Barcelona, the champion of everything it entered last season, is now in the thick of the challenge of doing it all again, second time around.
Last Saturday in Pamplona, the team dominated Osasuna but conceded a last-minute equalizer to a freak own goal.
“A great point for us, because it was against the best team in the world,” said José Antonio Camacho, Osasuna’s experienced coach. “Its not possible to improve on this elation. We tired, but we did not let them play their natural game.”
Disabling Barcelona is the new summit of ambition.
From Pamplona, Barça has plunged into the cold of Kazan, the capital city of Tatar, 800 kilometers, or 500 miles, east of Moscow. There it faces the Russian champion, Rubin Kazan, which shocked Barcelona, shocked world soccer, by beating the European champion, 2-1, on its home ground two weeks ago.
It was a victory for counter-attacking soccer, preserved by a most obdurate and agile goalkeeper Sergei Ryzhikov.
Now the true mettle of a champion begins. Before Barcelona’s 19 players boarded their five-hour flight Monday, the club’s sporting director Txiki Begiristain told the media: “If the field is ok, I’m not worried.
“I believe we are the better team, even if we lost the first leg. We don’t forget that Rubin Kazan are the champion of their country, they have money to spend, and they have a good group of hard working players. The main thing is that our players warm up thoroughly.”Continue reading the main story
The warmup is indeed key. It was touching 20 degrees Celsius (68 Fahrenheit) when Barcelona left home, and -7 Celsius (20 Fahrenheit) when they landed. According to the forecast, the wind chill could make it feel even colder Wednesday evening.
“It won’t be the first time we’ve played in the cold,” Begiristain said. He can easily put himself in the players’ situation because he, like his coach, Pep Guardiola, has memories of 1992, when both were Barcelona players. That year, Barça was also European Champion. It was knocked out on Nov. 4 by CSKA Moscow.
So there is a precedent. There is a challenge on every level for Barcelona. Its Champions League group contains Kazan, Dynamo Kiev and Inter Milan. Half way through the qualifying phase only one point separates top and bottom.
Guardiola showed last season, his first as a coach, that he has more than a beginner’s grasp of leadership. However, he is not a clairvoyant, so he could not have foreseen being drawn in a first round group containing the Italian champion and two of the toughest possible trips to Eastern Europe..
What he did know, or sense, was that every successful team has to have a Plan B. Last season’s Barça had just one way of playing. It was a marvellous, mellifluous way of passing and movement that bewitched the opposition and ran the legs off them.
Any remotely impartial observer could only shout Ole! More, give us more!
Guardiola, a Barcelona man from boyhood, is unlikely to betray the ethos of his club. Yet he has taken a scalpel to the team he inherited and took to the Spanish League and Cup, the Champions League trophy and the European Super Cup in his debut season as coach.
He has changed every area of his side, bar goalkeeper.
In defense, he recruited a Brazilian left back Maxwell from Inter, and a big Ukrainian center back Dmytro Chygrynskiy, though the latter is ineligible for the Champions League because he played for Shakhtar Dontesk in the tournament before his move in August.
In midfield, Guardiola is now tempering the rhythm and flow with Yaya Touré and Seydou Keita, men who can certainly pass the ball but add physical power either side of Xavi Hernández’s extraordinary ability to conduct play.
Guardiola even chose to change in which Lionel Messi, Samuel Eto’o and Thierry Henry shared a century of goals. He off-loaded Eto’o to Inter, in part exchange for Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
“I think there is a need for change,” Guardiola said. “After winning what we’ve won, and after five years with Eto’o a marvellous footballer for Barça, it’s my responsibility to change the team if I think there is a need for change.”
The difference is physical. Eto’o is, or was, one of the fastest front runners on a soccer pitch, swift, eager, sharp and an accumulator of more goals in La Liga than any other striker.
Yet Ibrahimovic, much taller, is a target for longer passes now being hit from Barcelona’s flanks and its midfield. He scored in his first five Spanish league games swiftly laying to rest any doubts about his finishing ability.
But there’s more, much more to the Swede. He has guile and dexterity rarely seen in such a powerful athlete of 1.95 meters, or 6-foot-4, and 95 kilograms, or 190 pounds.
Ibrahimovic was moody at Inter, where it often seemed to be the plan simply to get the ball up to him and let him take on whole defenses on his own. At Barcelona he is one of the talents, but not more renowned than Messi, Xavi, Andrés Iniesta or Henry.
So far, so very good. The target man is working for the team, the blend is happening faster than outsiders imagined. Barça’s attack is creating as many, if not more, movements for opponents to try to contain.
It can look irresistible, as against Zaragoza the weekend before last ,but it can also miss-fire, as Messi, in particular, did in Pamplona. Messi has been messed around by the Diego Maradona soap opera in Argentina. Messi’s game and his head have been thrown out of kilter by the uncertainty of playing for a national side coached by a former star who never picks the same personnel for consecutive games.
Rubin Kazan seized its moment at the Camp Nou. No-one has any excuse now to belittle what Kazan’s wily trainer, Kurban Berdyev has achieved. The former defender, former coach in Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, has raised Rubin, where he is not only coach but also vice president, to be champion of all Russia.
He managed to plot what no other side could do in the last two years in the Champions League, win in Barcelona. His corers there, Aleksandr Ryazantsev and Gokdeniz Karadeniz were accomplished opportunists.
Berdyev, as Begiristain points out, has money to spend. He has used it to import the Turk, Karadeniz, a South African, Macbeth Sibaya, and a Spaniard, César Navas, who knows all about Barcelona’s strengths.
Wednesday will perhaps tell us whether Kazan simply exploited complacency. Wednesday will also answer much about the extra physical and mental resilience Per Guardiola tried to implant in changing a winning team.Continue reading the main story