Sunday, April 24, 2011

Mas Que Nada

Real Madrid: 2011 Kings of Europe?
Mas que un club ("More than a club") - FC Barcelona motto
Mas que nada - In Brazilian Portuguese slang: "Yeah, right!; in Spanish: "Better than nothing"


Royal Pain: Real Madrid hoists the 2011 Copa del Ray trophy

It pains me to say this, but I predict Real Madrid will win the 2011 Champions League final against Manchester United in an historic victory that will make Jose Morinho the first coach to ever win three European soccer crowns with three different clubs. I hope I'm wrong, but if I was a betting man, I wouldn't bet against it. And it pains me because I am an FC Barcelona fan through and through. Every night when I go running, I proudly don one of my three Barca jerseys (usually getting sympathetic car honks from cab drivers and only the occasional raspberry from Real Madrid or Man U detractors) as I pretend I'm Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta or Xavi Hernadez repeatedly running the length of the Camp Nou for a 5K jog.

But anyone who's a realist, anyone who's been following soccer lately has to admit it: Real Madrid may be second in La Liga (8 points behind Barcelona), but in everything else their current form is world-class. Even Barca coach Pep Guardiola agrees, admitting that the recent extra time loss to Madrid in the Copa Del Rey final and the 1-1 La Liga tie at the Bernabeu makes his team underdogs for the upcoming clash with their arch-rivals in the first leg of their Champions League semi-final meeting at the Santiago Bernabeu on Wednesday, April 27.

Barcelona may be "more than a club" (as in their motto, mas que un club), but they aren't more than human.


You got the silver: All that glitters isn't gold at Barca these days

Both sides were exhausted by the long and extremely physical Copa del Ray final, but Mourinho's "reserve" team - if one can call last year's leading Madrista scorer Gonzalo Higuain, Brazilian former World Player of the Year Kaka (also the second most expensive player transfer in history, after Ronaldo), and Karim Benzama a "B-side" - was much more impressive in its next game, a 6-3 win over a very good 3rd-place Valencia team, than Barca's reserves were as they struggled at home to beat an outclassed 17th-place Osasuna side 2-0; Barca reluctantly had to insert its exhausted superstars Xavi, Iniesta, and Messi into the game to ensure the victory, with starter Dani Alves having to play the full 90 minutes despite running his legs off in the recent Copa del Ray clash.

The problem with Barcelona is simply this: they are small and they are thin of bench - and they rely far too much on one player, Lionel Messi, whose 31 league goals and 50 (!) total goals (in all competitions) this year have carried the Blaugrana on his miniscule back.

Counter that with a Real Madrid side of Galaticos who are big and tall (Ronaldo, Bezema, Adebayor), deep (the midfield in particular is positively bursting at the seams with Xabi Alonso, Sami Khedira, Mesut Ozil, Marcelo, Angel di Maria, Lassana Diarra, Sergio Canales, Estaban Grenaro, Fernando Gago and - oh yeah - Kaka vying for playing time) and, under The Special One's stewardship, more disciplined (especially defensively, with Morinho adding his reliable former Chelsea stopper Ricardo Cavalho) than ever. But that's what you get when you break records spending in excess of $220 million dollars to sign peeps like Ronaldo ($80 million), Kaka ($56 million), Benzema ($30 million) and Alonso ($30 million). And play defensively, which is Morinho's style.

In the Copa del Ray game, I didn't notice until the second half (when Manuel Adebayor came on) that Ronaldo was being played as the lone striker in Real Madrid's 4-5-1 attack - backed by a packed midfield of Ozil, Kehdira, Marcelo, di Maria and Alonso. They had Benzema, Adabeyor, Higuain, and Kaka sitting on the bench! And the game plan was obvious: Morinho's men were told to sacrifice their bodies contesting every ball - especially Khedira in his best game as a Madrista, who gave so much that it looks like he may now miss the rest of the thigh injury he suffered giving it his all - and clog up Barca's creative generals in the midfield. Morinho deployed three defensive midfielders (Khedira, Marcelo, Alonso) in that clogged five-man midfield, with only Ozil and di Maria left to create crosses and chances for the well-marked strikers. Real Madrid played ugly and won; Barca tried to play with class and lost, thrown off their game by tactics dictated by a master tactician.

