On Sunday morning I awoke with a sensation I have not often had in the four seasons since Guardiola took the reins at Barcelona: disappointment. Disappointment that certain substitutions were not made, that we didn’t play to our normal standards, and the regret that we likely lost the league to our bitter rivals on our own soil.
As I lay in bed trying to process the unfamiliar I was struck by how expectations have clouded the well from which we drink. That just two defeats can invoke these sorts of feelings illustrates how unbelievable the last few years have been. But, in a way, these feelings of shock are reassuring. We’ve become complacent in our expectations, treated as we’ve been to a four-year opera of accomplishment, and now we share the same seesaw of emotions that bind together all football fans. It’s a glib, clichéd sentiment, but sometimes a few moments of existence can be that way.
Barcelona host Chelsea this Tuesday evening in what is now universally acknowledged as the defining game of the Catalan’s season. For the first time in recent memory Guardiola’s men enter the match in the midst of a downward spiral of form, with nearly all of the players showing signs of exhaustion. Can they pull themselves up from the depths of recent defeat to overturn a demoralizing first leg loss? I don’t know. But the anticipation is something new and it’s wonderful, isn’t it?
Barcelona approach the match with no new injuries to speak of. Overshadowing this bit of good news, however, is the ongoing absence of Gerard Piqué. In the last match, with both Puyol and Mascherano one yellow card away from suspension, it seemed a certainty that the tall Catalan would finally make an appearance in the heart of defense, but he appears to have lost the confidence of his manager. From behind my writer’s veil of authority I will offer an opinion on the matter: we need Gerard’s height on set pieces for this game, and if recent form says anything, we may need his finishing too.
On a more preemptive note, I will be very upset to see Tello make an appearance on Tuesday evening. Clearly there have been calls from the supporters to give the boy more playing time, but I thought it terribly unfair of Guardiola to name him in the starting XI against Madrid. Playing well in a few league games isn’t nearly enough to prepare one for the sort of expectations that come from a game like this, and his nerves and inexperience were clear from the on-set. You are not going to beat Arbeloa for space by putting the ball past him, and a more experienced player would have stopped trying after the second failed attempt. Let us hope that Tello is not permanently scarred from the encounter.
What is needed against Chelsea on Tuesday evening is a bit of physical strength, and I assume that Alexis Sànchez was rested for most of Saturday’s match for just this reason. His pace and sheer desire for the ball often means that he ends up with possession after a tackle that would have floored someone smaller, and against a Chelsea defense that has both height and strength this could be crucial. His performance in the first leg wasn’t quite up to his usual standards, but I have faith in the Chilean. He always looks hungry.
Chelsea arrive in Barcelona with few changes from their previous encounter with the Catalans, although possibly without the services of Didier Drogba. Frankly, I think this is just a bit of mind games from Di Matteo. I expect Didier to start once again, so if you’re going to the match please be sure to bring a pillow to catch the falling Ivorian if the breeze starts to blow.
The Blues rested the vast majority of their team in Saturday’s derby against Arsenal, and should thus be very well prepared for battle on Tuesday. Will they employ the same strategy that worked so well on Wednesday? I suspect they will. Neutralizing Messi was in itself an accomplishment, and it must be said that Chelsea defended admirably throughout most of the match. Yes, Barcelona’s wasteful finishing played a role just as it did in El Clásico, but credit must be given to the Blues’ constant attention to the ball.
This preview will end on a different note than most, as I offer no predictions for lineups or score. Most of the starting 22 are a foregone conclusion, and the focus in this game should be on the execution of play and not who is behind it. What, you ask, will happen Tuesday? Likely a repeat of the first leg at Stamford Bridge. Chelsea can only press so much without leaving holes in the back, and knowing that Barcelona will come out in search of goals, will lay in wait for another counter attack. For Barcelona it is the opposite: they must score, and do so as early as possible. The Catalans must not become frantic, but at the same time cannot wait as patiently as they are accustomed to.
There are games which call for the kind of magic that cannot be foreseen by even the most astute observer of the game. We have witnessed many such moments over the past few seasons, and we may yet see a few more.
Image Credit: LLUIS GENE/AFP/Getty Images