Barcelona's new effective way to play can help them in Champions League

Andy West 18/03/2019
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Clement Lenglet and Gerard Pique

Although Lionel Messi’s outrageous goalscoring feats inevitably – and correctly – dominated the post-match conversation, another aspect of Barcelona’s 4-1 victory over Real Betis on Sunday night worthy of further consideration was the tactical set-up employed by the league leaders.

Some of the stats from the game caught the eye, to say the least: Betis controlled 56.1 percent of the possession, completing 581 passes compared to Barca’s 460. And the top six passers in the game were all Betis players, with William Carvalho (77), Marc Bartra (69), Sidnei (68), Andres Guardado (62), Aissa Mandi (60) and Sergio Canales (58) all managing more than Messi’s 57.

To put it mildly, being so heavily outnumbered in passing statistics is highly unusual for a Barca team which thrives on possession and has done so for years, but those numbers don’t tell the full story of the game and a more important stat is the fact that Barca had nine shots on target while Betis mustered just three. That suggests the passing stats didn’t pan out the way they did because Barca were outplayed, but because they wanted the game to unfold in exactly such a manner.

Of course, it’s not unusual to see Betis enjoy so much of the ball because Quique Setien’s team are well known for focusing intently upon retaining possession and weaving their way gradually towards goal with precise passing patterns – much like Barca themselves.

Betis boss Quique Setien

Betis boss Quique Setien

Not this time, though. Rather than trying to take on Betis at their own game, and risk getting burned in the way they did at the Camp Nou in November, Barca boss Ernesto Valverde instructed his players to perform in a different manner: sit back, defend with discipline, press only in certain areas and then strike with rapid thrusts when possession is regained.

In short, yes, Barca became a counter-attacking team.

Valverde deserves credit for plotting such a significant departure from his team’s usual playing style in such an effective way, and – if we allow our imagination to roam rather free – it’s easy to envisage how Barca could employ a similar strategy in a highly significant game a few weeks from now: a Champions League Final against Manchester City.

Of course, we’re jumping the gun a bit here. Barca and City have got to get past the quarter-finals and semi-finals first, and the collective powers of Manchester United, Liverpool, Tottenham and Juventus will be far from a pushover.

But the prospect of Pep Guardiola coaching against Messi and co in a Champions League Final is a highly enticing one, and Sunday’s win at Betis showed that Valverde might just be prepared to approach such a situation by allowing City to dominate possession, in the same way that he allowed Betis to dominate possession, before using the ruthless precision of Messi and Suarez on the break.

Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola

Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola

Sunday’s game showed that Valverde has complete trust in his defence to weather a serious amount of pressure. And that’s deservedly so, because Gerard Pique and Clement Lenglet have formed an outstanding central defensive partnership (it’s hard to see how Samuel Umtiti can get back into the team), while the only person in the world who appears not to regard Marc-Andre ter Stegen as an elite goalkeeper is his national team coach Joachim Low.

Those three provide a very solid backbone for Barca to defend well even with their backs against the wall, complemented by the selfless covering roles performed by Sergio Busquets and Ivan Rakitic, the endlessly intense pressing of Arturo Vidal and the cool ability of Arthur to play his way out of pressure.

This isn’t a revolution: Barca’s default mode is still to act as the main protagonists, spending as much of the game as possible inside the opposition half and greedily hogging possession. And that, no doubt, will be the way they continue to play in the majority of their upcoming big games – including, surely, the Champions League quarter-final against Manchester United.

But Sunday’s game was particularly interesting not just because it showed that Messi is a genius, which we already knew, but because we learned that Barca are also prepared, when necessary, to play a different kind of game, surrendering possession, trusting their defence to hold tight and killing their opponents on the break.

And if they do end up playing Manchester City in June’s end of season showpiece finale, that might be exactly the kind of game they need to play again.

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European Teams of the Week: Lionel Messi (Barcelona) top, with Bayern Munich in second

Alex Rea 18/03/2019
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Barcelona players celebrate during their win over Real Betis

The only thing in football more contentious than a dubious refereeing decision is a rankings system.

There are plenty of them out there – though many are deliberately divisive – but given the tribal nature of football they do drum up some interesting debates among supporters.

We’re going to add our twist to the list. Each week we pick out the 10 best teams from Europe’s top-five leagues (minus cup competitions).

It’s not cumulative, the rankings is based on a team’s performance in that particular game week.

So, who makes the top-10 this week? Check out below.

1. Lionel Messi (beat Real Betis 4-1)

The scoreline reads Barcelona beating Betis, the reality is much different. A hat-trick – take your pick for a favourite, his impudent chip for the third maybe sneaks past his arrowed free-kick – hallmarked a truly iconic performance from Lionel Messi. Betis to their credit could have gone in at the break 2-1 ahead. But Barca have Messi and so Barca won.

2. Bayern Munich (beat Mainz 6-0)

Bayern Munich star James Rodriguez

Bayern Munich star James Rodriguez

Battered and bruised after being knocked out of Europe by Liverpool, Bayern responded by bullying Mainz. A 6-0 victory means Niko Kovac’s side have now scored an absurd 17 goals in their last three Bundesliga outings. All six strikes on Sunday were splendid, from Robert Lewandowksi’s sumptuous volley at the near post to Kingsley Coman’s thunderous strike. James Rodriguez rebounded from an anonymous display in midweek by netting a hat-trick and 18-year-old Alphonso Davies smashed home his first goal for the club.

