Apr 24, 2012, 1:53 AM EDT
It would be difficult to imagine a team with both Xavi Hernández and Juan Roman Riquelme losing three in a row if it hadn’t happened nine years ago. That’s the last time Barcelona was on a losing streak as long, falling to Valencia, Celta Vigo and Atlético Madrid in the middle of a five-game winless run that cost then-manager Louis Van Gaal his job, leaving a team featuring countrymen Patrick Kluivert, Philipp Cocu, Frank de Boar and Marc Overmars behind at Camp Nou.
Tuesday, Pep Guardiola’s squad is on the cusp of the same result, carrying losses against Chelsea and Real Madrid into the second leg of their Champions League semifinal. Only once in Guardiola’s three previous seasons had Barcelona even lost consecutive matches – end of year irrelevancies at the close of the former captain’s first title as manager (2009). Though it is again the end of a season, their second leg with Chelsea is anything but an irrelevancy, the defending European champions carrying a 1-0 deficit into the second leg of their Champions League semifinal.
While Barcelona are considered the favorites by most, their recent history against English sides at the Nou Camp sides has been problematic. Against Arsenal – a team that, for the most part, has been willing to ry and match them like-for-like – they have been fine, winning their last two meetings in Spain by a combined score of 7-2. Against other English opponents (Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester United), Barcelona has four draws and a loss since defeating Chelsea in February 2005. In back-to-back semifinal first legs against United and Chelsea in 2008 and 2009, Barcelona was held to scoreless draws.
Leaving Stamford Bridge on Wednesday, Barcelona looked as impotent as those manhandled sides. There was no distinct plan for how to deal with a physical, disciplined, patient side who valued its defensive shape above taking the ball off their opponents. Back then, the debate raged as to how long the English sides’ luck could last given the extent to which they were supposedly dominated by Barça. Now, there is a greater awareness that the problem is Barcelona’s. They have to find a solution, not wait for their opposition’s perceived luck to run out.
The scary part for Cules: Guardiola doesn’t appear to have a solution; or, at least, if defender Gerard Piqué is considered an antidote to a goal shortage, the problem’s not being properly tackled. The big Barcelona center back will give Guardiola an option at the end of matches, but reportedly benched due to a dip in form (before injuries slowed a return), he may afford Chelsea a route to kill off the tie before Barcelona can snag an equalizer. At the point where Piqué’s size would be utilized in an attacking role, Didier Drogba (presumed healthy for Tuesday after missing Saturday’s match with Arsenal) would be back, augmenting Chelsea’s height in defense.
Before then, Barcelona has few choices but to find a new, ingenious way to use their current, homogenous personnel. Even the channel between Gary Cahill and Branislav Ivanovic that presented so many first leg options is likely to be closed by a Chelsea defense that, protecting a lead, can set up deeper and more compact than in the opening moments in London.
Chelsea can always make mistakes. We could see a penalty call, a freak own goal. We could see another Andrés Iniesta blast from distance push tactics aside.
But we could also see this play out the same way it did the last time Chelsea went to Catalunya, and while that wouldn’t hand Barcelona a third straight loss, it would put them out of Champions League.
As was the case last week, Pro Soccer Talk will be bringing out all the stops for this one. Play-by-play with will start around 2:00 p.m. ET, with post-match analysis and reaction to follow. On Wednesday, we’ll do it all over again as Real Madrid tries to stay on course for a double against Bayern Munich.
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