beautiful brand football, the German side is often referred to as Barca-esque, along with the Gunners. I seriously doubt they stand a chance of winning if they try to enter a possession contest with the Blaugrana and less so after losing their star player, Nuri Sahin, to Real Madrid this summer.
Out of Portugal, Barca could face the only side that was considered competition to current Portuguese champions (F.C Porto) and is definitely a team to look into, Benfica Lisbon. With a squad that includes the likes of Nolito (remember him?), Ezequiel Garay, Javier Saviola (ex barca) and Joan Capdevila, it would be presumptuous on Barca’s part to think they will have it easy in the group stages.
However, the club that everybody has been talking about, and has quite a few managers worried, is Manchester City F.C. Since Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan bought the club, they have been on a spending spree the likes of which have not been seen in modern football before or since. I have personally experienced what a Sheikh means when he says ‘spending power’, since I was born and brought up in Abu Dhabi. The EPL however, although forewarned, wasn’t quite expecting such a huge influx of money into a squad which until very recently (last season) had not won a trophy in over forty years or so.
Sergio Aguero - Goals Skills 2010-2011 Welcome to Manchester City (via StevenGfinnanfilms)
I wouldn’t blame you If you were to look at Manchester City’s team and mistake them for an all star side. Every position is filled with a talented player and even their substitutes are more than capable deputies to the starting XI. As a Culé, I cannot find any comfort by saying "you can’t buy trophies". This squad was not expected to get along so soon and produce results, but they have. With the purchase of an extremely gifted talent in Diego Maradona’s son-in-law, Sergio Aguero, Manchester City have made sure that they don’t solely depend on want-away striker Carlos Tevez to deliver the goods this season. Ex- Barcelona player Yaya Toure has, to my surprise, taken up the role of a box to box midfielder and his marauding runs at the opponent’s area is like watching a freight train coming at you. Then for good measure, add the silky touch of David Silva, the stereotypical (short) Spanish midfielder with vision and flair. Silva can leave any defender for dead and play that perfect through ball. These four players are just the tip of the (Manchester) iceberg. With players like Gareth Barry and Vincent Kompany, the blue half of Manchester has the necessary steel to compliment their attacking flair. This in turn allows them to grind out a result if required.
In the worst scenario, the Blaugrana may end up in the group of death which could include A.C Milan, Manchester City F.C and Borussia Dortmund. Let us all hope and pray that doesn’t happen. If this team goes on to win the Champions League again, it will be hard to deny them the "Greatest Ever" tag, but for that to happen, the holy trinity (Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi) will have to be in top form. Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique will have to be fit and attentive. Cesc Fabregas and Alexis Sanchez will have to integrate as quickly as possible and support Xavi and Lionel Messi.
In my opinion, this could turn out to be the make or break season for Barca. If they succeed, the mantle of greatest team ever will be theirs. If not? Well, it was still a wild ride for all the fans out there. Now let us pray, "Dear God, please put Real Madrid in the group of death and show the Blaugrana, the path of least resistance which doesn’t include meeting Manchester City F.C. Thank you! Oh and don’t let Ibraflop score in Europe. Amen.:)"
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Which team would you like to avoid in the group stages?
Manchester City F.C (87 votes)
A.C Milan (48 votes)
Olympique Lyonnaise (1 vote)
Shaktar Donetsk (6 votes)
Benfica Lisbon (1 vote)
Borussia Dortmund (16 votes)
Napoli (3 votes)
162 total votes