Barca looks to make Euro history
BARCELONA -- If you boil down the facts of this extraordinary Champions League game between AC Milan and Barcelona, then it's evident that even with the Italian champions playing at, or perhaps above, their best, FC Barcelona could, and should, have won by four or five clear goals -- a score line which would have sent shock waves around the world. As it was, Barcelona won 3-1 on aggregate in the quarterfinals.
As Pep Guardiola and his troops now confront the semifinals, which will surely be against their 2009 final four rival Chelsea, there will be two cups -- one of which will be half full, the other half empty.
At this stage of the season, having been playing with big peaks and troughs in their sharpness and level of concentration, it is of primeval importance for the defending European champions (no club has ever retained the Champions League) to look as quick, determined, creative and dominant as this if they are to make history.
Cup half full.
However, in the recent matches against Milan (twice) and Athletic Club, Guardiola's boys have managed to miss a hatful of chances.
Tuesday night at Camp Nou, Lionel Messi (once when it looked much easier for him to score), Thiago and Dani Alves all missed the kind of glaring opportunities they would normally gobble up. Then there was a constant stream of cutbacks, crosses which were cleared by a Milan boot and saves from the excellent Christian Abbiati.
Cup half empty.
In the postmatch news conference, Guardiola pointed out, "We had 21 shots on goal and we could easily have scored seven times."
Talking of cups, however, a couple of things will go a long, long way to determining whether this squad can lift the Cup with the Big Ears, as the European Champion Clubs' Trophy is nicknamed.
Gerard Pique has had his ups and downs with his manager this season, but recently has returned to his combative, elegant, competitive best. Let there be no doubt of that. But not only did he limp off, it was the 25-year-old World Cup winner who signaled to the bench that he couldn't continue in the 75th minute against Milan. As he sat down in his own penalty area, he began to massage the ligaments of his left knee -- an ominous sign for club and country.
Graham Hunter is also the author of "Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World," available as an e-book on the iPad, Kindle and Kobo. The printed version is available in paperback and can be ordered at BackPage Press.
The semifinal first leg is in two weeks' time, and Barca are already missing a key defender in Eric Abidal, who is due to undergo his liver transplant imminently. How quickly Pique recovers is vital: He's a leader, a winner and adds height to a side which is prone to conceding aerial goals.
The other key factor is how long Messi can continue to score (and perform) at this sublime, almost inhuman level. His past 12 club matches are an average of two goals per outing. The last couple of performances have, perhaps, been slightly less outlandishly stunning, but he has made winning contributions nonetheless.
I remember interviewing him back in autumn 2006. He had just returned from a snow holiday (he was forbidden by contract from getting on skis, Jet Skis and the like, but I'm certain he secretly built the odd snowman and such) in Bariloche, Patagonia. He had been given some extra time off because of the World Cup while the majority of his teammates were sweating in preseason training. Messi fulfilled the custom of every Argentinian who finishes high school and has a couple of bucks in his pocket -- the wild trip to that South American winter resort. A kind of rite of passage like spring break, say.
Back to work, healthy and happy, Messi explained to me that his anger in Paris that May, when he refused to come down and celebrate showing the European Cup off on the pitch with his teammates because he was so hurt at not being in the squad chosen for the match, was just a sudden burst of immaturity.
"But I think that, God willing, I'll go on to lift this cup and believe me I want it very much indeed."
Since then, Messi has been the main architect of this side reaching five consecutive Champions League semifinals, he has scored in each of his two finals, and he is currently in a position to finish his fourth consecutive UEFA season as the tournament's top scorer.
Compare him with Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Yet another chance to win the tournament gone. Despite one clever goal assist pass versus the Catalans on Tuesday, the Swede again showed why it was important to shift him out of Barcelona in order to ensure that Messi's footballing dominance was not stunted.
Ibrahimovic complained postmatch that "I am disgusted. Without the referee [he awarded two penalties in the first half, both of which Messi converted] the game would have been 50-50, and now I understand better why [Jose] Mourinho gets upset every time he plays here."
Ibrahimovic's comments were dealt with disdainfully by Guardiola. "I don't have to answer to what Mr. Ibrahimovic says, but I will point out that we have now reached five semifinals consecutively," Guardiola said. "We do our talking on the pitch."
On Tuesday night, it was more like roaring than talking. Barcelona is regal and it wants to retain its European crown.
Time to salute Los Blancos
Only a couple of weeks ago, I pointed out that Round 31 of La Liga's games was shaping up as pivotal. Barcelona's home game against Athletic looked easier than it should be because of the Basque club's horrible European-Liga schedule, which meant Bilbao flying home from the Schalke match in Germany on Friday morning, then playing at Camp Nou on Saturday night. That's how it proved: a straightforward 2-0 Barcelona win against a good side that put in a dignified performance (and showed an enormous work ethic) -- but not the contest we'd have liked to see.
