There are many things that can influence the outcome of a football match; from individual brilliance to the always contentious decisions of a referee, but when it comes to the Champions League there is perhaps no more important factor than the tactics a team employs. Partly due to its taking place over two legs (and an entire continent), and partly due to the heightened importance of the away goal, the Champions League lends itself perfectly to the kind of real tactical battles that football geeks everywhere love to witness.
Where certain players or their positions can sometimes be neglected and overlooked, in Europe every man, as well as every blade of grass, counts, with each manager trying to exploit any possible weakness within the opposition ranks. This is a fact that will become all too obvious when Barça take on an ever-improving yet undoubtedly still vulnerable Chelsea side.
Unfortunately Chelsea’s main vulnerability (and strength for that matter) is arguably also ours – namely, brilliantly over-adventurous full-backs who add so much going forward but can also create so many risks coming back. It is with this in mind that I can’t help but wonder whether the most crucial tactical battle we will see on Wednesday night will not in fact be the one between Ashley Cole and Dani Alves, possibly the two best examples of wing-backs in the modern game.
Offering width, creativity and some much needed space for their attacking colleagues, both Alves and Cole pose considerable threat when they cross the half-way line. The problem is the space they leave in behind when they go off on their adventures. Something, that if exploited correctly, could well prove crucial in the quest for a ticket to Munich.
Firstly it has to be said that Ashley Cole’s attacking instincts may well be nullified somewhat by having to man-mark a little known player named Lionel Messi, a task that could keep any free-flying defender set firmly in his own penalty box. But if we honestly expect that the marauding left-back will never venture into our half then I think we are being a little naive, because as we all know – the best way to stop Messi is to stop Alves. And the best way to stop Alves is to keep him in his own half and make him defend – something Ashley Cole certainly has the instincts (and pace!) to make happen.
The further upfield Cole pushes the more Alves has to concentrate on his defensive duties and the less impact he can have going forward. Thus Messi gets isolated, drops too deep, the opposition can surround him, and we lose that much needed attacking (samba) rhythm that has been the back bone of this team for so long now. Add to that Alves’s unique brand of almost kamikaze, last-ditch defending, and Ashley Cole’s ability to slip in behind his opposite number, and it quickly becomes apparent that Masch’ and Puyol are going to need to stay awake and alert if crisis is to be averted.
Of course Cole can only put the pressure on Alves if he is secure in the knowledge that someone has got his back, but who? Drogba? Nope. Lampard? Probably not. Juan Mata? Perhaps, but unlikely. As things stand I don’t see any relationship, or understanding, down the Chelsea flank as close as the one between our wing-back and our talisman. For if there is one thing that can be said about the Messi-Alves relationship it is that it is a mutually beneficial one; Alves providing space for Messi, Messi providing defensive cover for Alves – little Leo as famous for his tracking back as for his slaloming runs.
Ashley Cole, on the other hand, does not have such a reliable, defensively committed partner in crime, a fact that may prove the difference in the crucial battle of the wing-backs, with defensive support more likely coming from Chelsea’s combative midfielders; Ramires, Mikel, or possibly the smarter and more mobile Raul Meireles, given the exhausting task of securing their left-flank. A task I certainly do not envy. I mean who wants to chase Dani Alves all night – not even his own shadow! One lapse in concentration from Cole and/or his defensive support and it could be curtains for the entire tie, so important is the away goal.
With David Luis ruled out, John Terry nursing two broken ribs and Gary Cahill rather untested at this level, I wonder how much attacking impetus Roberto Di Matteo will allow his full-backs? As a Barça fan I can’t tell if less is more, or vice versa? All I know is Dani will definitely be getting forward, and this usually means goals. Who for? I can’t tell just yet. All we can do is pray to the patron saint of wing-backs that our prancing, dancing, pitch-widening full-back has one of those nights. And Ashley Cole has just the opposite.
Visca el Barça!
Image credit: Diver & Aguilar