Tuesday 24 April 2018

Juve in the crosshairs as Barca's holy trinity tack direct threat on to tiki-taka

Messi, Suarez and Neymar strike fear into any defence, writes Paul Wilson

The additions of Suarez and Neymar to complement Messi allowed Barcelona a more direct style
The additions of Suarez and Neymar to complement Messi allowed Barcelona a more direct style

Paul Wilson

It seems a long time ago now, but back in January, when Manchester City were still just about hanging on to Chelsea's coat-tails and the purchase of Wilfried Bony was nearing completion, Manuel Pellegrini was asked whether the addition of the Ivorian would make his forward line the most potent in the world.

The City manager laughed. "Let me see," he said, when he had regained his composure. "First of all, let's look at Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar, with Pedro as back up. I think we might have a little way to go."

Pellegrini knows Barcelona from way back. Not with their present forward line, admittedly, but he knows they have restlessly continued to improve from the side that denied him the Spanish championship in his single season at Real Madrid, 2009-10, when he amassed a club record of 96 points at the Bernabeu but still lost the title and, ultimately, his job, when the Catalans finished with three points more. There have been some great Barcelona sides in the recent past, and Pep Guardiola's 2009 treble winners will arguably never be surpassed at strangling the life out of virtually every opponent unlucky enough to come up against them, though the worry for Juventus as they prepare for Saturday's Champions League final is that the present performers have bolted on an extra goal threat.

Barcelona of old used to pass opponents to death, then pass the ball into the net, except for the occasion in Rome six years ago when Messi completed the scoring against Manchester United with an uncharacteristic header. Having been withdrawn almost into the midfield to allow Samuel Eto'o to play on the right, Messi did well just to be in position to finish Xavi's cross. Xavi was the official man of the match although, as Alex Ferguson was quick to acknowledge, it could have been almost anyone in a Barcelona shirt. United were outpassed and outclassed, simply unable to cope with a still-evolving tiki-taka style, though Guardiola said that, despite the treble, his team were not the best Barcelona side he had ever seen.

It is worth remembering that, but for a highly erratic display of refereeing at Stamford Bridge, Barcelona might not have reached the final at all and the 2009 showpiece could have reprised the all-English affair of a year earlier.

By the time United got another crack, two years later, at Wembley, Barcelona exerted an even greater dominance. Guardiola's side won 3-1, though perhaps an even more telling statistic was the corner count. Barcelona won six, and played every single one short. United won precisely none.

People began to complain, only half-jokingly, that the game was being reinvented as keep-ball. They need not have worried - the additions of Suarez and Neymar to complement Messi's peerless skills allowed Barcelona a more direct style. The tiki-taka principles remain in midfield, sometimes even in defence, but the South American trio up front represent a challenge to any defence.

As Messi, Suarez and Neymar all showed over the course of their two semi-final legs against Guardiola's new team, you might be able to stop one, but it takes something extraordinary to stop them all. Messi by himself can be an unstoppable force, as demonstrated by his goals in the first leg against Bayern Munich. Neymar completed the scoring in that game, Suarez should have had at least one, while Bayern failed to register a shot on target, a stat as humbling in its way as United failing to even win a corner in 2011.

Messi was quieter in the second leg, where the normally voracious Suarez showed his unselfish side by helping Neymar to score. With three exceptional, almost interchangeable strikers who can genuinely create as well as finish, Pellegrini was probably right. Anyone in search of a world-class forward line should begin in Catalonia.

According to the dictionary, by the way, voracious means eating greedily or in large quantities; eager or insatiable. That accurately describes Suarez's attitude to goalscoring and it is intended as a compliment, not some underhand pun on his habit of sinking his teeth into opponents. Nevertheless, it ought to be recorded that the Champions League final not only brings Suarez into contact with Giorgio Chiellini, the last player he bit, a year ago in the World Cup, but also Patrice Evra, with whom there was a certain amount of unpleasantness at Manchester United.

Suarez is in the news afresh at the moment, since Uruguay are demanding that the ban which rules the player out of this summer's Copa America in Chile be rescinded in the light of the current scandal surrounding Fifa. This is going to be Suarez's first Champions League final, and he will receive considerable attention, one hopes for his consummate ability rather than his questionable temperament.

As far as Juventus are concerned, Paul Pogba and Arturo Vidal are two of the most coveted players in Europe; it will be interesting to see if they can enhance their reputations still further. Both have been linked with English clubs, amongst others, and could go for big money.

While Premier League clubs have plenty of that, it remains to be seen whether wages alone can still attract players who have already made it to a Champions League final. This will be the third in a row without English involvement. The situation is nowhere near as bleak as it was in the period following Heysel - after a ban effectively lasting six years, it took another eight for an English club to reach the final - though, once again, an ominous gap has opened between Premier League standards and the very best in Europe.


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