Lionel Messi’s 39th goal of a magnificent season signalled yet another victory for the reigning champions of Spain, Europe and the World against Arsenal in the Champions League quarter final. Many in the game consider this Barcelona side to be one of the finest club sides in history. There is little doubt that it is a fine football outfit, full of match-winners and players who are technically blessed.
Do not worry; this is not another article worshiping the Catalan giants. There is already enough of that out there on the internet.
However, I would like to cast your mind back to last summer. Barcelona’s head coach, Pep Guardiola and the men in power at the club, President Joan Laporta and sporting director Txixi Begiristain had a massive choice to make. The club had just completed its most successful season in its illustrious history, but, like any great side, could not afford to stand still. There were issues in the squad. Namely, first-choice striker Samuel Eto’o, his disruptive effect on the squad and his contract. Without going into the details, it was decided that Barcelona would sell Eto’o and bring in a star striker to replace the Cameroonian. As I mentioned, there was a choice. In effect, the club had to decide whether it wanted Valencia’s David Villa or Inter’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic. We all know what happened – Eto’o and bundles of cash were sent across to Italy in exchange for the Swedish striker. That same bundle of cash went out and purchased Thiago Motta, Diego Milito and Wesley Sneijder, who, along with Eto’o, will line up against Barcelona in the UEFA Champions League semi-final in a tie that I will preview next week. It was a surprising choice. A more costly choice, to say the least, as Valencia’s financial woes would have facilitated a move for Villa at a lower price than his true market value and certainly for less than Ibrahimovic. For a side bursting with numerous home-grown and/or Spanish stars, it was strange how it did not add Villa, a goalscorer extraordinaire, to its ranks. Villa would have represented, stylistically, a better direct replacement for Eto’o. However, as we have all seen, Barcelona is not doing badly at all and Zlatan, despite a mid-season dip, has scored some pivotal goals in the Blaugrana’s quest to defend all its titles. Furthermore, the goal-scoring exploits of Messi and a young forward that very few had heard of, Pedro, has meant that Barcelona have few regrets about its choice.
Today, I focus on the other side of this choice, Valencia, who has certainly benefitted from Barcelona’s decision. Villa is the crown jewel of the club and losing him seemed almost inevitable last summer as the club’s debt soared over €500m and failed to qualify for the 2009-10 Champions League campaign. With Europe’s finest lurking menacingly in anticipation of a fire sale of Los Che’s prized assets, the club extraordinarily managed to fend off all advances. Having held on to Villa and the terrific duo of Juan Mata and David Silva, this club has begun to taking tentative steps in the right direction of restoring its position as a serious threat to Spain’s big two. Perhaps the most important move was for the club to keep its faith in manager Unai Emery, as it was rumoured he would be shown the door after failing to secure fourth.
The ride back to the top has not been easy. Valencia sold its best centre-back, Raul Albiol, to Real Madrid, but this was the only major departure in the summer, despite the best efforts of the club to offload Ever Banega, who was considered to be a real disappointment prior to this season. Furthermore, the start of the season was less than ideal. Conceding late goals to Sporting Gijon and Atletico Madrid brought back memories of previous years of inconsistency and failure to see games out. However, unlike its predicted rivals for the Champions League places, Valencia has a team that has proven to be incredibly consistent both domestically and in the Europa League. Currently, the team is comfortably in third, eight points clear of fifth and condemnation to another year in Europe’s secondary competition.
Emery has harnessed his team’s strength of attacking, amalgamating a team of sensational attacking flair. With the sensational Villa spearheading the attack, Emery was always on to a winner – Villa has always scored more than 15 league goals each season at the club and the striker currently has 20 goals in this campaign. Silva is a marvellous playmaker was the ability to dribble beautifully around the final third. Unfortunately, his season has been interrupted with injuries and he has not always looked at his best, but has nevertheless remained a force. In Mata and fellow winger Pablo, Valencia has two of the best wingers in Europe.
In my opinion, however, the most consistent of all of Emery’s squad has been another guy who could have left and that is Banega. The Argentine is perhaps known for some indiscretions and turning up last season out of shape, but this season, he has changed all that. Banega possesses ability almost like Xavi of Barcelona – he links the midfield and attack with guile, drive and a great range of passing. In fact, it has sometimes been his desire to win that has overshadowed his brilliance this year, as his disciplinary record would testify. Despite that, outside of the top two, Banega has far and away been the best midfielder in the league.
The work is not over, however, for Valencia and Emery. There are problems, namely defensively, which was always going to be the area of concern. These problems are relative to the best sides in the league, with Los Che conceding 32 goals in 30 games, which is 13 more than Barcelona. It is not a dreadful record by any means, but the manner and the timing of conceding is more alarming – cheap goals and late in games means that they have been costly. Valencia is a long way of the top two, currently 21 points. That being said, at times, the inter-play of the attack has been reminiscent of Barcelona, so there are foundations for building on. My main concern is that, unfortunately, the dark shadows of financial mismanagement still haunt this club, which is criminal in itself given the stellar work of the players and manager on the pitch. It would be a massive shame to see the club qualify for the Champions League and lose any of its best players. It does, however, remain a very credible threat. Thus, while Barcelona had a choice last year, maybe, if it so wishes, it could capture Villa in the summer as Valencia might not be in a financial position to refuse a large offer.
