Maybe Pep Guardiola's true genius was to know when to leave. Watching FC Barcelona these days, a shadow of the squad that has been on top of the world for most of the last four years although most of the personnel is the same-or maybe just because of that-you start to think that former Barça mentor knew something that the rest of us didn't, and still don't, but can see the effects on the field.
When the Blaugrana were crushing Neymar's Santos 4-0 in the final of the FIFA Club World Cup a little more than a year back and were called the greatest team in history nobody believed that six months later Pep would be gone. But Guardiola left, because he saw something he didn't like, something he thought he couldn't fix to extend the great run for a few more years. He avoided, remember?, as long as he could making a decision, probably hoping to the very end to find a solution. Pep loved Barça. Still, he left, and we wondered, we still do, why?
For a while everything went great under Tito Vilanova, Pep's successor. Barça had the best start in the history of La Liga, winning 18 of its first 19 games, with a draw, Messi continued his amazing scoring pace, and with 13 games left the Catalans, 12 points ahead of Atletico Madrid and 16 in front of Real Madrid, can't lose the title, baring an implosion of unprecedented, cosmic proportions. But judging by how Barça looked in two key games played within the last week, the 2-0 loss to Milan in the UEFA Champions League, and the 3-1 humiliation by Real Madrid at the Camp Nou in the semifinals of the Copa del Rey, no lead is safe. Barça is in crisis. Something must change.
Even during the great league run there were signs that the team isn't really that good. The defense is suspect, it has allowed at least one goal in the last 12 games, and undisciplined. The main goalkeeper, Valdes (no Zamora, for sure) wants to leave; he should have been dumped in January. His replacement, Pinto, is 38 and nobody can tell why he's on the roster. The right back, Alves, "doesn't do" defense, it's below him. He's never in the frame when the other team scores. Piqué wanders aimlessly all over the field, thinking, or dreaming he's a centre forward. Captain Puyol is getting old. He has a lot of spirit and not much else. Mascherano is not a central defender, despite his good intentions. Sometimes he scares Valdes as much as opposing attackers. Left back Alba has been a good addition to the team, not necessarily to the defense.
But Barça has never been about defense. They just scored more than the other team. The technical wizardry and vision of its ball controllers, Iniesta, Xavi and Messi, has been the staple of this team and has defined Barça's play-ball control and advancement through short, repeated passes-resulting in many scoring opportunities. While Messi's scoring hunger and his unique talent have made him the natural leader, and the natural leading scorer, in the last year or so a change, not quite subtle, has occurred. The initial story, "Barça is great, Barça is the greatest" has become "Messi must score, Messi must set another record, and another one."
From the team, the attention has switched to Messi. Even the great rivalry Barça vs. Real Madrid has been transformed into a Messi vs. Cristiano Ronaldo individual rivalry. It's not clear if Messi requested dictatorial powers or if the role was bestowed upon him, but when Iniesta, Xavi, Fabregas, Alba, Alves and most everybody else have "Messi must score" in mind, the team's efficiency is affected negatively. Yes, Messi appeared as the savior in many games, but that's because the team played for Messi to be the savior.
Barça is not the best team when Messi scores 37 goals in 25 league games and all the other players have 42 combined. When Messi is annihilated, Barça is paralyzed. Good opposing coaches like Allegri and Mourinho have figured out how to stop and frustrate Messi. Stopping Messi means stopping Barça, because players like Pedro and Fabregas have become almost irrelevant, they can't take over a game, they can't even go past a defender in dribbling, one-on-one. Injury has slowed Xavi, who is not the player he was six months ago. Iniesta doesn't have Messi's killer instinct. Villa has been ostracized, probably because he didn't go with the "all-for-Messi plan," youngster Tello plays less than under Pep, and Alexis has been a bust. Think that Messi could use a teammate like Ibrahimović now?
Hopefully Barça will get Neymar (along with a few defenders), but what the team needs right now is a coach. Vilanova has been in New York since early January getting treatment for a recurrent parotid gland cancer. His helper Jordi Roura is not really a coach that can prepare the team for a game against Real or Milan. It would have been enough to say: "Hey, we tied 1-1 in Madrid, we're ahead. They must score first, they must attack. Alves, Piqué, Busquets, stay back and keep an eye on number 7. Iniesta, just keep the ball for 90 minutes at midfield.
We all hope Tito gets well soon, because nobody has coached a team to major trophies via the internet. You can give orders, good or bad, but you can't feel the pulse of the team. And right now Barça's heartbeat is almost a flat line.
Vladimir Moraru played soccer for 15 years and has watched it for 60. He hasn't seen a player like Messi and a team like FC Barcelona.
- Sports & Recreation
- FC Barcelona
- Real Madrid