FC Barcelona spent an uncomfortable night under pressure from FC Lokomotiv Moskva before maintaining their 100 per cent record in Group H with a 1-0 victory – and securing their passage into the second group stage of the UEFA Champions League.
In the end, it was tactical heavyweight Louis van Gaal who turned the tables on Lokomotiv coach Yuri Semin with a brilliant 65th-minute substitution and reorganisation.
Lokomotiv's formation had been true to coach Semin's pre-match warning that they would try to emulate Barcelona's recent domestic opponents Real Betis Balompié and Real Valladolid in choking the creative life out of the Catalans. The Russian side attempted to use a 5-4-1 lineup when defending and then switch, quickly, to 3-5-2 on the attack.
Wide players' role
The core of Lokomotiv's tight-knit and miserly defence was the trio of Dmitri Sennikov, Sergei Ignashevitch and Oleg Pachinine. But at the heart of Semin's counterattacking strategy was the need for wide players Vadim Evseev and Milan Obradovic to convert speedily from orthodox full-backs in the five-man defence to threatening wing-backs on the attack.
Choice of experience
Van Gaal patently anticipated the tactic. With Thiago Motta's hamstring injury ruling him out of the left-midfield slot, and Fernando Navarro having played shakily in the weekend defeat against Valladolid, Van Gaal chose to reinforce with experience, in the shape of Phillip Cocu, rather than the expected Gabri García.
De Boer tested
But it was another home player whom Lokomotiv had obviously been instructed to test. In the knowledge that Frank de Boer's defensive form has been under close scrutiny, Semin asked Nigerian James Obiorah - Lokomotiv's scorer in their 3-1 defeat by Barça in Moscow earlier this month - and Brazilian Julio Cesar to push and run past the 32-year-old Dutch international whenever possible.
That was Semin's key decision and that, also, was what turned the match in Lokomotiv's favour for the majority of the evening. The dividends almost arrived when Cocu, under pressure, over-hit a pass to De Boer, and Cesar flew past him only for keeper Roberto Bonano to save at point-blank range from a mishit shot.
The tactic looked promising again when Cesar drifted past Gaizka Mendieta and hit the bar with a volley from Ruslan Pimenov's cross after 56 minutes. And when Cesar sent Obiorah round Bonano with only defender Carlos Puyol to beat minutes later, it was, again, a product of the width, pace and counterattacking which Lokomotiv's coach had preached to his players. Only a world-class block from Puyol saved Barcelona.
That was sufficient torment for Van Gaal. He introduced substitute Fabio Rochemback and put him in central midfield, withdrew Gabri to the right of Barça's back three, moved Puyol to the centre of defence and pushed De Boer to left midfield, leaving Navarro on the left of the defensive three. Given freedom, De Boer, a 1995 Champions League winner with Van Gaal’s Ajax, responded to his coach with the only goal of the match from Juan Riquelme’s in-swinging free kick eleven minutes later.
KEY PLAYER: Carlos Puyol (FC Barcelona)
Peerless throughout the match, Puyol marshalled Barcelona's overworked defence and kept the Spanish outfit in a position to win the match.
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