For the first time in a long time, Barcelona were truly and deservedly beaten. On this occasion, by a tremendous scoreline of 2-0 in favor of Italian giants AC Milan in the first leg of their Champions League Round of 16 tie. The two-goal advantage heading into the second leg puts the Catalan side practically on the brink of elimination from the continental tournament.
Aside from the scoreline, the meek performance is what will have a number of the Barcelona faithful up in worries. Although the Blaugrana dominated possession as usual (73 percent to 27 percent), Lionel Messi was practically invisible on the pitch, failing to score for the first time in 15 matches in all competitions, and his teammates failed to shine on a night where the visitors managed a solitary shot on goal.
As Sid Lowe of The Guardian forewarned prior to the match, Barcelona's defense proved to be their downfall, allowing two goals off three shots from Milan. While the first strike by Kevin Prince-Boateng proved controversial for the handball in the build-up, the second goal by Sulley Muntari was brilliantly worked after youngsters M'Baye Niang and Stephan El Shaarawy outplayed a slow and disoriented Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique.
That Barcelona offered little in attack was not a surprise in retrospect. Milan packed their defense and clogged all of the passing lanes, correctly anticipating that the visitors would try to slowly out-pass and out-possess them, without the pace and directness that has proven so detrimental against the Catalans themselves in the past.
But, it was not like Chelsea last season or Inter Milan in 2010, who put 11 men behind the ball and "parked the bus" to avoid leaking a goal. In fact, although the Italians might still attempt that tactic in the second leg at the Camp Nou, Milan defended in an organized fashion and then tried to play neatly and directly through the outstanding Riccardo Montolivo to forwards who were as willing to mark without the ball as they were to hold up play and get their team involved in the attack.
Considering that Barcelona—still probably the greatest goal-getting side of our generation—lack the proper alternative options to their pass-oriented play, they could not breakdown one of Europe's most historically successful sides as they do lesser opposition in La Liga. And, there was no Samuel Eto'o or Zlatan Ibrahimovic on hand to offer an aerial threat or bully the center-back combination of Philippe Mexes and Cristian Zapata. In the end, caretaker manager Jordi Roura had to push Pique up to the center-forward position to try to steal a vital away goal.
Of course, this loss does not mean that Barcelona are any less favorites to win this fixture or that they have been discredited as the most appealing attacking team in world football. Their non-traditional approach, involving smaller, more agile players such as Pedro, Alexis Sanchez, Cesc Fabregas, Andres Iniesta and a host of other world-class footballers in attack, has allowed the club to sit 16 points clear of Real Madrid in the league and with an astonishing 80 goals in 24 matches.
But, continental football is an entirely different story.
Defensive frailties and a lack of variety in attack could easily be exploited by teams with the pedigree of Milan, whereas that might not be the case in La Liga. So, if Barcelona are to overcome this deficit and progress in the tournament, their management must come up with a different plan to winning games.
First of all, the back-line must be addressed. As a result of injuries, a number of players have already started at center-back this campaign, including midfielders Javier Mascherano, Sergio Busquets, Alex Song and diminutive wing-back Adriano. The most obvious issue is Puyol, who has battled injuries over the past two years and lost both pace and positional awareness that could be vital in important matches. With his omission, a certain level of zeal and leadership is lost, but it could be necessary, especially with Pique out of form and Dani Alves and Jordi Alba all too willing to prioritize attack over defense.
Unlike Eric Abidal before him, Alba is perhaps too similar to his Brazilian counterpart on the right-flank, and this leaves the center-backs overly exposed. As a result, either the fullbacks need to be instructed to play further back in their own half or there needs to be a reshuffling of players in the middle.
In addition, there needs to be more urgency when in possession. Xavi, Messi and Iniesta are capable of mesmerizing when on the ball. However, teams like Milan are all too willing to let these players keep possession and play short passes among each other if there is little penetration or risk of a quick cross or bullying interchange to shake the defense. The reintroduction of David Villa through the middle could help in the home match at the Campo Nou. Still, with no traditional No. 9 or height on the field, there needs to be some other form of directness. This is made all the more necessary with Sanchez growing increasingly uncertain with the ball at his feet.
For now, there is praise due Milan. The players executed coach Massimiliano Allegri's plan of "sterilizing" Barcelona's possession perfectly, and they now need to concede three times away to be eliminated, which does not seem likely.
On the other end, Roura and his staff will head back to the drawing board and figure out why a team that has been to the Champions League semifinals in four of the last five seasons is now at risk of losing to an underdog who the media never gave a chance in this fixture.
Everything will be decided on March 12 when Barcelona and Milan face off again at the Camp Nou.
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