FC Barcelona stands dejected after conceding a goal against AC Milan.
A week ago, things were looking peachy for the boys in blue and red. After taking apart Real Madrid, hoisting a pair of trophies, and steamrolling Villareal to inaugurate La Liga, the only concern was finding enough playing time for all the stars. My how times have changed.
Barcelona surrendered two second-half goals in Saturday's draw with Real Sociedad, and returning home Tuesday to face AC Milan, they again saw their lead evaporate-this time in the final moments of the match. But while the Liga draw can be attributed to a lapse in concentration, Tuesday's match is much more troubling, as some of Barcelona's familiar demons reared their ugly heads.
We'll call the first demon "Messi dependencia"-the dependence on Lionel Messi to produce goals. While it's only natural for a club to run most plays through their best player, this game revealed how badly Barcelona needs "La Pulga", especially when the going gets tough. Messi's ridiculous, beastly run and set-up for Pedro's equalizer came out of nowhere-he essentially took on the entire Milan defense by himself, and triumphed thanks to his unhuman speed and skill.
But there was no team goal on Tuesday. There was Messi's run and assist, then, Messi's run and subsequent take-down, that allowed David Villa to bend in a beauty from outside the box. There was no characteristic Barcelona team goal, where a long build-up leads to a brilliantly simple tap in. Which leads us to the second demon.
AC Milan played a physical, defensive game and stymied the Barcelona attack. We've seen it many times in Champions League play: Barça's rival avoids engaging the Blaugrana in an open game, and instead packs the back section, clogs the middle of the pitch, and plays on the counterattack. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't, but it's always a problem for Barcelona.
Barcelona wouldn't play any other way-it's their adherence to a beautiful style of football in the face of anti-football that endears them to the fans, but we were reminded of just how devilishly destructive a big, physical, and organized side can be. Milan nearly netted a second goal on a couple of counterattacks; despite dominating play, Barcelona very easily could have dropped all three points.
Demon number three is the set piece. Barcelona-and more specifically Sergio Busquets-got beat to a high cross and conceded a textbook corner-kick goal. While Puyol just returned to action and Piqué is soon to follow, recent history says our back line will be thinned again by injury, suspension, or both. Until an imposing center-back is signed (Thiago Silva, anyone?), the diminutive Mascherano and the débil (weak) Busquets will be called upon to defend in important matches. This leaves Barça very susceptible to the set-piece goal.
Fortunately, Barcelona has the best coach in the world, the best players in the world, and the right attitude when it comes to recovering from unfavorable results. Hopefully Tuesday's game was a wake-up call to jump-start another championship campaign and not a preview of how the big games will slip away in 2012.
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