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Barcelona vs Manchester United: Outsmarting Barca's unheralded defensive steel is United's toughest task of all

OK, look. Nobody wants to read about Barcelona’s defending. We all know that’s not what they’re for. That’s not what sells the tour packages and the summer soccer camps. Nobody ever posted a selfie from the top deck of the Nou Camp and gushed about having seen Nelson Semedo playing in the flesh. Nobody plays as Barcelona on Fifa because they really want to take control of Clement Lenglet. We get that.

But ahead of the second leg of their Champions League quarter-final, perhaps it’s worth paying just a little attention to the area of the pitch that Manchester United will probably have to breach at least twice if they want to progress. You rarely hear about Barcelona as an elite defensive unit in the ilk of Real Madrid or Juventus or Bayern Munich, for much the same reason that nobody paid very much attention to Michelle Williams’s harmonies in Destiny’s Child. But even the biggest superstars need a platform. And as Barcelona reach the business end of what could be yet another treble-winning season, it is their unheralded back line, as much as their celebrated front two, that is the source of their power. 

A quick look at the numbers reveals the scale of United’s task. Barcelona are unbeaten in 30 home games in the Champions League going back six years, scoring 93 goals while – and here’s the scary bit – conceding just 15. They’ve conceded the fewest goals of any team in this season’s competition. If they didn’t have Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez and a well-earned if slightly grandiose reputation for hedonistic attacking perfection, we’d be exalting them as defensive maestros. 

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But there’s more than heritage at play here. Barcelona’s solidity under manager Ernesto Valverde is very much a recent phenomenon. Earlier in the season, they were leaking goals with such abandon that even the normally taciturn Lionel Messi was moved to criticism after an error-strewn draw with Athletic Bilbao in September. “We must be stronger defensively,” he grumbled. “Last season we were difficult to score against. Now teams score against us from the slightest chance.”

A large part of the reason for the recent turnaround has been the return to form of Gerard Pique. Over recent weeks, he has been perhaps Barcelona’s outstanding performer, forging a winning partnership with Clement Lenglet. “They are a great pairing, they are the security for us,” Sergio Busquets said after they secured a vital if ugly clean sheet at Old Trafford last Wednesday. And after a dominant display against his former club in the first leg, in which he made no fewer than nine clearances, you sense Pique again holds the key to a game in which United will be forced into the role of aggressors.

Watch back Pique’s performance at Old Trafford and what’s striking is how much of his work could be categorised as “old-school defending”. Perhaps the memory of his role in those three Champions League-winning sides under Pep Guardiola and Luis Enrique has somewhat coloured our view of Pique, who for all his technical ability and smooth passing has always been just as comfortable going to ground as he is staying on his feet, just as adept at grappling in the air as he is at calmly mopping up at the back. One thing is for certain: Romelu Lukaku will need to do his homework if he plays again in the second leg, because he got virtually nothing out of Pique in the first.

Perhaps another reason why Pique’s evergreen excellence has somewhat slipped under the radar is that these days he is known for so much else besides football. His business interests now extend far and wide, from men’s tennis to sunglasses to hamburgers. He has made no secret of his desire to join the Barcelona board after retirement, and even helped to broker the club’s sponsorship deal with Rakuten. Meanwhile, his marriage to the pop star Shakira continues to keep Spain’s tabloid gossip industry afloat. And so, encumbered with all his extracurricular baggage, it has been all too easy to fit Pique for the tailored suits of semi-retirement. To forget that when he is on his game, he remains, along with Sergio Ramos, Virgil van Dijk, Diego Godin and Giorgio Chiellini, in the very top bracket of global centre-halves. 

Valverde is widely regarded as Barcelona’s most pragmatic coach of recent times, and so perhaps it’s no accident that recent weeks have seen a renewed focus on defensive solidity, a recognition that in order to win the biggest prizes, the balance between attack and defence must be immaculate. “You always have to be aware,” Marc-Andre ter Stegen said on Monday. “We want to go out and dominate like always, but when we have to defend, we have to do it. Like we did at Old Trafford.”

Naturally, Barcelona remain favourites to win handsomely, not just in the tie but on the night. But if they’re to avoid a nasty shock at the Nou Camp on Tuesday night, then they’ll need to be wary of United’s speed on the counter-attack, their vigour and belief, their ability to change the tempo of a game and burgle something out of nothing. In short, they’ll need to outsmart Pique and his cohorts, and the evidence of recent months suggests that it may well be their toughest task of all. 

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