Right now Barcelona are a challenge for all of us. Not just for Manchester United but for Real Madrid and Milan as well. They are the best team we have faced in my time as manager. No one else has given us a hiding like that… Barcelona are in at the moment is the best in Europe
Sir Alex Ferguson
Trust the hard-nosed Scot to say it like it is. Beginning Tuesday and till it ends at another of Europe’s magnificent football cathedrals, the Allianz Arena, that’s what the Champions League is likely to be all about — how to better the best. How to beat a team that, according to a journalist, can keep the ball from opponents even when playing in a closet.
After a performance at Wembley that was as close to a symphony on a football pitch we are likely to see in recent times, Barcelona have hit the ground running. They won the Audi Cup, a four-team invitation tournament in Munich, with young Thiago Alcantra, son of ex-Brazil international Mazinho, showing why the world could be talking about him this term. Barca then began the Spanish league thumping Villarreal before European club football grudgingly broke to accommodate international friendlies. Before that, they beat Real Madrid to the Spanish Super Cup and then Porto to the European Super Cup. That’s two major trophies already.
The gap between Barca and Villarreal that night showed Europe what lies in store. And Villarreal are going to compete in the Champions League this time! They are in Bayern Munich’s group along with Manchester City.
“It’s a very tough group, even if we are the favourites to go through. It’s taken the edge off the high spirits — there are other teams I’d rather have been drawn against,” Bayern’s sporting director Christian Nerlinger was quoted as saying last week. Bayern begin away to Villarreal and if Arjen Robben doesn’t recover from back and groin injuries, they may have to brace for early hiccups.
No easy games
In comparison, German champions Borussia Dortmund have an easier draw. Arsenal are more in the news for not being able to keep Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri and coach Arsene Wenger’s touchline ban than for the obvious potential of young Jack Wilshere who will be witnessing the action from the sidelines till the end of October at least. And though there are no easy games, playing French league runners-up Olympique Marseille and Greek champions Olympiakos Piraeus could mean a smoother start than Munich’s.
The third German team, Bayer Leverkusen, will lock horns with Chelsea, Valencia and Genk. And Robin Dutt, their coach of Indian-origin (his father’s from West Bengal), said: “It's pleasant in terms of the travel arrangements, but difficult in terms of the games.”
Going into the Champions League, Manchester City have ramped up their roster and Manchester United fizzed past Arsenal with Sir Alex Ferguson again reposing faith in youth to compensate for Edwin van der Sar and Paul Scholes (both retired). Chelsea hope to break the final frontier with an ageing squad and a young coach.
Bayern Munich dream of a ‘final’ homecoming at the Allianz Arena and Real Madrid flaunt Cristiano Ronaldo while banking on Jose Mourinho to have a better second season. But the benchmark for all of them would be Barcelona’s success rate. If Mourinho or his peers can again beat Barcelona despite a 16 % ball possession like in the 2010 Champions League semi-final, they won’t mind.
After the 3-1 victory at Wembley that fetched Pep Guardiola his second Champions League in three seasons, the Barcelona coach said with admirable modesty: “I feel very privileged to have these players… in 10 or 15 years’ time I would like people to remember this team and remember having enjoyed our football.”
Having transformed Barcelona from a somewhat listless unit to one so lustrous with discipline and tactical nous, the home-grown Guardiola has since signed Cesc Fabregas for R 197.2 crore and Chilean striker Alexis Sanchez. That means he is looking for alternatives in a season where Euro qualifiers will regularly disrupt his roster. That also means there will be no let up in intensity.
Messi’s the man
Lionel Messi is an important cog in the Barcelona wheel but it is the players around him that make this team almost unstoppable.
So far, Guardiola and his giants have shown they can deal with it. The fact that Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Milan’s star forward will be missing in the first leg of the Blaugrana’s opening clash for Italian champions Milan due to a groin niggle, should see a sound start.
Football’s most-watched club competition kicks-off at a time when Fifa’s credibility has rock-bottomed. Karl Heinz Rummenigge, who heads the European Clubs Association, which has over 200 members, has called for a revolution at the world body while asking for greater say. The sport has been slurred by match-fixing scandals in Germany, Italy, Greece, Turkey, South Korea with fingers being pointed at illegal betting syndicates in Asia.
Now more than ever, football needs to be beautiful.