End of an era (and other such nonsense)

FCB. They’re in rough shape right now, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who hears the funeral bells. They missed out on their chance to claim their domestic cup by losing to their greatest rivals in one of their most humiliating defeats in recent memory. They were beaten in the Champions League in a fashion that will leave a bad taste in everyone’s mouth for months to come. Even their league run was pretty subpar.

As the more astute of you have probably figured out, I’m not talking about FC Barcelona here. I’m talking about FC Bayern Munich. Specifically, I’m talking about Bayern Munich in 2011-2012.

Last year was a horror of a season for them. They lost out on the league by 8 points. They were humiliated by a 5-2 loss in their domestic cup by Borussia Dortmund, who also beat them in both league matches. And, most notably, after making a strong run in the Champions League, they lost to a weakened Chelsea side on penalties.

The last month of the season was full of painful losses and tears.

Over the summer, Bayern did not fire their coach. They did not sell half the team. They were active in the transfer market and bought several players who have been key in their success this year, but they didn’t replace the entire starting XI by any stretch of the imagination.

And this season, they have been on fire.

There’s absolutely no reason why Barcelona cannot do the same thing, and many reasons to think that they can. The nice part of painful, humiliating ends of the season is that they tend to make lasting impressions and spur necessary changes.

We can’t make the same excuses this year that we could last year. We didn’t just get unlucky against Bayern in the UCL, and we didn’t just get unlucky against Real Madrid in the CDR. We played poorly and did not really deserve to move on. End of story.

However, make no mistake: these aren’t new problems. There are certain factors that have exacerbated them, but at their core, these are not new issues, and it’s time we address them.

The major exacerbating factor is, of course, the loss of Tito Vilanova for several months mid-season because he was in a different country being treated for cancer.

Digest all of that for a moment.

Vilanova had only been their coach for five or six months, and he was still adjusting and adapting the system that was obviously in need of a little change. It was evident in games – Barcelona were starting to have a plan B, in that they were starting to play a more direct, adaptive game. When he left, that progress slowed to a crawl, and after a little while, they began to slide back to what had stopped working last season. They haven’t been able to recapture since his return, and I don’t expect them to manage it before the end of the season.

However, the tactics are only part of it. The psychological toll this relapse took on the players has been quite clear. Vilanova has been an integral part of many of their careers. He coached some when they were in La Masia, he was an important part of Pep’s team, and he has helped several of them step out of Barca B into the first team. He’s been a major part of their careers.

Of course Vilanova’s relapse has had a profound effect on the team. How could it not, especially given Abidal’s struggles as well? Cancer is serious, and in the last few years they’ve had two people who have been a major part of the team battle it, triumph, and then relapse. That’s exhausting. That takes a toll.

Those are just exacerbating factors, of course. Even before Vilanova left, the defense was a complete mess. Even before Vilanova left, the team was vulnerable to injuries and becoming a bit too dependent on Messi.

But the relapse magnified all of those problems.

Those problems, however, are very fixable, and now management can no longer ignore them. At this time next year, Barcelona may well be right back on top, just as Bayern Munich are now.

So don’t despair, and don’t get pulled into the media’s fervor about Barcelona being done. They’ll be back, and hopefully, they’ll be even better than ever.

Worries about Messi’s injury are drastically overstated

As everyone who follows the world of football is no doubt aware, Barcelona superstar Leo Messi had to be substituted off at half-time in their match against PSG yesterday.

However, worries about Messi’s injury and its possible effect on Barcelona have been drastically overstated by the media and many fans. Click through for why.

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La Liga: where the top three could stumble

Right now, Barcelona have a sizeable lead (13 and 14 points, respectively) on Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid, and with only 27 points left to play for are almost assured of winning the title.

However, all three teams have some tough fixtures ahead of them. Click through to see where they’re most likely to stumble.

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UCL Quarter-Finals: Paris Saint-Germain v. Barcelona profile

Surprisingly, given their status as favorites to win the competition, Barcelona have struggled at times to reach the quarter-finals. They were forced to come from behind twice in the group stage (when they hosted Spartak Moscow and Celtic), and in the Round of 16 they had one foot out of the competition before mounting a historic comeback at the Camp Nou. Despite these difficulties, they should not be underestimated, especially since their coach will be returning before the quarter finals after being absent for more than two months to receive cancer treatment in New York.

