Introducing the first part of our four-part Champions League Final Preview Special, @Santapelota joins Sleepy to set the scene tactically, and offers us his unique insight into the Barcelona squad. Here we take a look at the likely Barcelona starting eleven and key substitutes, offering a mini-profile of each player, whilst analysing their key strengths and potential weaknesses ahead of Saturday’s game.
Read SEA’s seven part Champions League preview here.
Victor Valdés: sweeper keeper of the type Louis Van Gaal admired and pioneered when Valdés’ Manchester United counterpart was a tyro at Ajax. The 29-year old has grown from an erratic exhibitionist to an authoritative member of the defense. Not commanding in the air he instead swells the ranks of Spanish goalkeeping’s affinity for shot-stoppers, as well as great sense of anticipation. His excellent distribution was neatly encapsulated by his part in the build-up to Pedro’s goal in the recent Clásico series, playing a lovely first time pass to Alves down the right hand side.
Daniel Alves: Barca’s second leading assister after Messi in all competitions this season and a fantastic attacking threat down the right hand side; though there are more complete right-backs out there (Maicon, for instance), his sense of abandon actually suits Barcelona’s play and he may benefit from having a de-facto back three covering space behind him. Alves never looks better than when he is in perpetual motion and his timely darts either beyond the opposition fullback without the ball or towards the centre-half pairing with it, are a devastating feature of the Barca set-up. By contrast he can flounder when he moves inside too early to help dictate play; positionally suspect and a non-entity marking the back post, his defensive contributions tend to take place around the halfway line and besides, his sheer irrepressibility is of itself a defensive tool since his teammates can use him as an out ball to relieve spells of pressure. Claims to have developed his formidable stamina levels as a result of having to run 11 km daily to a nearby school, as well as working on his father’s farm throughout childhood in Brazil’s impoverished north-eastern outback.
Gerard Piqué: zonally marking libero and a fantastic reader of the game, much like his former mentor, Ferdinand, the Spaniard prefers to intercept the ball rather than be forced into the tackle. Not as slow as his ungainly frame might suggest, he tends to cover for Alves by drifting between Barça’s inside- and outside-right channels and where he likes to usher rival wingers out of play. Physically hard to overpower, at times this season his concentration has been shaky. Stepping out he offers a vital addition to midfield when all other passing options are thwarted. This versatility, added to his goal-scoring contributions from set-pieces as well as his being a ‘target man’ of the last resort, is a crucial asset to Barcelona.
Javier Mascherano: archetypal defensive midfielder who lives to disrupt opponents in their attacking flow. Technically and creatively limited but has the wherewithal not to complicate things, often initiating swift and precise counter attacks from deep. Guardiola acquired him in the transfer window for matches like this; his ability to kill opposition attacks principally through his horizontal movement is something largely beyond Busquets and Yaya Toué (for all of their other respective strengths). Has coped assuredly since being improvised in the centre-back role. One of a handful of players who did themselves an injustice in the recent clasico series by exaggerating minimal contact in the name of gamesmanship. Likely to feature at left centre-back unless Abidal is given the start.
Carles Puyol: the only true stopper in this side, Puyol has enjoyed a rejuvenation of sorts in the twilight of his career, offering great leadership to the Catalan side. His (sometimes reckless) penchant for physicality leads him to enter tackles early; in Barça’s case, this can be advantageous as he chooses to intercept at a considerable distance ahead of Piqué, and therefore his team is less likely to incur a red card. Given Abidal’s lack of match fitness, could conceivably start the Final at left-back, meaning Barcelona automatically lose any offensive outlet along that side. The flipside is that Alves’ forays along the right can be more adequately covered by the knock-on effect of having Puyol tuck in. In tandem with Pique, perhaps Barca’s only other major aerial threat from set-pieces.
Barcelona’s Probable Starting Line-up
Sergio Busquets: theatrical and not averse to dishing out rough treatment himself, Busquets is a most unusual holding midfielder. Technically immaculate yet without the vision of a regista, he is sufficiently robust to dispossess opponents whilst being prone to being turned whenever he tries to anticipate – in any other team he would likely play either in a slightly more advanced position or else be partnered by a more destructive player. But in a team with a philosophy of intricate short passing he is a vital addition to the rondos, or passing triangles, which Barça use as much to find an opening as to evade pressure; so in this sense Busquets is a defensive device. Sceptics balk at his having edged Touré out of the starting XI last season, yet the Ivorian’s tendency to dwell on the ball (or to carry it forward) frustrated Guardiola, whereas Busquets seeks to recycle the ball and initiate attacks more rapidly as per his coach’s design.
