Game Previews

Barça through to the semis – and a night to remember

Barcelona during their victory against Manchester United / AFP

Barcelona, after missing out on the Champions League semi-finals for three consecutive years, were desperate not to make it a fourth. They showed what the Barça style was all about, in a night that truly was one to savor and remember.

Having not reached the semi-finals of the UEFA Champions League for four consecutive years, the tie against Manchester United was a crucial one. At the beginning of the season, Leo Messi had promised that the players and staff would do all in their power to return the big-eared trophy to the Camp Nou, and yesterday’s display at the Camp Nou proved just that.

Despite a shaky start from the Barcelona troops, where Manchester United put on heavy pressure and even created some goal scoring chances, the Blaugranas managed to regain control of the game, and Lionel Messi, creating something out of nothing, nutmegged the Brazilian big-money signing Fred, with the outside of his left foot, ran into space and fired it home from outside the box, behind a David De Gea who was simply left helpless.

The goal clearly shook the United players, as Barcelona continued controlling the game, and the Red Devils’ lack of control cost them the second goal, as a shot by Lionel Messi, with his right foot (I can hear Pélé crying in the background), was initially caught by De Gea, but slipped out of his hands and ended up in the back of the net, almost in Karius-esque fashion. 2-0 Barcelona.

After that goal, Barcelona knew they virtually had the game in the bag, and the flicks and tricks started showing. Several players started showboating with small backheel-flicks: Arthur, who had a great game, and honestly bossed the midfield, once again showing why he’s so vital to Barcelona’s style of play, Coutinho who had an amazing game and topped it off with a golazo, and the players overall seemed very confident in their ability, and rightfully so.

The last goal of the night was a pearl of a shot by Philippe Coutinho, once again giving Manchester United nightmares. Messi sent Alba through on the left wing with a brilliant pass, Alba cut it back to Coutinho who fired it home from far out, leaving de Gea and the defenders completely stunned. What a way to round off a beautiful night in Barcelona.

Now, let’s talk about the different players yesterday, and the – interesting? – substitutions by Ernesto Valverde.

Marc-André ter Stegen didn’t really have much to do yesterday after United’s pressure dozed off, but he was good when called upon and made some fantastic save, not to mention that his ball distribution was absolutely fantastic.

The defense overall was really solid despite the shaky start. Sergi and Alba were good going forward, and having Sergi in there instead of Semedo allowed us to control the game a bit more, and have an attacking threat we wouldn’t have if Semedo was playing right-back. However, it also meant that we were more vulnerable in defense, something that would’ve been more apparent had we not been able to regain control yesterday.

Piqué and Lenglet had a good game, played well, and distributed the ball well out of the back; some of the long balls they played were really good and allowed us to attack a bit faster, or even just disrupt United’s almost non-existent rhythm.

The midfield did well. Sergio Busquets had a really good game yesterday, and a big part of that comes down to the fact that he was rested the game beforehand. He’s 30 years old, and he just can’t keep playing 90 minutes week in week out, which is why I’m so happy we got Frenkie de Jong who can act as a holding midfielder, or an out-and-out central one. Ivan Rakitic had a really good game yesterday as well, he seemed confident on the ball and dealt well with the press. He made some good passes, both short and long passes, near and far, and he’s a really good fit for us when he also gets rest – but playing him week in week out, like Valverde used to do, just drains him.

Magisteeeeeeerial – in the words of Ray Hudson! That’s really all I need to say to describe Arthur’s performance yesterday. He didn’t overcomplicate things, did exactly what he needed to do, and kept control of the game and tempo amazingly. His passes were on-point, he had a game-high of seven ball-recoveries yesterday, and overall played really, really well. The standing ovation he got when he got taken off for Arturo Vidal was no more than he deserved; he’s definitely a gem for the future, and honestly, the 31 million euros and another 9 in variables we paid for him seem like a bargain now.

Messi, Suárez and Coutinho were amazing yesterday. They played like a unit, Messi played much better this game than the previous one against Manchester due to not having taken a knock during this one, and he always had the United players on their toes, then on the floor. I really can’t describe Messi’s performance with words because of how good it was, but let me tell you: if he keeps this up, maybe next year, he’ll be #4 in the Ballon d’Or rankings. 😉

Luis Suárez brought his A-game yesterday. Consistent pressure, desire, dedication and passion for the game, and for Barça. It was so beautiful to watch, and he did the right things, made the right passes and decisions, and seemed fit: once again due to the rest he got.

Coutinho played really well. I’ve personally supported him since he got signed, and stood behind him when many people were criticizing him, and seeing him play like he did yesterday, especially after he’s been improving the past few games (something Bartomeu also admitted to) was honestly amazing. He made the right decisions, dribbled when it was necessary, and didn’t give away cheap balls. The goal was the cherry on top of a really good performance, easily his best this season, and hopefully we’ll see more of the same going forward.

Now, Valverde: his Sergi – Semedo substitution was interesting to say the least. Whether it was to rest Roberto, or just play Semedo to avoid backlash, I can’t say. I mean, it’s not like we exactly lacked control of the game, but Semedo would be a good option if you’d want to keep a clean sheet – and it would make sense, as a 4-0 scoreline on aggregate looks prettier than a 4-1 would do. The Arthur – Arturo substitution was a good one, and Dembélé, although I’d have loved to see him play more yesterday, it’s good that he wasn’t unnecessarily forced in. He did really well when he came on, as did Arturo and Semedo – the substitutions were good ones, although it could easily be argued that the Dembélé one perhaps was a bit overdue.

Now, Barcelona’s next games are against Real Sociedad, then Alavés, then Levante, and then the first leg of the Champions League semi-final. Now, if we do manage to get all 3 points in the next 3 league games, that’s La Liga dusted, and we’d be able to fully focus on the Champions League. There’s only one problem: the three games are all played within 7 days, and that’s where rotation really would be Valverde’s best friend. We’ve got plenty of squad depth in the different positions: Moussa Wagué did really well against Huesca, as did Jean-Clair Todibo. In midfield, we’ve got Riqui Puig, Carlés Aleñá, Arturo, Arthur, Sergio Busquets, and even his namesake Oriol. Up front, we’ve got more than just 3 options, as Malcom, Prince (who admittedly hasn’t exactly been a promising player up front), not to mention Dembélé, Messi and Suárez. In goal, ter Stegen could be rested in favor for Jasper Cillessen.

In short: we’ve got plenty of options, and we should be able to wrap up the league, if Valverde plays his cards right – but whether he will, we’ll have to wait and see.

One thing’s for sure though: he’s definitely learned from Roma, and hopefully he’ll take that into the business end of the season.