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Going into the second leg of the Barcelona vs. Bayern Munich semifinal, I wanted to keep an eye on the player or players for Barcelona who would be difference makers. As good as Barcelona has been, plus playing in front of the home crowd, the team has had the ability of making you a miracle believer out of non-believer and someone therefore had to be the hero. When pre-game it was announced that Lionel Messi would start on the bench and Cesc Fabregas would serve as the “false nine”, as I had suggested they should do in the first game, I decide to watch how Bayern would handle his play to see if my theory on who should have started would hold up.

On paper, it was a tantalizing matchup. Dante was a late scratch for Bayern and was replaced by Daniel Van Buyten, a player that was a bit slower and could theoretically be exposed by the tiki-taka passing of Barcelona. As soon as the whistle blew, however, it was apparent that the dynamic from the first game would be repeated in the second. Barcelona had problems putting together sustained possession because of the aggressive pressing on defense by Bayern, which disrupted their usual walking the ball into the net. Compounding problems were the missing players, to the point where Alex Song was starting in the midfield. Song is many things but not a consistent threat to score, so Bayern were happy to let him have possession until they forced him to turn it over or he would pass to a seemingly open player, at which point they would collapse upon the player.

From the beginning the passing looked more like Binghamton than Barcelona. Barcelona’s makeshift midfield struggled to maintain possession and on the rare occasions when they could advance the ball into the Bayern half, they were unable to make that incisive pass that so often unlock their opponents. The load of possession that the home team had was pointless possession, with little constructive advancement. The best run of form for them was beginning in the 20th minute of the first half which, not coincidentally, was one of the few times Fabregas was most involved in the attack. Despite their press, Bayern gave Song some space about thirty yards out; they were sagging enough to guard against a run but ready to close down as soon as a threatening pass was made. Song picked out Fabregas to the right of the goal, where he was closed down by David Alaba and Franck Ribery. A turnover resulted and a good opportunity was wasted. Offensively Dani Alves found some success on the right but for the most part Alaba and Phillipp Lahm closed down the wings (with help as needed from the midfield) while the physical center back pairing of Van Buyten and Boatang cleaned up the middle and muscled Barcelona out of possession. Fabregas’s lack of contribution highlights this; when he did get the ball in a dangerous position he was muscled out of the way or his pass failed to find an open teammate. There was no synchronicity in the attack or, for that matter, the defense.

The back-breaking goal came off a counter-esque attack. Victor Valdes had cleaned up a corner and kicked the ball downfield. Alaba recovered the kick and sent a gorgeous pass cross field to hit  Arjen Robben in stride. Robben was closed down by Adriano but the defender fell for a small move that allowed the Dutchman to switch the ball from his right to left foot, which gave him enough space to score a marvelous goal in the top left corner. The difference between that goal and the chances in the first half was Barcelona’s defenders had made those timely and critical (maybe lucky?) challenges that had thwarted good Bayern chances. The visitors had little possession but when they had the ball, they were in a position to threaten the goal.

At the end of the day this Barcelona starting XI fared no better than last week’s, even with the tactical change I had suggested. The dual losses suggest two things to me about this team. First, Barcelona has the depth to dominate their league and lesser Champions League opponents, but against the best teams in the world, the magical veneer of invincibility has worn off.

Being too dependent on Messi’s individual creativity, added to the general lack of player height needed to dominate aerial battles, exposes this squad to opponents with both quickness and a physically dominating presence. Not many teams have the talent Bayern Munich do, but until Barcelona figure out a way to counter it, La Liga trophies will be the only thing on the menu.

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