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Barcelona should be wary of Messi’s health April 9, 2010

Posted by Alex Tomchak Scott in Uncategorized.
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A week and a half ago, Manchester United was flying high. Top of the Premiership, heading into the European Cup quarterfinals in a formidable position, they possessed a superstar in frightening form supported by a cast of footballers at once so versatile and diverse that they could find the proper mix to stymie any team.

Then, in one characteristically clumsy stamp, Mario Gomez crumpled not only Wayne Rooney’s foot, but also the seemingly unassailable bullwark the club had built atop of the league and ultimately its vehicle for continental glory.

It’s a scenario of which Barcelona should take heed. Let it be said before your blood boils that I’m not calling Barcelona a one-man team. That would be preposterous. However, I do believe Lionel Messi’s good form this season has papered over cracks that have begun to emerge in the Barcelona lineup.

Xavi is playing better than he ever has, and as long as he is around the lineup in this kind of form, Barcelona will always dominate the midfield. Dani Alves is also having his most consistently spectacular season; the only time he has not been available for a pass has been when he is not on the field.

But other players have not met the standards they set last season. Thierry Henry, the most extreme example, took Barcelona from great side to once-in-a-lifetime one. Finally, he seemed to be realizing, he was free from the gilded albatross of his latter Arsenal days. No longer did he have to shoulder the burden of being his team’s fulcrum. He could play his own elegant brand of soccer, to be the insouciant free spirit he is rather than the authority figure Arsene Wenger demanded he become. He could content himself with subtle runs to create space and unsettle the defense without anxiety setting in when he didn’t have the ball.

Age, fatigue, Pedro Rodriguez, perhaps the sudden surprise of becoming the most loathed man in the Irish Republic. Something affected him, and he is no longer the same. Similarly, Andres Iniesta, perhaps as a knock-on effect of Henry’s sudden loss of form, has become more peripheral. Pep Guardiola has spent much of this season blooding Sergio Busquets and Pedro, with attendant vulnerabilities. And there’s the elephant in the room: Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

Ibrahimovic is certainly a class footballer and has often looked the part. But it’s worth remembering that Barcelona’s upturn in fortunes this decade came when Frank Rijkaard dispensed with the very Ibrahimovic-like Patrick Kluivert in favor of players more apt to run and create space. Ibrahimovic’s oft-cited physical presence is the least of the things Barcelona gains with him in the team. The man has a Zidane-like elan and appreciation of space about his play. But he is not as explosive and direct as Samuel Eto’o. Without Eto’o, and with Henry diminished both in age and in form, Eric Abidal is the only Barcelona player who combines true pace and raw power, and he has been out for quite a while.

All of which means Barcelona has happily found a new way of playing that accommodates the fact that they are the slightest bit less dynamic. That system, though, works precisely because it has unlocked Messi, who now operates in a free role behind Ibrahimovic that allows him to influence the game so much more. But it also relies heavily on Messi to weave the kind of magic he did against Arsenal and so many other teams this season. That means, without him, Barcelona might need to tear up the blueprint yet again.

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