But the key game was Madrid at Osasuna. Pamplona has proved a stumbling block for Barcelona, Athletic Bilbao and Levante this season, and Los Blancos had lost two and drawn one of their previous three visits.
For more Graham Hunter, check out his columns on all things La Liga and Spanish soccer.
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• No time for nostalgia
• Messi's rise to greatness
• Torres should play for Spain
• Real Madrid's title quest
• Madrid's Pepe problem
• Di Maria is odd man out?
• Jokers wild for Spain's national team
• Yellow Submarine on verge of sinking
• Ronaldo's rant, Atletico's despair
• Barca beats Madrid again
• Spain's three kings
• Ibra's book of nonsense
• Spain's balance of power
• Rossi's injury huge blow
• La Liga's ultimate late bloomer
• Messi chasing Barca record
• Laporta's fall from grace
• Barca's off-the-pitch battle
• Real Madrid's game plan
Which is why I think that those who find it hard to give due credit to the way Madrid is setting the pace in this league need to find the dignity and honesty to speak with admiration about performances like this one.
OK, Osasuna has played with more ferocity on other occasions this season and made fewer errors, but those are the breaks and if you are a potential league winner you beat what is in front of you.
Karim Benzema's goal was not only absolutely stunning, it was the product of a man who has found both inspiration and discipline under the tutelage of Jose Mourinho. The Frenchman was a big fish in a small pond for the past couple of his years at Lyon, but then found that his fins and gills didn't equip him well for the new school at Madrid. A little overweight, not as clinical in front of goal as he once was, embroiled in various controversies and slow to master Spanish -- Benzema had his share of challenges.
For months and months now, he's been dripping with confidence, lean like a top middleweight boxer, clever in his use of the ball and super confident in his finishing. In recent weeks, Benzema has missed a couple of glaring chances but remained absolutely confident that the next one will go in. That is one of the fundamental skills of a top striker.
Beyond Benzema, Madrid played utterly ruthlessly at the Reyno de Navarra and won 5-1 in the stadium where Barcelona lost 3-2.
It continued a sequence of results where Barca, the defending league champions, have lost or drawn on their travels and Madrid has visited the same place in order to register a win -- sometimes by hook or by crook, but usually with the firmness of a champion.
One of Madrid's all-time great players, and a wonderful ambassador for the club, Emilio Butragueno, recently made the startling statement that "at the moment we have the best team in the history of the club."
The history of Real Madrid? Wow! That's a statement of some power. Whether or not he's correct, it gives you an idea of why Pep Guardiola, unlike some Catalan commentators, is happy to point out that Barcelona faces an impressive and worthy adversary. Of course, Butragueno has laid the ground for a hard set of questions to Mourinho if, by the end of May, Real Madrid hasn't won the title and perhaps the Champions League.
If this, in fact, is the greatest in his mighty club's existence, there should be no stumbles.
All of Real's internal politics aside, and with many tense moments undoubtedly to come before the end of the season, it's time for friend and foe alike to accept that this version of Real Madrid is powerful, brave, clever, skilled and one hell of a rival.
The Ant seems to be working
Ernesto Valverde is a name to watch. He also has a nickname to watch out for. The little Basque winger who starred for both Barcelona and Athletic Bilbao in his playing days is known as "txingurri," which means "The Ant."
Valverde used to scurry and work, and work and scurry -- he was a pain to play against. As a coach, he has had very interesting and successful spells with both Athletic Bilbao and Espanyol. He did exceptional work in the Athletic youth system, winning what is effectively the youth world cup, known then as the Nike Cup, ahead of over 3,224 entrants -- all of them being rewarded with seats at the 1998 World Cup final between France and Brazil. As the head coach there, Valverde took the senior team to the UEFA Cup and the Copa del Rey semifinal, leaving only because of disagreements with the president. He led Espanyol to the final of the UEFA Cup, losing only on penalties to that mighty Sevilla side. And now he has just won his third Greek title with Olympiakos.
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I don't claim to be able to state that Guardiola will definitely leave Barcelona this season, but it's clear he doesn't intend to be at Barcelona for another five, still less 10, years. Nor would I be certain that Barca president Sandro Rosell might not return to his roots as a Nike executive in the Brazilian game when looking for a replacement. However, I do know that Valverde was interviewed by the then board at Barcelona (as were Jose Mourinho and Laurent Blanc) when it came to replacing Frank Rijkaard in 2008. Barca didn't go far wrong in preferring Guardiola, but Valverde's credentials have done nothing but increase since that day.
Watch out for the hardworking Ant.
Graham Hunter is a Barcelona-based freelance writer for ESPN.com who specializes in La Liga and the Spanish national team. You can reach him on Twitter at twitter.com/BumperGraham.