3. Inter Milan (beat AC Milan 3-2)

Inter’s wretched form combined with a reported schism in a dressing room already ripped apart by Mauro Icardi’s exile meant AC Milan were firm favourites for the Derby della Madonnina. Then Inter turned up and blasted their city rivals with a performance hallmarked by raw intensity and skill. Matias Vecino, Stefan de Vrij and Lautaro Martinez all scored to see Inter vault the Rossoneri back into third spot after a wildly entertaining derby display.

4. Genoa (beat Juventus 2-0)

Goran Pandev and Stefano Sturaro

Goran Pandev and Stefano Sturaro

It matters not a jot that Juventus suffered their first league defeat of the campaign on Sunday because they are so far ahead, yet this was a glorious Genoa victory. Curiously, Juve have actually been performing poorly recently, aside from their stunning win over Atletico Madrid of course, and so this result had been coming. Max Allegri regretted resting Cristiano Ronaldo as substitutes Stefano Sturaro, who was loaned by Juve to Genoa in January before the deal was made permanent, and a lovely Goran Pandev finish sealed the host’s triumph.

5. Everton (beat Chelsea 2-0)

It’s not a win with quite the same magnitude as beating previous Chlesea iterations, but considering Everton’s scarcely believable record against the Premier League’s top six, this was massive for Marco Silva. The Toffees’ have traditionally crumbled when faced with Premier League powerhouses and had failed to beat a top-six side in their last 25 outings. In a season of lows, this was an undoubted high as Richarlison and Gylfi Sigurdsson, albeit after seeing his initial penalty saved, both scored to capture pride as much as points.

6. Monaco (beat Lille 1-0)

Monaco’s resurrection under Leonardo Jardim continued after they narrowly edged out Champions League-chasing Lille. The winner arrived in injury time but to be frank, it should have come much, much earlier after a flurry of opportunities were well saved by the home goalkeeper Mike Maignan. Carlos Vinicius showed calm when others were chaotic, deftly lifting the ball over a Lille defender before coolly slotting home his first goal for the club since joining on loan from Napoli in the winter.

7. Athletic Bilbao (beat Atletico Madrid 2-0)

Inaki Williams celebrates with his Bilbao team-mates

Inaki Williams celebrates with his Bilbao team-mates

If there was a title race in Spain, there most definitely isn’t one now. Atletico’s reputation is one built by a formidable defence, but all of a sudden it’s crumbled and with it so has their season. After crashing out of the Champions League, Bilbao scored two late goals to inflict more misery. Inaki Williams slotted in at the back post after Jose Gimenez gifted the ball to Inigo Cordoba who crossed for the forward. Gimenez was exposed for the second as Kenan Kodro’s shot deflected off his foot, for the Basque club’s first win over Atleti in six years.

8. SPAL (beat Roma 2-1)

It’s hard not to swept up in the romance of Claudio Ranieri’s Roma return. SPAL were in no mood for any tenderness, though, as they inflicted a deeply damaging defeat which sees the Romans slip back in the Champions League hunt. Without injured duo Kostas Manolas and Daniele De Rossi in the side, Roma have been horrid defensively. Federico Fazio continues to show his limitations and Juan Jesus is an awkward fit at left-back. It was the Brazilian’s foul which paved for the winner as Andrea Petagna scored from the penalty spot, after Mohamed Fares’ headed opener was cancelled out by Diego Perotti’s penalty.

9. Werder Bremen (beat Bayer Leverkusen 3-1)

One of the more eye catching results from this weekend was Bremen’s win at Leverkusen. Under Peter Bosz, Bayer have surged into top-four contention, winning six of their last seven with their only defeat on that run to Borussia Dortmund. However, Bremen forwards Max Kruse and Milot Rashica combined to complete a shock win which gives Florian Kohfeldt’s outfit hope of securing a spot in the Europa League.

10. Paris Saint-Germain (beat Marseille 3-1)

Still reeling from their exit to Manchester United, PSG ultras protested the result by staying away from the opening exchanges of Le Classique. When they did enter, banners reading “We don’t forget”, “respect the establishment” and “banknotes in place of a heart” were hung in a section behind the goal. A 16th win in 19 meetings with Marseille won’t be enough to mend the relationship, but it is to sneak a spot on this list. Angel Di Maria scored twice, Kylian Mbappe grabbed the other with the Parisian missing from the penalty spot after denying his Argentine team-mate a chance of a hat-trick.

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Lionel Messi creates several records after Barcelona defeat Real Betis at the Benito Villamarin

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Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez

It was a night of footballing extravaganza as Barcelona defeated Real Betis to go 10 points clear of Atletico Madrid. But Lionel Messi – who scored a hat-trick, and a sensational one at that – would call it just another Sunday.

It was much more than just another night for the Argentine who added a few more records to his name.

To start with, Messi equaled Andres Iniesta’s all-time appearances for Barcelona in official matches with 674 games under his belt. Only Xavi (767) has more appearances. Carles Puyol (593) is next on the list.

He opened the scoring with a perfect free-kick to get the better of Betis custodian Pau Lopez. Just before half-time, he linked up with Luis Suarez to add one more goal to his tally. In the second half, the five-time Ballon d’Or winner produced an audacious chip from the edge of the box to beat Lopez for a third time.

With that goal, Messi is just one behind Cristiano Ronaldo for most hat-tricks (34) in La Liga. You wouldn’t put it past the 31-year-old to go one up and break the record by the end of the season.

Lionel Messi and Xavi

Lionel Messi and Xavi

Lastly, Messi surpassed Xavi as the Barcelona player with most wins in all competitions. In 767 matches, Xavi recorded 476 wins, at a rate of 62 percent. Messi now has 477 wins as a Barcelona player in 674 appearances, at a rate of 71 percent.

The Argentine’s consistent excellence on the pitch has enabled him to create records every other game. So in a way, was it really just another night for him?

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