Last couple of weeks we witnessed a slew of great games in the quarter-final stage of the UEFA Champion League. This time of the year usually brings some of the best games and drama to all the football fans around the globe. This being a world cup year there is an extra buzz surrounding the superstars of the game, their form, and injuries etc., everything is magnified a few times over.
Reigning Champions FC Barcelona booked their spot in semifinals with some dominating and imperious display of flowing football against Arsenal over two legs. Leo Messi scored a ‘poker’ (hat-trick +1) against the Londoners in the return leg at Camp Nou.
Barcelona will face FC Internazionale aka Inter from Milan led by Jose Mourinho. Inter defeated one of the surprise teams of the tournament, CSKA Moscow. The other semi-final will be played between Olyimpique Lyonnais from Lyon and FC Bayern Munich from Munich Germany.
But there is no doubt that Barça X Inter is the marquee match-up with a lot of intrigue for various reasons. Firstly it is the reigning champions against the most high-profile coach in Europe. And they have already played each other in the group stages. Secondly Jose Mourinho was a part of the late Sir Bobby Robson’s coaching staff during when Sir Bobby used to be the coach of Barcelona. And finally because the Champions League final will be played at the Santiago Bernabeu in Madrid, arch-enemy of Barcelona in the Spanish Primera Liga, who want Mourinho as their coach next year. Rest assured a lot of Madridistas will be rooting for Jose Mourinho and Inter during the semifinals.
And then there is the Etoo-Ibrahimovic angle. These two world-class strikers swapped the clubs at the beginning of the season and neither seems to have hit a purple patch with their new team.
Even though Barcelona dominated the meetings between the teams in the group stages, the semifinals will be a completely different ballgame for the following reasons.
1. Inter has improved a lot over the season, especially in the Champions League. Gutsy performance against Chelsea away from home where they employed the 3 out-and-out strikers in a 4-3-3 is just one example of their improvement in Champions League.
2. Wesley Sneijder. Sneijder has been very instrumental in the success of Inter in Champions League this season. His fits perfectly in the role behind the strikers and links very well between the defensive midfielders and the frontline.
3. Fatigue and injuries could be an issue for Barcelona. Most of their key players have been playing a lot of games at a high-level ever since August 2008, not just for Barcelona but for Spain in the Confederations Cup in the summer of 2009 and then the World club championships in December 2009. The effects are showing. Barcelona hasn’t been as dominant as last year. And just yesterday Andres Iniesta is injured in training and wont feature in either leg of the semi-final.
Although Barcelona has not been as dominant as last year, they have showed up to play in all the big games. Cases in point are the games against Arsenal, the Clásico over the last weekend at Madrid. They played their best football against their best opposition.
How will the semifinals play out?
The first leg is in Milan. Jose Mourinho has already suggested that he will gladly sign-up for a 0-0 at home, according to some Italian sports papers. I wouldn’t be surprised with that. 0-0 at home is not at all a bad result at home in Champions League due to the away-goals rule. I think Jose will be conservative. Play with just two strikers Etoo & Milito supported by Sneijder behind them. He will use an extra mid-fielder to cut the passing lanes of Xavi Hernandez. Samuel, Zanetti, Lucio and Maicon at the back will try to out-muscle the generally smallish attacking trident of Barcelona. The basic idea is to keep everything in front and crowd the midfield to disturb the flow of Barcelona’s game built around keeping the possession and slick passing. The might try to sneak a goal on a swift counter-attack catching Barcelona in possession but as Mourinho said their base set-up will be to smother Barcelona and will be satisfied if they don’t concede.
Barcelona will play their normal game of passing when in possession and pressing to quickly win the ball back for the most part. A 4-3-3 formation with the attacking trident of Pedro-Ibra-Messi. Messi will drop back to space between the frontline and the midfield trio a lot of times. This is something he has been doing a lot of late including starting in ‘the hole’ in a formatting resembling 4-3-1-2. This role gives him more freedom to run at the central defenders, who are more prone to make mistakes or a foul as well as who are less agile. It also allows him to get the ball from deeper areas, escape marking from the fullbacks because the fullbacks cannot afford to mark Messi in the middle of the pitch. If Ibrahimovic does play the game, Xavi will try a few long passes to beat the offside trap teams employed by moving the backline high.
If Barcelona manage to score early, Inter will be forced to open up and we could be in for a treat of goals. But based on how Barcelona & Inter have been playing of late I think this game will end in a 1-1 draw. I can’t see Barcelona not scoring, at the same time I think Inter will score as well.
The second semi-final between FC Bayern München and Lyon while not so glamorous will as interesting as Barça X Inter if not better. I will preview it in the next installment.