Barcelona are going through a dip in form. Luckily, it hardly matters in the Spanish League, where they lead by a large margin. But in terms of the Champions League, Barça’s slump couldn’t have come at a worse time.
Losing in two consecutive clasicos against Real Madrid, Barcelona are going to require intensive damage control. Their mental game is incredibly vulnerable, especially given their remarkable results up until now. Facing the second leg against AC Milan will reveal whether or not Barcelona can cope with defeat and play without insecurity.
Many considered Barcelona the favorite in the battle for this year’s Champions League title. Now pundits are rethinking their predictions. Barça may have the home advantage this time, but they will play without Xavi Hernandez and without the peace of mind of away goals. Without Xavi, Barcelona are missing a crucial cog in the tiki-taka machine.
That machine, though, could be failing anyway.
Barcelona and their tiki-taka alone are overrated. They might have the Lionel Messi-Xavi-Iniesta combo, but it seems they have been found out. Milan exposed their weaknesses to the world and it isn’t far-fetched to think José Mourinho studied their Champions League defeat closely before the Copa del Rey match.
Madrid exploited the holes in Barça’s game that were on full display during their defeat at San Siro. Barcelona lack physicality. They pose absolutely no aerial threat, and facing tall teams such as Madrid puts them at an extreme disadvantage for set pieces. Barça rely heavily on keeping possession and dictating play. Madrid adapt to their opponent’s style. Xabi Alonso spoke to this issue saying that, “We don’t want to keep possession for the sake of keeping possession, and we always have a clear objective, which is reaching the box." (via Real Madrid.com)
Herein lies Barça’s mistake. Barcelona do not take enough risks and when teams like Milan stifle their progression up field, possession counts for little. Sure, the other team can’t score if you have the ball. But you can’t score either if you’re not creating opportunities.
Defensively, Barcelona have been weak and unreliable. Mistakes were abundant in the two recent matches against Real Madrid. In the Copa del Rey match, an unnecessary Gerard Piqué foul on Cristiano Ronaldo led to a penalty. Ronaldo scored another on a rebound from a failed Victor Valdes clearance. Failure to cover the young Frenchman Raphael Varane on a corner was another goal against Barcelona. Today’s clasico was a similar story. Karim Benzema scored within the first seven minutes to give Madrid the lead. Messi pulled one back in the first half, but Sergio Ramos scored with a header from a Luka Modric corner to secure a Madrid victory. Set pieces are Barcelona’s most vulnerable area, and the squad's consistent failure to protect against them creates a mental weakness, bordering on fear, more than anything.
The Spanish national team is formidable because it combines Barcelona’s tiki-taka style with the athleticism and skill of Real Madrid. Both styles supplement each other and are more effective when combined. There are also Juan Mata, David Silva, Nacho Monreal and other Spaniards in the Premier League whose contributions are important. Claims that Spain has benefited from tiki-taka often fail to acknowledge the powerful and forceful players who enable tiki-taka. Ramos and Alonso are physical players who rack up yellows every season. They have been crucial in Spain’s success, and while they can adapt to tiki-taka and execute the style skillfully, they are far from the Barcelona ideal.
The big question is: Can Barcelona hold up mentally in the second leg against Milan? It is very difficult to judge because the Catalan side have hardly been tested this season. They have remained at the top of the table in La Liga and are just now experiencing defeats. Barcelona are also dealing with interim manager Jordi Roura, whom some are blaming as the root of Barça’s dip in form.
There has been serious discussion about the current Barcelona squad being the best ever. This may need to be rethought after their recent performances. Other teams are beginning to figure out how to beat Barça and use their distinct style of play against them. Barça might want to think about injecting a little kick and rush into their game every once in a while, if not for just a change in pace.