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Single idea, varied expressions
It may be a meeting of Spanish and German powerhouses at the final stages of this season's Champions League, but the philosophy at this elite gathering is a common one. It belongs to the one preached by Pep Guardiola and known the world over as the tiki-taka.
No one knows how fair the draw, held in Nyon to select the Champions League semifinalists, is. Once the German and Spanish powerhouse clubs booked their tickets to the last-four coach, it was quite obvious that they will be kept separate to give it a nationalistic flavour. It's a simple marketing strategy as it will sell more.
Germany and Spain don't have much of a historical rivalry to add colour to the sporting contest. Not in the recent past for sure. Even one cannot define the forthcoming clashes (Barcelona vs Bayern Munich and Real Madrid vs Borussia Dortmund) as an attempt to stamp one philosophy over another. Football has become unidimensional, post-Pep Guardiola, at least among the elites.
At 33, Guardiola's 'direct descendent' Xavi Hernandez tries to explain the 'Barcelona way, ' which most teams have adopted by now. "It's about doing something extra, not just winning. It's about playing well and then if you manage to win, even better. Barca always try to direct the game, they don't wait for the opposition but go out and attack, so people identify with the club. Bar?a fans would never understand if the team were not controlling or dominating a match. That's the way it has to be, " the Spanish icon told the UEFA website.
The 'Barcelona way' found its truest expression under Josep Guardiola, the midfield maestro turned coach who, in four years in charge from 2008 to 2012, won 14 trophies including two UEFA Champions Leagues in three seasons. He was the midfield orchestrator when the Catalans lifted their first European Cup in 1992, passing the mantle to his young teammate Xavi when he left. A generation later, the diminutive No. 6 is still pulling the strings.
If one had watched Bayern Munich on Tuesday night against Wolfsburg in the German Cup semifinal, one could almost see Blaugrana playing in dark red at the Allianz Arena. Xherdan Shaqiri did what Andres Iniesta does. Bastian Schweinsteiger did what Xavi does and of course captain Phillip Lahm almost looked like Dani Alves. Jupp Heynckes' Bayern directed the game and didn't wait for the opposition to go out and attack. Bayern did more than winning just as Xavi says.
One person, all of five-feet-three, was missing all the action. One can't replicate Lionel Messi even if the system that is built around him can be photocopied.
The sameness of the system that the rich and famous are flaunting has earned Barcelona an unenviable tag. It is not their fault. That fault lies in others who found the easier way to imitate the style than develop any of their own.
There was a time when Ajax Amsterdam carved a niche for itself with academy-trained boys who grew up in the red and white shirts, playing a trademark game that they learnt along with the alphabet. Ajax wore that 'unbeatable' tag in the mid-nineties playing in a fashion that was crafted in their famous academy.
But then, it was only Ajax who mastered the art and displayed it. Now it has become a vogue, a fashion. The other two semifinalists, Real and dark horses Borussia, have similar ways of going ahead. For Real, Xabi Alonso does his namesake's job from the centre of the pitch while young Mario Gotze - similar in stature - is the fulcrum or orchestrator for Borussia.
If one expects a clash of style or philosophy on the road to Wembley, where this year's club champions will be anointed, one will be disappointed. There are other catchy issues to relish.
For Jose Mourinho's Real Madrid, it is the calling of a 10th title, the first club to make it in double digits. The Portuguese coach may want to leave Spain on a high, and if rumours are to be believed, it could be his last game in charge of the Spanish giants. Already having rapped Barcelona's knuckles twice within a week, Mourinho is smelling blood. So does his captain Cristiano Ronaldo, who has just completed 50 goals in all competitions this season.
Cristiano and Messi are running a race in search of immortality with goals and trophies as the milestones. Like all contests, that often takes a personal turn if it continues for too long, the Cristiano-Messi saga too had its 'breaking news' moments. If the Spanish prevail in their German conquest, then the season's seventh El Clasico will definitely have the Portuguese-vs-Argentine tint to it.
But that possibility is still buried in the womb of time. Cristiano and Messi will have to sweat over two legs to make it a possibility.
Among the designated elites of Europe, Borussia have gatecrashed in following the 'Barcelona way'. A team comprising players graduating from their youth system, coach Juergen Klopp has done what Guardiola did since he joined the club in 2008 from Mainz. Apparently, his unshaven appearance and worn-out jeans displeased his suitors from Hamburg. Borussia aren't complaining since.
Eight years ago, Borussia were on the verge of bankruptcy. They took the next five to get their house in order and in the last two, denied Bayern their 'rightful' claim to the Bundesliga. This season they concentrated on Europe and conceded the domestic title long ago to the riches of Munich.
The lions of Westfalenstadion in their famous yellow and black are young in experience at this level but not in quality. In this year's competition, Borussia have beaten Real at home and held Mourinho's men on the road. Marko Reus with his rock star looks and Gotze the conductor passed from the same school and enjoy an understanding comparable to Xavi and Iniesta. It goes without saying that the Germans have a lot to learn and improve. They are the newcomers to the stage and with Kevin Grosskreutz, another classmate, they form the attacking fountainhead of the Yellow Wall. In Robert Lewandowski, they have a Polish goal-scoring spearhead as was Samuel Eto'o.
Xavi, who has played 700-plus games for Barcelona, more than any other player, further says, "Football is played to win, but our satisfaction has to be double. Other teams win and are happy, but it's not the same. The identity is lacking. In football the result is an impostor. You can do things really, really well but not win. There's something greater than the result, more lasting - a legacy. "
For the other three, too, winning is not just enough. Else, Arjen Robben wouldn't have been seen retracting all the way near his own penalty box for a sliding tackle on Diego even when Tuesday's German Cup semifinal was truly and squarely taken care of. This is a very Barcelona trend or a world trend now when wingers have this additional job of covering their adventurous wing backs.
The art of playing is known to all. The distinction will be made by the one who have mastered it most. "We've had four or five excellent years. This generation is still capable of doing great things, " says Xavi. With Messi around, the Barcelona captain's claim doesn't sound a hollow threat.
Just that Cristiano is listening, and so are the stars from FC Hollywood in Munich and the superbly talented crop of Klopps in Dortmund.
One should not forget Guardiola, who sold tiki-taka as the biggest brand in world football just as Coco Chanel's Little Black Dress, still very much in vogue since the 1920s. The former Barcelona captain, after a year's rest, will start his homework watching the varied expression of his singular idea.
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