Barca has a paper-thin bench (thinner, in fact, than Guardiola's increasingly gray-flecked hairline), with Puyol (and now after the cup final, Adriano) and Eric Abidal (first a liver tumor, now a thigh boo-boo) out injured, Bojan out for the year, Milito coming back from almost two years of inactivity, Maxwell out with a back injury following the Osasuna game...and everyone outside of Sergio Busquets, Gerard Pique and Abidal are tiny!

There's a reason why Ronaldo got that header to win the Copa del Rey for Madrid: he's a big boy! Little Brazilian Adriano played his heart (and now injured legs) out marking Ronaldo for all but one play in the match, but he couldn't match the soaring girth of Ronaldo and that sky-high header. Size matters. That's the main reason why set plays for Barca are so anti-climatic. They don't have anyone - even Messi - who can take a free kick and score from distance like a Ronaldo. And with the departure of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, they don't have any big bodies to throw into the box on corner kicks other than defensive midfielder Busquets or defender Pique (who have to hurry and get back to guard as against counterattacks) - which is why they so often play the ball short and outside on corner kicks.


Big little man Messi and Little big man Ronaldo

And, post-Ibrahimovic, there is no big, Didier Drogba or Andy Carroll-type striker who can play with his back to the opposing goal and hold the ball up. It's all the burden of Villa and Messi to get the perfect pass from the tiny midfield trio of Pedro, Iniesta, or Xavi, or for Pedro or Dani Alves to make exhausting runs on the wings to snake through. And, unlike Ronaldo, Lionel Messi never flops in the box, always staying on his feet no matter how hacked he gets with his legendary footwork. Ronaldo may have more weapons (size, scoring at will from free kicks, deadly with headers), but Messi's heart and spirit-of-the-game are stronger; he's no cheat.

"We accept that Madrid are in the role of favourites in the Champions League," Guardiola admitted to the Spanish media. "I understand that is so, because they won the Copa and they are playing well. We also accept the challenge. We have great faith in ourselves and I have faith more than anything in my players."

I too have faith in Barca, but as I've seen over the course of the 2010-2011 season, faith is an intangible. Reality is tired legs, injury, limited bench options, and the burden of knowing you must play a perfect match every time out against a foe who can concede bodies, who can survive red cards (Madrid ended up with 10 players in its last two Barca clashes - a tie and a win), and still throw more world-class bodies at you. So while it looks certain that Barcelona will soon win its third consecutive La Liga regular season title (they now only need just two wins and a draw in the remaining five games to clinch), in the scheme of things it's really not much mas que nada. Better than nothing (as mas que nada translates in Latin American Spanish), but no silverware. No European glory.

Of course, Sir Alex Ferguson's Red Devils will have a say in the finals as well. It's a given that they'll get past a "Cinderella" Schalke 04 squad inspired by Madrid cast-off Raul, as the 10th-place Bundesliga team is clearly playing over their heads. Though two other Madrid cast-offs, Bayern Munich's Arjan Robben and Inter Milan's Wesley Sneijder, powered their respective sides to last year's final, it's unlikely given run of form that Schalke will repeat the trick (though Inter would argue otherwise!). Certainly Ronaldo is looking forward to this potential final against his former team; his outspoken critism of Sir Alex's tactics in Man U.'s loss to Barca in the 2009 final led quickly to his ouster there.

Time will tell. Until then, I'm keeping the faith, but accepting that this may not be Barca's year for European glory. Barca's aura of invincibility has passed since that infamous 5-0 drubbing of Real Madrid last November that now seems so far away and insignificant. Barca will continue to play the beautiful game of attacking football (that's why they're Barcelona!), but I'm afraid Morinho will continue to win titles, if not beauty contests.

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