Xavi Hernández: no player better embodies the ideology of the club’s model of play (and subsequently country); an artist and set-piece connoisseur, when in doubt, teammates give the ball to Xavi. For years was criticised for playmaking in ‘easy zones’ where he would not expected to make incisive passes, in truth this was likely the legacy of his upbringing as the deep-lying distributor at the base of midfield in the Guardiola mould. Since 2007/2008, he has grown in influence and the defence-splitting passes have followed, even the occasional run into the box and goal. The attendant danger is that Ferguson could assign somebody to man-mark and, while still unlikely to surrender the ball, his options would dwindle. Moreover, the team would be forced into a series of automatisms whereby a loss of possession subsequent to Xavi releasing the ball entails a sense of disorientation; he is after all the first man to whom a recovered ball is usually returned. Though not a cause for panic, it does make the team appear sluggish and more pendant on a piece of individual inspiration.
Andrés Iniesta: Xavi’s more mobile equivalent, starting from a left-of-centre position he is an alternative source for incisive forward passing. In addition, his forte is his remarkable spatial awareness and strength on the ball. Not averse to dribbling with the ball where the situation demands it, driving forward with an almost unique ability to evade challenges, creating space for teammates and opening up the angle of attack (his opportunism none more so evident than in his crucial assist in the last round versus Real Madrid); Iniesta has been compared to the Argentina and Independiente legend Ricardo Bochini in this respect. Could benefit from having Pedro stretch the play further ahead along the left flank, as he tends to seek out one-twos with the more central of the forwards. One lingering preoccupation may be his vulnerability to pick up muscular strains as the season comes to a head.
Pedro Rodríguez: has played all across the front line since his surprise emergence as a regular starter in late 2009. Practically an ambidextrous speedster, he can comfortably play on and from either flank. Considering Alves prefers to patrol the whole right side by himself, Pedro would be an ideal source of width at outside-left, and even more so in the absence of an offensive threat from the side’s left full-back. Also has a poacher’s knack of timing runs into goal-scoring positions. During the first half of 2011 he has not hit the previous heights of his first 18 months as a first team regular, but appears to have assimilated Guardiola’s doctrine of aggressively pressuring to win back the ball.
David Villa: from the most lethal striker in La Liga (and possibly Europe) to now serving what is virtually an auxiliary role in the attack. Talk of decline is preposterous given the mitigating circumstances, too many to enumerate here (fair enough, here: first season, fewer channels to run now that he is no longer a lone striker…). But no matter that the goals have dried up, or how that unceasing movement by which he’d beguilingly pull himself away from markers appears hampered, – or that his confidence is sapped – the Asturian marksman has been instructed to stay lively and that in time, the goals will come, if not only for the team. Was told on his first day of training at the club not to expect to score too many goals and that were Messi in a better position to score, then to release the ball. In his movement, his defensive application, and his selflessness Villa has been diligent. Likely to start from outside-right, though don’t rule out a switching in positions with Pedro and/or Messi either periodically or permanently at a specific juncture during the match.
Lionel Messi: vertiginous dribbling, a complete absence of tricks and adornations and unrivalled talent in the service of the collective. That is not to say that Messi is a submissive player without ego; yes, his teams to date have needed to be set up around him but the benefits are reciprocal. An ill-conceived, unbalanced team with Messi will still be a vulgar proposition. An accommodated Messi makes a good team a great team. The false nine role into which he has grown since the run-in circa the 2009 Final has been an unqualified success. Yet Ferguson is anything but a slow learner, and the Argentine will surely not be afforded the acreage he lapped up behind Carrick and Anderson in 2009. As a rule of thumb, the deeper Messi finds himself delving into midfield (level with or behind Xavi and Iniesta) increasingly it is a sign that Barcelona are not producing the kind of movement they want to, nor are they finding openings.
Eric Abidal: the scare surrounding his grave medical diagnosis understandably overshadowed what had been until then, the French player’s best season at the club. The pacey Frenchman has looked lively in anticipation, and increasingly assured in possession whether at left-back or centre-back. Physical concerns aside, the decision over his psychological preparedness to start in a Final will not be taken lightly.
Seydou Keita: the closest Barcelona has to a Premier League-style, box-to-box midfielder. The Malian international provides a dynamism and directness to the team whenever Guardiola is either chasing or attempting to secure a result. Theoretically a back-up to Iniesta’s left-of-central midfield position, Keita has performed capably as a shuttling wide midfielder along the same flank and even as a holding enforcer to see games out.
Ibrahim Affellay: shares some of Keita’s propensity for vertical running and distance shooting albeit with a somewhat more technical refinement. Barely half a season into his Barcelona career, the former PSV man has given some encouraging displays although, much like for Abidal and Keita before him, the process of adaptation to the team’s intensively associative style means he is still to find a role, let alone a position, in which to feel comfortable. Able to perform in a variety of attacking-midfield or even dual-function roles. Provided a crucial assist for Messi in the recent Clasico encounter from a wide position by wrong-footing Madrid left-back Marcelo.
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