Turning my attention to the Champions League, words cannot describe how great Lionel Messi is. Everyone else has been eulogising about him, so I will keep this to a minimum. Four goals when his team needed it most after Nicklas Bendtner gave Arsenal the shock lead speaks volumes of a man who stepped up when his team needed him. That said, Arsenal did not defend with great resolve or much of a game plan, which is probably a cause of injuries, which was also something that plagued Barcelona, and probably because Wenger did not want to change his own way of playing – a respectable stance to take but not pragmatic in the very least. I do not think the outcome of the tie would have changed had both teams had a full complement of players to choose from. I have deep admiration of Barcelona’s football philosophy and where it sources its players from – Xavi, Iniesta, Pedro, Bojan, Jeffren, Puyol, Pique and Messi are all home grown and have come through the youth team set-up and the vast majority are Spanish. I know everyone is raving on about Messi, especially that third goal, but how good is Xavi? The diminutive midfield maestro is the brains behind this Barcelona side and is, for me, the best midfielder in the world.
Inter Milan coasted through to the semi finals against CSKA. Much of the talk pre-match was about the artificial pitch and the possible advantage it would give CSKA. However, after Wesley Sneijder’s free-kick found its way past Igor Akinfeev, Inter controlled the game and looked in very little trouble, apart from a first-half effort from Tomas Necid. The unnecessary dismissal of Chinedu Odiah further handed the advantage to the Nerazzurri, who could have easily furthered its advantage had it not been for the uncharacteristic profligacy of Diego Milito.
Many close friends of mine will testify that I fully expected Manchester United to be knocked out by Bayern Munich before the second-leg kicked off at Old Trafford. United’s form leading into the game had been terrible and Munich had been boosted by a precious win over title-rivals Schalke at the weekend. However, United completely dominated the Germans, throwing the form book out the window and pressing the visitors high up the pitch in a manner reminiscent of Barcelona the night before. The gamble of risking Wayne Rooney’s fragile ankle reaped instant dividends after just two minutes, with the striker providing Darren Gibson the opportunity to beat Hans-Jorg Butt from outside the box. The Antonio Valencia show was poking all sorts of fun at Holger Badstuber, making a mockery of the full back for both of Nani’s goals in a marvellous performance from the Ecuadorian flyer. Despite the commentators suggesting that the game was over at 3-0, away goals dictate that it could never be that way and Ivica Olic’s goal at the end of the first half gave Bayern something to hold on to. The game changed with Rafael’s early second-half sending off. The Brazilian full-back had Franck Ribery tucked firmly in his pocket, but a hasty tug on Ribery’s arm saw the German side swarm all over the referee, encouraging him to send Rafael packing, though this was probably not needed. After the referee obliged, instead of perhaps letting Rafael off with a final warning, Bayern set up camp in the hosts half and found the goal it needed through another Arjen Robben wonder strike. Personally, this Bayern side is not one of the best four teams in Europe, contradicting its progress to the semi finals. Instead, it is a side rightly riding this wave of good fortune that it is experiencing. How could we forget the calamitous mistake of the officials in the last 16 1st leg against Fiorentina that allowed Miroslav Klose’s last minute winner to stand? Ribery showed that he is perhaps not as great as the reputation that precedes him, instead demonstrating an extremely petulant streak that could have seen him receive his marching orders for a combination of dissent and flailing limbs at Rafael. United had a few half-chances on the break with 10 men, but it lacked any genuine threat that only Rooney in its squad could offer, with the talismanic striker limping off for John O’Shea in a change forced from both injury and tactical reshuffling. Final point: there’s no English team in the last four for the first time in seven years – does this mean that the English league is not as strong as everyone believes and that the others have caught up? Or is this merely a result of tough draws, injuries and bad luck? Personally, I think it is a bit of both.
Lyon is my favourite out of all four teams to reach the final. I think facing Bayern Munich is a fantastic opportunity for Les Gones to reach its first final. An article on one of the most fascinating teams in Europe is long overdue and I shall duly oblige in two weeks time. However, its performance, without Lisandro Lopez, at Bordeaux was excellent and Claude Puel’s men deserve its slot in the semis. Bayern will undoubtedly try and take the game to Lyon, but this, in my opinion, will suit the French side as it is devastating on the counter-attack. Furthermore, any progress the Germans make will have to be down the wings as I feel it does not have the flair in the middle to trouble a very solid Lyon side with the brilliant Jeremy Toulalan shielding the back four. Bordeaux pressed hard for the second goal it required to knock Lyon out, but it could only find Hugo Lloris in terrific form, with France’s number one pulling off a tremendous save to deny Wendel at the death. Claude Puel is a protégé of Arsene Wenger and I fully expect this astute tactician to end Bayern’s lucky streak.
As I mentioned earlier, next week I will be previewing the first-leg of Barcelona’s semi-final trip to the San Siro to face Inter Milan for the third time this season. I will look at the numerous interesting sub-plots, including Ibrahimovic and Eto’o playing against their old clubs, Mourinho possibly auditioning for a job at Real Madrid and whether the Portuguese tactician can stop Messi running wild yet again in Europe, as well as providing a possible blueprint that Inter might utilise to reach its first Champions League final since 1972.