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Pace the key to curing Barça's ills

Published: Sunday 10 March 2013, 18.40CET
With FC Barcelona in the midst of a tricky period, Graham Hunter picks out the positives and diagnoses the problems ahead of the round of 16 decider against AC Milan.
by Graham Hunter
from Barcelona
Pace the key to curing Barça's ills
Lionel Messi (FC Barcelona) ©AFP/Getty Images
Published: Sunday 10 March 2013, 18.40CET

Pace the key to curing Barça's ills

With FC Barcelona in the midst of a tricky period, Graham Hunter picks out the positives and diagnoses the problems ahead of the round of 16 decider against AC Milan.

It is not simply the fact that FC Barcelona trail AC Milan 2-0 going into their round of 16 second leg which indicates that the 2011 UEFA Champions League winners are up against it.

For the last two months, there has been a series of results – losing 3-2 to Real Sociedad de Fútbol, draws with Málaga CF and Valencia CF, and a pair of defeats by Real Madrid CF plus that loss at San Siro – which have been quite uncharacteristic.

Prior to mid-January, Barcelona were not only utterly dominant in the Liga, they were attracting praise from their ex-coach, Josep Guardiola, who suggested the current team was not only carrying the baton well but running more elegantly than ever.

However, each passing week in 2013 has seen a diminution of the basic facets of play which have made the Blaugrana this competition's most consistent achievers since 2006. The pressing, the speed of passing, the movement off the ball and defensive rigour – none of these elements are currently getting 'A' grade marks, and possibly not even 'B' grade.

In football, just as in ordinary daily life, the key to starting to find a solution is recognising the problem. UEFA was welcomed into the Ciutat Esportiva Joan Gamper, Barça's training ground, during the week and right-back Daniel Alves was in a mood to analyse.

Amid memories of tournament victories in 2009 and 2011, the Brazilian defender confronted the deficiencies which have caused his side difficulties and the remedies needed. Alves told me: "Football gives you a big slap from time to time and we had ours in the first leg. For me there are not a couple of things to address in order to get the result against Milan – only one thing. The rhythm. We can play to a different tempo than anyone else. When we hit it we are really great. When we don't, we are a normal team. If we play at half-pace then we are out."


Dejected Barcelona players after losing to Madrid

Xavi Hernández, too, told El Mundo Deportivo, "It is about the intensity and mobility we show," and when I asked interim coach Jordi Roura at the weekend about the importance of the approach to the Milan game, he agreed: "There is no doubt, especially against a team like this, that the quicker we move the ball, the quicker we zip through the transitions in play, the better chance of getting the result we need."

Problem diagnosed, solution proposed. But will it be sufficient? Over the last four, trophy-laden, years, this is the period of the season when Barça seem to come out of hibernation. Their fitness training is aimed at peaking in November/December and then again in March/April.

It can lead to a handful of early-year games when effort and sweat are at a higher premium than silk and swagger, but when all the cogs click again the Blaugrana become a force. The round of 16 home ties over the last four years have each produced big wins: 7-1 against Bayer 04 Leverkusen, 3-1 against Arsenal FC, 4-0 against VfB Stuttgart and 5-2 against Olympique Lyonnais.

This season, however, the intensity of rhythm which Alves and Xavi speak of does appear to have dipped further than since 2007/08 – the season before Guardiola took over. The loss of two exceptionally valuable components to health battles, Éric Abidal and Tito Vilanova, has naturally had an impact. Self-awareness, recognition of the solutions and proven class will all make Barcelona more competitive when the Rossoneri come to Camp Nou.

But recognising that a thoroughbred or a high-performance motor needs to go from second gear to top is not quite the same as making it happen. The tension will be high on Tuesday night. If the tempo of play is too, then perhaps a fightback is on the cards.

The opinions expressed here are the writer's own and not those of UEFA.

Last updated: 11/03/13 13.47CET

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