Barcelona need changes to dominate Europe again
In the absence of manager Tito Vilanova, Barcelona have been knocked out of the domestic cup and are on the brink of Champions League elimination. In the league, they are home and dry, 12 points ahead of Atletico Madrid and not too many games to go. However, winning ‘only’ the La Liga title at the end of the season will be a little disappointing to the all-conquering Catalans.
Their domestic form has been so good that the cracks almost went unnoticed. Celtic handed a rare group stage defeat for the Blaugrana back in November, and it was considered an aberration. The next shock came in February at the San Siro. Barcelona travelled to Milan as favourites to progress to the Champions League quarter finals at the expense of the Italian side. What followed was extraordinary. An inspired Rossoneri produced a clinical performance to stun the clueless Catalans. The resounding 2-0 defeat is the first time Barcelona had lost a European game without scoring since the 2008 semi-final loss to Manchester United.
Domestically, things were still looking good. Perennial rivals Real Madrid were languishing in 3rd place in what is usually a 2 horse race in the La Liga. In addition, the first leg of the Cup round was a 1-1 draw at the Bernabeu. All that was needed was a comfortable home victory. Instead, Barca received a thrashing unlike anything they had seen for years. Madrid banged in three goals and Barca could only muster one late consolation.
In both these defeats, there were some common problems. The Barca attacks lacked pace and a good finisher. How they can even think of letting David Villa go without a world class replacement defies logic. The striker has been struggling with his health and, as a result, was brought on as a substitute, by which time it was too late. Pedro has been inconsistent and Iniesta doesn’t have the pace for a winger. This in turn adds pressure on the full-backs to provide pace and width, leaving the defence exposed. Two of Real Madrid’s goals were due to the centre-backs being unable to keep up with the pace of the counter attack, while the full-backs were stranded on the wrong end of the pitch.
This is where the manager comes in. Vilanova has been poor in utilizing David Villa this season. Guardiola had realized the importance of pacey forwards and ensured that Barca acquired the likes of Henry, Eto’o, Ibrahimovic and Villa to do the job. Under Vilanova’s reign, the specialist striker has been replaced by Messi and Iniesta manning the front lines. This mistake went unnoticed in the La Liga, thanks to the poor form of Real Madrid. But now that we are in the business end of the campaign, these small mistakes are having significant effects.
One thing is clear – Barcelona need a world class striker who can remain fit. David Villa, 31, may no longer fit the bill. He can be sold to Arsenal in the summer, but not without a top replacement. There are rumors of Neymar arriving in the summer. This could be a good move domestically, but there are doubts about his European credentials after a dismal showing against the English national team at Wembley. Other possible candidates could be Edin Dzeko and Gareth Bale. The latter will provide another dimension to Barcelona and reduce their reliance on tiki-taka.
More importantly, Barca need a better manager. It has been wrongly said that anyone can manage such a talented team. In the absence of Vilanova, performances have dropped. His health is also a concern over the long term. Barcelona have enjoyed a great period of success, but they face a challenge in sustaining it, and they need to adapt quickly.