From the publishers of THE HINDU

VOL.34 :: NO.17 :: Apr. 28, 2011

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COVER STORY

Having a ball

In defying the conventional wisdom that governs modern soccer — the ostensible requirement of physical, athletic players; a balanced team and adaptability of style — Barcelona has brought about a paradigm shift in the way the game is perceived and played, writes Ayon Sengupta.

Every generation has a bunch of invincibles, a collection of individuals who tower above the rest. Barcelona's home-grown talents have clearly fulfilled every criterion to assume that role in the early part of the 21st century.

In defying the conventional wisdom that governs modern soccer — the ostensible requirement of physical, athletic players; a balanced team and adaptability of style — Barca has brought about a paradigm shift in the way the game is perceived and played. The club has run its own course, chosen its own pace, and fabricated a unique style, making the beautiful game even more so.

The magnificence of Messi, the incisiveness of Iniesta, the genius of Guardiola; every night that Barca takes the field, it leaves the entire world spellbound, stupefied by the sheer brilliance of its play. With eight trophies in the last three seasons and a 30-game unbeaten streak in the La Liga, the team looks truly invincible and is set to retain its Spanish League crown. The chances of netting another Champions League title also look brighter than ever.

With six games remaining in the Spanish league, Barca has amassed 85 points and is sure to shatter the previous record of 99 points for a season that it had set only last year. The dominance of the Catalunya giant has seen it breach the opposition's defence 86 times. The mere 17 goals it has conceded bury the loose talk about its allegedly inept backline.

Even in the tougher, more competitive UEFA Champions League setup, Barcelona has been prolific in scoring goals, finding the net 24 times (averaging 2.4 strikes per game) while conceding only seven. However, the essence of the outfit is so much more than the goals scored and points secured. It is the manner in which Barca has gone about its business that draws the most awe.

“Barcelona is that type of team that when it plays, you don't want to miss it. It's almost like a passion,” says former Brazilian captain Socrates.

Barcelona's style is breathtaking to watch, impossible to match. Top sides always prey on weaker opposition and in such typically one-sided affairs it is not unlikely that the victor controls 60 percent of the ball possession, maybe even more. But this season, in its La Liga games, Barca threw that logic out of the book, as it averaged close to a staggering 72 per cent of possession in 32 matches, against all teams, strong and weak. In the Champions League it controlled 61 per cent of play in 10 outings and this against the elites of Europe.

Arsenal, which fancies itself as the most creative of teams in the otherwise industrious English Premier League, was beaten fair and square at Camp Nou in the second leg of the Champions League pre-quarterfinal as the host, Barcelona, literally toyed with it, retaining 74 per cent of the ball.

It's against the big teams that the Barcelona boys bring out their best. In the recent clash against arch-rival Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu, Messrs Messi and Co. controlled 67 per cent of possession against the millionaires of Madrid. Despite squandering money judiciously over the past two seasons, Real has failed to break the Barcelona deadlock and has gone without a win in six El Clasico encounters, dating back to December 2008. Real's best result came recently, a hard-fought 1-1 draw at home after five defeats on the bounce, including a harrowing 5-0 drubbing at Camp Nou earlier this season. ‘Kaiser' Franz Beckenbauer singled it out and was quick to say: “One game I will never forget ... One of the best games I ever saw.”

Now after over 500 minutes of unbeaten football against Real, Guardiola and his men can duly be regarded as experts at El Clasico, the undisputed masters of the most fearful of battles in European football.

Just what is the secret that makes Barca the most dominant team of this era and allows it to be compared favourably with other elite teams of the generations past? The basic tenet that has defined Barcelona since the days of Johan Cruyff is its longing for the ball, the pursuit and preservation of possession, like an ardent lover pining for his amour. Speculative long balls and aloofness on field are considered the ultimate sins. And in the Barcelona youth academy, La Masia, where current coach Guardiola was raised and so were Messi, Xavi, Iniesta (the final three nominees of FIFA's Ballon d'Or award last season), such excesses are frowned upon from day one. The only thing taught is to love and worship the ball, to retain possession and control proceedings.

The present Barcelona side — a bulk of them La Masia graduates — follows the same philosophy to the core, where every player helps the other, where every individual exerts equal influence on the outcome of the game. From Gerard Pique and Carles Puyol (aka “Captain Psycho”), who with their rugged toughness, workmanship and killer grit lend stability to the backline, to the marauding runs from right back Dani Alves, to the perfect midfield combination of Xavi, Iniesta and Sergio Busquets, Barcelona seems to have the right players for every position. And then there is Lio Messi, the greatest of them all, whom Arsenal coach Arsene Wenger humbly admitted as the best player in the world by “some considerable margin.”

Upfront Pedro, the diminutive winger from the Canary Islands with dancing feet and David Villa (the latest acquisition), powerful and precise, complete the side which can very well fight for the title of the best football team ever.

Now that's a debate which will never have a consensus. “They come very close,” Beckenbauer says. “In this generation, Barcelona is the best team, difficult to compare with former great teams like AC Milan at the end of the '80s. In the '60s and '70s, you had (Brazilian club) Santos with Pele and Carlos Alberto. Different times, different styles of play.”



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