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Can barca shake off its midlife crisis?
Football's supreme artistes are staring at an unlikely prospect: Early exit from the Champions League. Will they be brought down to earth?
How much beauty can you take, how much perfection, before it begins to look stale, fatigued and past its best-buy date? The other day FC Barcelona looked like a pale form of their usually ebullient self when a youthful AC Milan left them on the brink of early Champions League elimination. Everything had gone according to the Barca form book. The possession percentage was as high as 72. 6 and typically, they won 93. 3 percent of their tackles, but it wasn't enough. It took Andres Iniesta, ball-keeper and passmaster extraordinaire, to point out that they had run out of ideas to counter the Milanese challenge.
It could be that the men who strive for perfection and beauty week in and week out in the demanding circles of top-flight European football have tired of it. The constant pursuit of that ideal can be downright crushing and exhausting - something like a Roger Federer tiring of winning, and in the aspect that defines him, tiring of winning pretty.
So great were the demands that he put on himself that it consumed Pep Guardiola, him of the sunken eyes, worried countenance and rapidly vanishing hairline ever since he took up the Barca job in 2008. Like some eccentric, moody artist, the manager confessed to not enjoying the beauty he was visualising and helping create on the field and quit while still on top. He told a surprised world that it was to take time off and recharge his batteries. If you needed any indication that beautiful, other-worldly football could actually cause a serious burnout, look no further than Guardiola.
It has perhaps also begun to show on the team that he left behind. The signs of weariness have been greatly amplified in the absence of current coach Tito Vilanova, who is receiving treatment for a cancer relapse in New York and won't be back for another month. With the appointed leader away, there seems to be a lack of direction in the team even though Barca play a game they have been taught as kids and play it as if they were on auto-pilot. Under the guidance of assistant coach Jordi Roura and the senior players, they have still managed to carry off most of the domestic season rather well. Yet, navigation has fallen into a grey area and the cracks many have begun to show. Since their 3-1 Spanish Cup defeat at Real Betis over two years ago in January 2011, Barca played 132 official matches without a defeat by more than one goal. Earlier in the week, they were well and truly thumped 2-0 - a rout if the club's exacting standards are anything to go by.
While it may eventually prove no more than a minor blip, something that the Catalan club can get up from and continue to weave their weekly magic as if nothing ever happened, there is a niggling voice that tells you they are hitting a plateau in their tillnow constantly rising arc. In their last 14 Champions League knockout games away from home, Barcelona have won only three. Milan must have known that when they welcomed them home last week. A weary Iniesta, showing admirable cojones, was only manning up to the charges. Further statistics from the meeting told you that Barca managed only one shot on target while Lionel Messi failed to come up with a single shot at the opposition goal. When was the last time this happened? With Barcelona, you are not even sure that this happens.
Midway through this current season in European football, Barcelona face a unique predicament. It's like hitting mid-life crisis and not knowing what the problem is. On the face it nothing's happened: they sit a comfortable 12 points ahead of second-placed Atletico Madrid in their domestic league. That effectively translates into the Spanish title becoming theirs even before the season is half done. They still have to host Milan in the return leg of the Champions League in three weeks' time. Does the Italian side, despite its proven pedigree in the European tournament and current buoyant form domestically, possesses the depth to be able to pull off a repeat in the away tie at the Nou Camp where the world is suddenly different and the football belongs to another dimension?
All that will unravel in time, but the real story begins a little earlier. In many ways, Barcelona's real season starts here - this final stretch of February and well into the middle of March. In the 19-day period that began with their reversal at San Siro and culminates in the return leg on March 12, the Catalan club faces probably the sternest test of its character, depth and crucially, the famed Barca philosophy. The four fixtures in the intervening period include two consecutive Clasicos with Real Madrid, potentially high-voltage meetings inside the space of five days.
Despite the yawning gap - 16 points - between Jose Mourinho's Real and Barca in the domestic league these clashes automatically assume significance because Real too face an early Champions League exit at the hands of Manchester United. As they go into that potentially explosive return leg at Old Trafford (Mar 5), the wily Mourinho would be looking to wrest some bragging rights in the Liga Clasico a mere three days before the United clash. It would certainly help push his players to leave their differences behind in the dressing room and make a go for it, for as the season winds down the final bend before the home stretch, this is all they have left to play for. This, and the tiny matter of the Copa del Rey semifinal second leg on Feb 26. With honours even in the first leg at the Bernabeu, there will be lots at stake between a side that is clearly flagging despite its lead and another that is on the ascendancy despite a horribly divided dressing room. It is anybody's guess which way this make or break, no holds barred knockout game goes.
This scenario has its echoes in the epic four-match spell two seasons ago, when the two great sides clashed in consecutive games over a gruelling 19-day period, an episode so emotionally and mentally draining that it left Guardiola spent and bereft of ideas. Coincidentally, it was also the high noon of the Barcelona philosophy as preached by their coach, and the Catalans showed their depth and stomach for a good fight to emerge unscathed - Vilanova's eye poked by an impish Mourinho being the only casualty.
Today, those days seem like a walk in the park. Back then, Guardiola did a Mourinho, getting one ahead of the cocky manager's needling ways and one smug in the knowledge that he possessed the secret to unlocking Barca's code. As the games approached, Guardiola launched an astonishing attack on his Madrid rival's ways that not only had reverberations at Madrid, it shook Nou Camp into action. Guardiola chose to face the blows and in turn, it allowed his team to perform unhindered.
This time it has been left to the Xavi Hernandez to do the talking. But the urbane, thoughtful playmaker is not a Guardiola, not yet anyway. It is not his brief to attack the Madrid press on their hounding of Lionel Messi, or deny allegations that he, Messi, Iniesta and Carles Puyol decide on tactics in the dressing room. Xavi would rather be on the field honing his craft, expanding his vision and perfecting his passing. As it is, it's an exacting art in itself, and to play the team leader and tactician in chief ahead of each fixture in this unforgiving phase - be it the Liga, the Copa del Rey or Milan in the Champions League - only adds to the fatigue.
You could argue that this may appear similar, but it is different from the situation that Roberto Di Matteo found himself in at Chelsea midway last season, when the assistant manager was thrust into the spotlight and had to pick up a demoralised and ageing team. Aided by old stars, he was able to lead them all the way to the Champions League title. Barcelona's case is different - they approach each game without ever changing their style and pattern of play. Chelsea threw out the form book, drew from experience and heart and embarked on a dream run. Barcelona, despite finding themselves in a similar situation, are loathe to play any other way than is their philosophy.
Maybe being a stickler for style and being loyal to one's identity will have its pitfalls, but it is times like these that a team's mettle will show. In Barcelona's case, the world will be waiting to see how they respond to this challenge. If they discard their ethos and relegate themselves to a 'winning at all costs' mentality to get by this phase, they would be a glorious also-rans who's time is up. If they don't and still fail, they will remain the greatest club side of this generation.
But if they are to pull it off by their own methods and high standards of their intrinsic passing game - their Plan B still being more dazzling than most team's A Game - then, to borrow Guardiola's words, "They would become eternal". Their coach is recuperating in New York, the creative juices are drying up and perhaps a lack of motivation is dragging them down, but Barcelona remains the standard for other teams to emulate and conquer. The next three weeks will show how the team weaves it way through a crisis zone. Can they do it, or will they fail doing it their own way? Are they up against themselves, or the rest of the world? Either way, don't miss it.
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