Goal Drought: Lack of Forwards Finally Catching Up with F.C. Barcelona
What a difference a year makes.
Twelve months ago, Andres Iniesta's last-minute winner took Barcelona past Chelsea and towards an historic treble. Wednesday, Bojan looked to have done the same when he shot past Julio Cesar in the 91st minute.
The goal was called back for a dubious handball. Minutes later, the cries of jubilation were in Italian, not Catalan.
Such are the razor thin margins that decide Champions League semifinals.
It is easy, and natural, for the losers to console themselves by focusing on refereeing decisions, missed chances, or even the opponent's gamesmanship. These explanations miss the point.
In the case of Barcelona, the problems go deeper.
With three titles won before the new year, a lead in La Liga, and a Champions League semifinal appearance, their season cannot be called a failure. Yet they have failed to reach the same heights as last season, in both results and quality of football.
The problem is strikers, or lack thereof.
A summer of failed acquisitions left Josep Guardiola's side with five forwards for three positions. This is woefully inadequate for a team competing on so many fronts.
This shortage has translated into a lack of goals. Barça have scored 24 fewer goals than last season.
Last year, they had the most dangerous forward line in Europe. The forward trident of Thierry Henry, Samuel Eto'o, and Leonel Messi scored 100 goals in all competitions.
This season, Messi has improved his production slightly, from 38 to 40 goals, but the results of his strike partners make for depressing reading.
Eto'o has gone, and his replacement, the swede Zlatan Ibrahimovic, has fallen short of the Cameroonian's 36 goals last term, only delivering a respectable 21.
Henry has only managed four goals this season, and has been unable to force his way into the starting lineup. His form has been so poor, that a tactical switch to a 4-2-4 and an injury to Ibrahimovic was not enough to guarantee him playing time.
The academy graduate Pedro has helped hide this problem with 16 goals, many of which have come at key moments, but even his heroics have been insufficient.
It is obvious that the thin and misfiring forward line has made the team overly dependent on Messi for goals.
This has consequences that go beyond the apparent difficulty of winning games without scoring. A team short on forwards is a team that invites burnout of the players.
There are two reasons for this.
The first is the lack of substitutes prevents the stars from resting. Henry has been unselectable for most of the season, and Bojan lacks the experience needed for big games. That leaves just three forwards in many cases, and creates problems when injuries inevitably occur.
Messi has already played more minutes than in all of last season, even without including the exhausting World Cup qualifying campaign.
The second reason is the added demands of winning by narrow margins every week. Last season, Barça won by three or more goals on 17 occasions. They developed an impressive habit of wrapping up games before halftime. This allowed them to reserve energy and stay sharp for the end of the season.
This season has been more of a struggle.
Madrid has pushed them harder, and they have been unable to kill games off like before.
The burnout is evident in their recent inability to press effectively. Before they would swarm opponents to win the ball back after giveaways, now they are a step slow, and the ball recovery fades notably late in matches.
Barcelona are not the only team to suffer from insufficient reinforcements last summer. The price inflation caused by Real Madrid and Manchester City caused many big clubs to save their money for better deals.
Almost all of them paid the price.
Barcelona can still hold on to win the league title, if they don't slip up in the four remaining games. Yet even that will not disguise the deficiencies in the squad.
If Barcelona is to have any chance to return to the top of European football, significant investments must be made to shore up the forward line.
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