The fall of a giant

The over dependence on Messi for goals is an area of concern for Barca.-AP

This Barca era might have come to an end, but there will obviously be a rebirth, probably in a refined avatar. But all future Barcelona sides will be measured against Guardiola's class of 2008-2012 and matching that record will be no easy task. By Ayon Sengupta.

Barcelona's dominance of world and European football over the last few years has been total, like the prime time super hit serial Saas-Bahu in Indian televisions. In the past four years the sorcerers from Catalunya have left us glued to the idiot box, week-in-and-week out, bedazzling opponents in Spain and Europe. But all good things must come to an end (yes the common Indian will come to blows with you and me if we try to start an argument here about the goodness of his/her daily soap diet), and though the artistry of Messi, Iniesta and Xavi was of a higher order than those of the Mihirs and Tulsi Viranis, it too has an end.

It's not just the trophies — 13 in four seasons (among them three Spanish titles, a Spanish Cup with the chance of another on May 25 (against Athletico Bilbao), two Champions League crowns and two World Club Cups) — that made Barcelona arguably the most dominant side in the annals of the game. What really made Pep Guardiola's side stand out from the other all-time great teams was the successful implementation of a playing philosophy that had combined skill and creativity on one hand and tactical order on the other.

But such precision needs well trained soldiers and not everyone can come in and blend seamlessly with Barca's style of play. Barcelona has operated with one of the thinnest squads in Europe over the time, contrary to the popular belief of a strong bench strength behind every success. (Barca has only 24 registered players for this season while its archrival Real has increased its squad strength to 36).

After unmitigated success over the seasons, the Barca idea at last seems to have been overstretched, and the illness of the defensive enforcer Eric Abidal and the freak leg fracture suffered by Spanish goal-poacher David Villa have cost the side dear towards the end of the season. (Villa's tendency to veer towards the touchlines would have offered the much-needed width to the Barca game and opened up space in the middle for Messi.) After playing close to 250 games, non-stop, since 2008, the famed Barca midfield trio of Xavi, Iniesta and Messi, too, has looked weary at times. Their minds working as if a second slower, compared to their usual cerebral self. Fatigue is not uncommon in football, and is bound to catch up with even the most supreme of talents.

Thus even Barcelona, to the amazement of many, looked fatigued and bereft of innovation in the three most crucial games of its season.

In the final El Classico of this term, at Camp Nou, Real Madrid got the better of the intuitive Catalunyans. Jose Mourinho's countless hours of frustration came to an end as he got the better of Pep, who to make matters worse for himself and the thinned-down squad, opted for a 3-4-3 formation instead of Barcelona's classic 4-3-3. Up against the most expensive side assembled ever (with two Ballon d'Or winners in its ranks — Cristiano Ronaldo and Kaka) and one of the best counter-attacking teams, the three-defender strategy (which had worked wonders before, including in the now famous 6-2 win at the Santiago Bernabeu) looked almost suicidal, putting more pressure on the already overworked midfield.

Madrid's first goal came from a corner as keeper Victor Valdes and ‘captain psycho' Carles Puyol failed to clear the lines. As against Chelsea, Barcelona was missing the physical presence and calmness offered by Gerard Pique inside its own box. Pique, one of the pivots of Barca's success, had fallen prey to the constant demands of far too many games, his form and fitness falling by several notches throughout the season.

The second goal came from a Real counter-attack, Ronaldo scoring from a quick break, beating the make-shift full back Javier Mascherano with a darting run. Additional defensive support to him might have saved Barca the blushes and left it with some hopes of defending its La Liga title.

Upfront, too, Barcelona was way slower than its usual self and was guilty of playing too many horizontal passes, thus failing to build up enough thrust in the final third of the pitch to create goal scoring opportunities. La Masia youngster Cristian Tello, playing ahead of the more experienced Cesc Fabregas, allowing the side more width and with the express intention of causing trouble to the relatively slower Madrid left back Fabio Coentrao, failed to capitalise and fluffed two of the easiest of chances. Barca and Guardiola have always put faith on La Masia graduates but, unfortunately, this time the gamble just didn't pay off.

Yet, against Chelsea in the crucial Champions League semifinal second leg at home, the Catalan side dominated possession (72 percent) but again failed to pry open the visitors' defence and test goalkeeper Peter Cech adequately. (The Czech international did get his finger tips to a late Messi effort to turn it onto the post, and was also helped by the Argentine's penalty striking the bar early in the second half.)

Barcelona suffered from the lack of a Plan ‘B' and despite failing to break Chelsea's packed defence down the middle, there was lack of width or even the will to get to the touchline which would have stretched out the 10-man English side, thus opening out the middle of the pitch (Barca's favourite area of operation).

This season has indeed been a bleak one for the Catalunya side where it has failed to hang on to both its domestic and European titles as it has struggled throughout to break good sides down. With opponents crowding up the middle, the playmakers have failed to construct a new vision of play which would have opened newer avenues for the side.

And now with players such as Carles Puyol (34) and Xavi (32) reaching the twilight of their careers, Barca will quickly need to find replacements for them over the next couple of years. But it will be a difficult task.

The overdependence on Messi for goals is another area of concern as the Argentine playmaker cannot go on defying the law of averages and despite the return of the injured Villa, new coach Francesc “Tito” Vilanova will do well to buy a technically gifted forward to embellish the attacking options. A player, who can hold on to the ball, physically giving a harrowing time to defences, thus opening up space for Messi to operate freely.

This Barca era might have come to an end, but there will obviously be a rebirth, probably in a refined avatar (much like the tele-soap characters). But all future Barcelona sides will be measured against Guardiola's class of 2008-2012 and matching that record will be no easy task.