PSG have their own strengths, though, and shouldn’t be underestimated. They’ve put together one of the most expensive teams in Europe and have several major superstars, most notably ex-Barca man Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who may feel like he has a bit of a point to prove, especially after Barcelona dropped his Milan out of the competition last season. They’re favorites to win Ligue 1 this season, and have an impressive record in the Champions League thus far, including having the best shots-goals ratio of the last eight.

By the numbers:

Barcelona Paris St-Germain
Record 5-1-2 6-1-1
Average Possession 74% 48%
Goals Scored 15 17
Shots (on target) 121 (49) 102 (46)
Conversion rate 12.4% 16.7%
Goals Conceded 7 5
Saves 19 21
Clean Sheets 4 3

The first leg of the tie is on April 2 at PSG. The second leg at Barcelona will be played on April 10.

Barcelona will be playing relegation-threatened Celta Vigo, Mallorca, and Zaragoza around the two fixtures, and they have room to drop a couple points here and there if necessary without putting the league title in much danger.

PSG’s league title is far less assured – they only have four points on Lyon right now – and they’ll also be playing tougher opposition on paper. They face Montpelier ahead of the first match with Barcelona and Rennes in between the two quarter-final ties. Both teams are vying for a spot in Europe. Following the second match they’ll play relegation-threatened Troyes, who they probably won’t be too concerned about.

On paper, PSG actually look like they’ve got a decent shot. However, with Vilanova returning to the team, I think that many of Barcelona’s problems will resolve themselves, and as long as they don’t get complacent, they should be able to move on to the semi-finals once again.

On Barcelona Losing and Bus Parking

So I’m not going to go through and rank the players or recap the match. I might do that later, but I’m not going to now.

What I’m going to do is say why I’m not willing to give Milan the praise a lot of other people are throwing their way.

I can give credit to teams that beat Barcelona. Let’s get that out of the way right now. I gave credit to Sociedad for their comeback last month. They deserved to win. I gave credit to Celtic, because they had a strategy and executed it cleanly and perfectly on a special night against a much more accomplished team. I even gave Real Madrid credit and wasn’t upset when they won the Spanish Super Cup, because I felt that in the second leg, Barcelona were just bad.

I can take a step back and acknowledge when the other team did well, even when the other team are my team’s biggest rivals.

But there are also instances where I don’t give credit to the other team. Chelsea are one instance. Milan tonight are now another.

Here’s the crux of the problem for me: my expectations of a team change depending on who the team is. For a team like Celtic, I look at a parked bus and say, “You know what? That makes sense. They’re doing what they have to do against a much more accomplished team, and they did it cleanly. They deserve credit for that.”

But for teams like Chelsea, or Milan – top teams in the four best leagues in the world who qualify for the Champions League year after year – the standards are higher. Some teams play more offensively, and some play more defensively – I prefer to watch teams that press, overall, but there’s nothing wrong with playing a more defensive game. It’s a legitimate approach that I respect.

However, there’s a difference between a strong defense and bus parking, and bus parking should be beneath teams that are ranked among the top 15 in Europe. Parking the bus doesn’t impress me when you’re one of the best teams in Europe. When you’re one of the best teams in Europe, you shouldn’t have to resort to something so unimaginative. Milan have a lot of players who are skilled at what they do. They have players who were in the final of the Euro last summer, and who got there playing attractive football. (Surprisingly, for Italy, but it happened.) For a team like that to park the bus…

I’m not going to heap praise on them. I’m not going to call them brave. And I’m certainly not going to say that they should be admired.

That said, Barcelona were god awful tonight, and probably didn’t really deserve to win. I just don’t think Milan deserves any praise for how they won.

La Liga: Round 23 (projections)

Note: This is being published after the Mallorca/Osasuna game started – sorry. I wrote most of it up last night, but then I needed that little thing called sleep.

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