It’s impossible to completely neutralize everyone on the Barcelona attack, so while Lionel Messi was closed down by the usual double and triple teams; Andres Iniesta and Xavi limited in their ability to pass and influence the match, Cesc Fabregas was left as the most available game changer, but unfortunately for Barca, failed miserably.
A lot of blame goes to Lionel Messi, regardless of him being double and tripled team in the match; his best chance came before the game settled down, and he missed it. The other one was a free kick he narrowly missed, but for the second straight knockout match from Barcelona, this time heading into it with a slight lead (away goals), Messi wasn’t in it, looking like his Argentina-self a couple of years ago, when entire defenses focused on stopping him, while he himself seemed to be too burdened by the pressure.
The Barcelona defense being so fragile hurts, cuts deep. Barcelona’s strength has always been in its high pressure by their midfield and forwards, but that has to rely on some sort of solid foundation in the back. With Jordi Alba supporting the attack with some sort of coordination between them, Pique and Puyol were left exposed too often, resulting in the first two goals, no longer able to stop Cristiano Ronaldo like in earlier encounters.
Then there’s Sergio Busquets, who has been given a bit more offensive responsibility, at least in his positioning, this season under Tito Vilanova. The result is no help from anyone to the Barcelona defense on counter attacks, resulting in the complete and utter panic any time Angel di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo had a chance to break through the rather soft Barcelona midfield.
And then there are Andres Iniesta and Xavi. Until last season, and even this one in the earlier matches, Real Madrid chased the ball, which is pretty much impossible, while three other players focused on Messi. It took Jose Mourinho and his players a while to realize, but they finally got it – closing down passing options is the better way to stop Barcelona, probably taking something out of the Milan playbook, although it was exactly the same thing.
Xabi Alonso simply didn’t let Xavi find a good pass for a low through ball (Barcelona’s only goal, from Jordi Alba, came from the air, something Barcelona should have tried more), or find himself with an available winger. Andres Iniesta usually causes the most problems to any team after Lionel Messi, but when his movement across the field is blocked by smart defending, a big chunk of Barcelona’s weaponry gets taken out.
That is where Cesc Fabregas, playing in a more forward position than usual, needed to come in. Sometimes it’s not only about tactical differences, but a player not performing well – lack of execution. Fabregas made a mistake on almost every touch he had, despite being the man under the least amount of pressure from the Real defense most of the time. Instead of making the most of it, he simply gave away the ball too easily every time.
This isn’t the end of Barcelona – the league title will be coming, and something has to be said about their manager not being with them. But certainly, flaws in the machine, to a level we haven’t seen in a long time, were exposed in consecutive matches. Lionel Messi will take a lot of the blame, but everyone shares it equally.