La Liga Review asseses Barcelona's chances ahead of their Champions League semi final second leg against Manchester United at Old Trafford...
Writing in one of the Barcelona papers today, Johan Cruyff emphasised the importance of Barcelona being faithful to their own style at Old Trafford on Tuesday evening. According to the legendary Dutchman, that means retaining possession for as much of the game as possible and looking to play the ball forward at every opportunity, while giving the opposition the run around with plenty of quick passing and clever movement.
Cruyff also emphasised the importance of not making stupid mistakes - like Milito's for the penalty in the first leg - or of giving the ball away with stray horizontal passes - as Iniesta did and almost gifted Man Utd a goal at the Camp Nou.
Yet perhaps the most interesting thing that Cruyff had to say was that "Barcelona must not fall in to Ferguson's trap and allow Manchester United to form a solid defensive block that will give Rijkaard's side the false sense of security that being dominant in possession creates."
That is arguably the best description of the first leg that La Liga Review has read and no coincidence that it comes from someone who's tactical understanding of the game dwarfs our own. For all the praise heaped on United by the British media who lauded the clean sheet as a display of defensive brilliance - which it was not -Cruyff's asessment best describes the fact that Barcelona, with 80% of possession at one stage in the game, actually created very little.
That’s not the same as United putting in a majestic defensive performance, as one British commentator described it. Just ask Ferguson how delighted he was about the fact that, after demanding that his players keep the ball for as long as possible because 'you won't see it again for 20 minutes at a time in Barcelona,' his players on the night treated the ball like a hot potato and looked more like Rabbits caught in headlights than experienced internationals beneath the glare of the Camp Nou floodlights.
As Ferguson knows, defending doesn't just involve stopping your opponent scoring when you don't have the ball. Its not American football and you don't have to give the ball back to the opposition as soon as you've had your turn attacking just so as they can have a crack at you.
Of course, as Cruyff said, all that dominance in possession may have given Barcelona a false sense of security, but at 0-0 the tie is finely poised and one thing that Barcelona's dominance has achieved is that it has sent Rijkaard's team to Manchester with a confidence and a belief that they need not fear their Premiership opposition. With Barcelona floundering in La Liga, that fist leg dominance has restored Barcelona's belief in themselves, and while that may amount to a false sense of security, it is also a precious commodity to be taking in to the second leg.
It also showed that a midfield trio of Deco, Toure and Xavi is superior to one composed of Carrick, Scholes and Hargreaves; and while United have Ronaldo, Barcelona have Messi.
Of course, Manchester United will not be playing as they did in the Camp Nou, but Barcelona will now believe that they can pass the ball and control possession better than their opponents - and with Manchester looking to score and giving Barcelona that extra space to operate in - the Catalans will feel that they are good for at least one away goal; and that could prove to be decisive.
La Liga Review felt that, prior to the first leg, Barcelona would be beaten easily at Old Trafford; yet following the first leg, we are not so sure, and that element of doubt may well have crept in to United's thinking.
Another boost for Barcelona comes in the shape of Manchester United's recent dip in form; their air of invincibility now tainted by insecurity - a painful defeat to Chelsea and the ensuing bad publicity an unwelcome distraction for Ferguson's side.
The battle of Stamford Bridge has also taken its toll on the injury front as well: Wayne Rooney and Nemanja Vidic both sat out training on Monday morning. The absence of the key pair from the session at Carrington casts doubts about their availability for Tuesday's match. Rooney took a knock to his hip before scoring the equaliser at Stamford Bridge while Vidic suffered a facial injury that ended up with him losing a tooth. Rio Ferdinand, Owen Hargreaves, Michael Carrick and Wes Brown trained away for the rest of the squad at the beginning of the session.
Of course, all of the above sounds as if La Liga Review is predicting that Barcelona will go through to the final. We are not. Barcelona have not suddenly gone from being a disappointment all season, to being the best in Europe overnight, and scoring a goal at Old Trafford is not going to be easy for a side that hasn't scored in their last three matches. Furthermore, Barcelona will need to do something that none of the eleven previous visitors to Old Trafford have managed in this competition and avoid defeat. That is a considerable task against a side who have conceded just one goal in five home games this term and stand unbeaten in their last 14 UEFA Champions League fixtures in Manchester stretching back over the last three campaigns.
However, Barcelona do not need to win – a score draw will be enough to carry them through to the final in Moscow and it should be noted that only once in this season's competition have they failed to find the net on their away from home. This Barcelona side may have surrendered La Liga but they are still the pretty much the same team that lit up Europe just 18 months ago - and this will be their last shot at glory as a unit. They will be motivated.
The British press treated the 0-0 result at the Camp Nou as good as a win for the away team, yet the history books do not support this logic: Sir Alex Ferguson will be more than aware that on the last three occasions his charges returned from Europe after a goalless first leg, they proceeded to surrender the initiative at Old Trafford.
In contrast, Rijkaard will know that on four of the seven previous occasions Barcelona drew the first leg at home, they went on to win the tie in the away leg.
Barcelona Team News
Barcelona will have skipper Carles Puyol available for selection after serving his suspension. However, Rafael Márquez will miss the clash with a ban of his own. Giovani Dos Santos has been ruled out of the match with a head injury, so Edmílson will deputise in the squad. Gaby MIlito, Andrés Iniesta, Lionel Messi, Xavi and Samuel Eto'o will all feature after being rested over the weekend.
Manchester United: Van der Sar, Neville, Brown, Ferdinand, Vidic, Silvestre, Evra, 0'Shea, Ronaldo, Scholes, Anderson, Hargreaves, Carrick, Giggs, Park, Fletcher, Rooney, Tevez, Kuszczak, Pique, Welbeck.
Barcelona: Valdés, Pinto, Puyol, Thuram, Milito, Silvinho, Abidal, Zambrotta, Deco, Touré Yayá, Gudjohnsen, Edmilson, Xavi, Iniesta, Bojan, Etoo, Messi, Henry.