Out of the frying pan and into the fire. That’s how it seems as we head home from the frustrations of Stamford Bridge to face possibly the two most important games of our season, beginning of course with El Gran Clasico Numero Seis. On the face of it the team could easily be downhearted and lacking morale after they witnessed all of their good work wasted against the great opportunists of London, but in reality perhaps there could have been no better preparation for what lies ahead.
Well, except for maybe winning 5-0 at Chelsea, with Bayern Munich pulling off a similar scoreline the day before, but bear with me…
Whilst it would have been nice to have the Champions League tie already settled so we could concentrate all our energies on the demands placed upon us by our La Liga chase down, in reality such a result was not only unlikely but also insignificant. I say this for three reasons: Firstly, the size of the squad, nor Pep’s philosphy, would have allowed for any major rotations. Yes, perhaps one or two of our more ‘senior‘ players may have been granted next Tuesday off but other than that we’d have been looking at pretty much the same spine of the team that has brought us this far.
Secondly, in order to finish the season with any kind of success the team cannot afford to take their foot off the gas for one moment, with motivation the keyword for the next month. So although a big away win in Europe would have served to reduce some of the pressure on the players (and perhaps more importantly, the fans!) it may well have worked against the team when it comes to the pychological edge needed for playing in, and winning, the seven crucial ‘finals‘ we have between now and the end of the season.
Sure it’s going to be physically and mentally draining but better to keep pushing on with clear targets laid out in front of us than to slacken the pace for even one game. That would only serve to kill the momentum and rhythm the side have been building since February, with the likes of Rayo or Malaga likely to benefit. Better instead to keep that chasing, underdog mentality going. Two games on the horizon, one to get us down to one point, the other to overturn one goal. It is more than possible but to achieve it we will need all of our faculties functioning fully, including the psychological ones.
Thirdly, Chelsea’s tough-tackling, grass-rolling, ultra-defensive, counter-attacking display worked perfectly as a dress rehearsal for what lies ahead against Mourinho’s men, who will undoubedtly be utilising very ‘very’ similar tactics at the Camp Nou. Of course Madrid have far more fire power and strength in depth than the Londoners but the lesson is still the same. The bus will be arriving and we will need to find a way through.
Crucial to beating Madrid, and Chelsea next week, will be Barca’s ability not only to create chances but also to take them, the side needing more from Alexis Sanchez up front, with Pedro surely pushing to replace Cesc in the front three. We will also need to be more prepared defensively for Madrid’s counter-attacks because when they arrive (and let there be no doubt they will arrive and they will be dangerous) they will be quicker and more direct than anything Chelsea had to offer.
We will need to be sharper and stronger in the challenge, our back four careful not to get caught too far upfield or too close to their man. As such I think Gerard Pique must be close to a recall with either Mascherano or Adriano making way. Pique would also offer us a much-improved aerial presence both at the back and going forward, a factor that could prove the difference against a tall, strong Madrid side. We did not exploit our set pieces anywhere near enough against Chelsea on Wednesday, something that must be improved upon if we hope to stay alive in our hunt for silverware. Gerard Pique may just be the man for the job.
Whether Madrid will have the same tactical determination and psychological composure as Chelsea remains to be seen but if, as expected, the men in white once again lose their heads Barca need to be in a position to take advantage. An early goal and bossing of the ball could all prove significant in decreasing Madrid’s resistance, not to mention patience, with the likes of Pepe and Sergio Ramos unlikely to remain as calm as their London counter-parts. We need to use our talents to rattle their cage, just like they try to do to us.
Come Sunday morning we will finally know where we stand. Maybe there’ll still be a chase to be made. Maybe we will be setting all eyes on Chelsea. Either way what happened on Wednesday doesn’t matter. It’s here and now that history is written. Here. And. Now. The past is merely a lesson learnt. The future just a way to put it into practise. It is the present in which we live or die. What better way to take the pulse of this team than with another heart-stopping El Clasico.
Hold on to your hats, it’s about to get real.
Visca Barca! Visca Catalunya!
Image credit: JAVIER SORIANO/AFP/Getty Images