There is no point in arguing that this FC Barcelona side is not the best team on the planet at the moment. They have swept all before them, are picking up trophies at an alarming rate, They form the nucleus of the all-conquering Spanish national team, and with the likes of Lionel Messi and Dani Alves supplementing the finest exponents of tiki-taka, they really take some beating.
That is not to say that they cannot be beaten. They have been defeated before, and they will definitely be defeated again. It is not a foregone conclusion that they will take the Champion League and La Liga titles to the Camp Nou next season. It has to be said, however, that here are few teams who are capable of vanquishing this side when they are at full-strength and up for the challenge. Anomalous losses to inferior teams when the Barcelona players aren’t fully charged is a very different proposition to defeating Barcelona in a crunch encounter. But it can happen. No-one can confirm that Arsenal would still have lost had Robin Van Persie not been farcically sent off in the round of 16 this year, or that Real Madrid would fall short before Pepe’s dismissal in the first leg of their semi-final clash. Both sides acquitted themselves well before these incidents, albeit using very different methods. Throw ‘in Madrid’s victory in the Copa Del Rey this year, and Inter Milan’s success against La Blaugrana in last year’s edition of the Champions League, and it is clear that this team is not untouchable.
Having said that, it is obviously easier said than done; Which is why I have come up with what is, in my opinion, a team that can invariably conquer FC Barcelona, given that they were an actual team, with some semblance of chemistry.
The shape I’ve gone or is more-or less a 4-5-1, although in this day in age everyone seems to freely equate it with 4-3-3 as well, given that the wide players’ primary function is in an attacking capacity. It is worth noting that this is not a randomly assemebled team of great players. The idea was to adopt a particular approach and shape first, then select the personnel best suited for the same.
Goalkeeper: Iker Casillas (Real Madrid)
A position where there was very little to choose between the competitors. Had Edwin Van Der Sar been active, he would have been my pick. This spot could just as easily have gone to Petr Cech, Manuel Neuer, Julio Cesar or even Pepe Reina, whose quick distribution could have proved useful.
The criteria for defensive selection was simple. Ability to carry the ball and provide attacking options is always a plus, but against a team of this caliber, every defender should be very capable of doing one thing first: Defending.
Right-back: Sergio Ramos (Real Madrid)
He seems to have eliminated the brashness which characterized his early career. Quick and strong in equal measure, he has grown into a very capable defender. His earlier experience playing at center-back will hold him in good stead when he has to track a runner infield. He is also a powerful runner, and his overlapping style down Barca’s left side will be required.
Center-back: Thiago Silva (AC Milan)
The Brazilian defender showed impressive form last season, fulfilling the promise he showed in spurts. Comfortable on the ball and a good reader of the game, he is rightly considered one of the best defenders in the world.
Center-back: Nemanja Vidic (Manchester United)
He has been one of the most consistently excellent defenders in the world for a few years now. Ideal alongside a defender who likes to carry the ball out of defense, he is strong and sure-footed in the tackle, and dominant in the air. He is also a threat at set-pieces.
Left-back: Ashley Cole (Chelsea)
Cole has repeatedly placed himself in the category of the world’s best full backs. He can supply impetus going forward, and is a competent defender armed with plenty of pace. Trumps the other candidates thanks to his defensive nous.
The midfield shape would consist of one deep-lying defensive player screening the back four, who needn’t be of playmaking ilk. His job is to protect the defense, break up play and provide an additional man to handle Messi or any other deep runner from midfield. NB: This is NOT a man-marking role. This player needs to know when to stand off and await support, and when to close down, like Cambiasso did so well for Inter in 2010.
CDM: Pepe (Real Madrid)
The Portugal international did an exceptional job while he was on the field during his encounters against Barca, and his strength and tenacity helped break the Spanish team’s flow. Very disciplined, and plays simple passes to play the ball out of harm’s way.
I’ve always felt that most teams need to have three men in the middle of the pitch against Barca, otherwise they can pass their way through midfield far too easily. However, if all you have is midfield enforcers, then you’re bound to eventually be overrun, because the Barca players’ pressing game puts these sorts of players under pressure very quickly, they end up giving the ball away, and the team ends up on the back foot again. All-round abilities are required at the center of the park. These players have to be disciplined, but should also be able to support the forwards and build up attacks.
RCM: Luka Modric (Tottenham Hotspur)
The dimunitive Croat wouldn’t look out of place in the Barcelona side. Short, but with nimble feet, an eye for a pass and the ability to dribble, he is the complete central-midfielder package. He is comfortable in possession, but also has a good work-rate and tackling ability to boot.
LCM: Jack Wilshere (Arsenal)
The young Englishman acquitted himself well against the Spaniards this season, showing good composure on the ball. As mentioned earlier, when possession is won, it is vital to retain the ball, and Wilshere has shown he is capable of doing so even when under pressure. Like Modric, he is also capable of a quick change of pace, and has the ability to weave through opponents as well.
RW: Samuel Eto’o (Inter Milan)
Personally, I prefer seeing the Cameroon skipper as a conventional center-forward, but he has proven he can be very dangerous out on the right-hand side as well, as he showed n Inter’s 2010 Champions League campaign. Blessed with great stamina, he also has pace and an outstanding goalscoring record.
LW: Gareth Bale (Tottenham Hotspur)
The Welsh wizard showed this season that he is more than capable of tearing part full-backs, particularly of the Brazilian variety. His electric pace and left foot should be able to considerably curb Dani ALves’ runs into the final third. He has a great left foot, and can help out at the back as well, given his experience as a left-back
The final position involved a lot of second-guessing, and I’ll discuss the options below:
CF: Carlos Tevez (Manchester City)
The stocky Argentine just shades it. Pace, strength, work-rate and good link-up play help him take this spot. He is an accomplished finisher, and will also play another role. Gerard Pique likes bringing the all into midfield, and that means Barca can have an additional player in the middle of the park. Tevez can harry him and Sergio Busquets, forcing them out of their comfort zone.
Here were the other contenders for this position, and why they fell short:
Cristiano Ronaldo: In my book, he is without doubt the most complete individual attacker in the world today. Pace, strength, two great feet, dribbling, heading; He has it all. However, his link-up play and ability to hold the ball up and await support are questionable. But more than this, his team ethic falls short.
The other option would be a big target-man; Andy Caroll still hasn’t proven himself on the big stage, and Didier Drogba’s powers have been waning. They represent good options to change up the team approach though.
Just Missing the Cut:
There were several other players who I also considered, but who will be forced to watch from the sidelines. Here are the top options for the bench:
Full-back: Philip Lahm
Center-back: Rio Ferdinand, John Terry
Midfield: Esteban Cambiasso, Darren Fletcher, Wesley Sneijder, Samir Nasri
Forward/Winger: Robin Van Persie, Luis Suarez, Wayne Rooney, Edinson Cavani
There are bound to be plenty of disagreements over personnel, but I invite everyone to share their opinion as to how to strengthen or re-shape this team. In the mean-time, we can all just sit back ad admire the way Barcelona play football.