In preparation for the Champions League Final, on the 28th May, I asked Spanish football journalist, Guillem Balague, a few questions about the final from a Spanish point of view. Guillem is a regular pundit on Sky Sport’s Revista De La Liga and runs his own website, GuillemBalague.com, where he publishes interviews with the likes of Mourinho, Messi & Marcelo. In this interview, we discuss the strengths & weaknesses of Barcelona, the transfer of David De Gea and much more.
CTS: Having been heralded by some as the best team ever, do you think Barcelona have ‘under-performed’ this season; having lost the Copa Del Ray Final?
Well, even the best teams ever don’t manage to win everything but the fact that they’ve won 9 out of the last 12 competitions they’ve entered is pretty impressive and also, this season I think they’ve played some of their best football, since Guardiola took charge.
Recently, we’ve seen a team that is tired as the consequences of two things; Firstly, Barcelona’s small squad, which is due to a decision by Pep early in the season- which will be reverted next year– not to use much of the youngsters in the B team, as he probably thought they are not ready for the elite yet. Secondly, their over-reliance on Messi in the last 14 months, allowing him to do whatever he wants in centre of park, as the a false #9 closer to goal, has allowed him to score more than ever but it means the team has also become more predictable.
This usage of Messi is something which wins games and guarantee’s points but you can see that when going through Messi doesn’t work, like it hasn’t sometimes in the last months, they have struggled to find other ways to score; which means in the last couple of months we are seeing less high scoring wins and more tight victories, which we’re not used to. Villa not scoring and the midfield failing to contribute has also been another problem. It might sound overcritical when they have reached this time of the season with options of not just a league but also a Champions league, but Barcelona have got us used to top standards and, frankly, we want more of that!
You can certainly argue this is one of the best teams ever, the stats and titles prove this, but amazingly this team still has room for improvement, which is unbelievable really, and I think Guardiola is going to address these issues in the summer.
CTS: What do you think are the main weaknesses of Guardiola’s Barcelona side?
Man United have one person who they can definitely target in Pique because without Puyol he sometimes, very rarely, loses concentration and makes mistakes. It is rare that it happens but you must say it has happened more often this season, without Puyol, than ever. I still think Pique is one of the best centre backs in the world, but his season could have been better. Personally, I think Puyol will be back though and Abidal may even be LB.
Puyol is important for Barcelona because they need defenders that are not only very fast but that can anticipate problems and cover when needed- which Puyol is perfect for. Barcelona suffer more when Puyol missing than they do when Messi is missing, which shows just how important he is!
Guadiola’s side also struggle when teams counter attack them and when teams attack from the second line, with players coming from deep. I’m pretty sure this is going to be key and something which Sir Alex Ferguson will try to exploit, with quick transitions to Rooney and Hernandez being the order of the day, as well as the appearance of Park, Giggs and Fletcher, if he plays, into the box when we have possession high up the pitch, in order to unsettle Barcelona.
Messi’s Magic Shone in the Much Maligned El Classico’s
CTS: We all know there was a lot of (unwarranted) negative press in the English media surrounding the Spanish semi final, and the manner in which it was played, but how did the media react in Spain?
Well, it wasn’t pretty- it was so tense- it’s the biggest club game in the world which meant there was a lot of pressure and tension, which was aggravated by both managers in their press conferences’. This meant the theatrics were exaggerated, the football wasn’t pretty due to the aggressive approach of Real Madrid and Barcelona didn’t play well in the first leg because they fell into the trap that Jose Mourinho set.
In England, with the first leg being on ITV, a lot of neutrals saw the match and thought, ‘Oh, is that Spanish football, that’s terrible.’ People who follow it regularly know that there is much more to it than that. I have heard people say that the theatricals have tainted the defending Champions reputation but people that say that don’t know anything about football. Or they say it on purpose to try and reclaim some space lost by the Premier league lately.
CTS: All things considered, do you think it will be Guardiola’s last match in charge of Barcelona?
No, he’s renewed his contract for another year and will be there next season.
Messi, obviously. Rooney has got a lot going for him as a #10, where he is playing at the moment, and I am glad that he won’t be considered a full-back, like he was for some minutes in the semi-final against Barcelona in the past but he is yet to reach Messi’s level. Rooney has got a great eye for assists and is a great goal-scorer, from his position, but Messi has all this and more. Looking at it, Messi is the better dribbler but then Rooney heads the ball better- there are things that separate them but Messi is better and if he continues this progression he could be consider one of the best ever. And yes, he could manage on a Saturday evening in Stoke, I’m pretty sure about that haha!
Messi Wins… For Now
CTS: Didier Deschamps said that this current United side, lack ‘fantasy’ but it most certainly has a winning mentality. What have you made of Manchester United’s season so far?
Well, Manchester United seemed to have been playing in 3rd gear all season but now they’ve put it up, into 4th, beat Chelsea and won the league. The fact Man United have the ability to put that mindset into the team, and the collective as a whole, is such a huge asset.
They have best defensive system in the world- no doubt about it- and that’s not just because Vidic and Ferdinand are probably the best pairing of CB’s in world but because of the way that the whole team defends; it’s why Park is so liked by Sir Alex, and Chicarito too etc.
Creatively, I agree with Deschamps that it is not fantastic football, maybe if Giggs had played every game it might be different but obviously they have still had enough to beat most teams in the PL. The fact they’ve only won 5 away games suggests it’s not the best Man United team but it’s interesting because the PL has had the same champions, United, 4 times in the last 5 years and, in my eyes, they’ll still be favourites next season.
The Ball is in His Court…
CTS: If a deal could be struck between the clubs, do you think David De Gea has what it takes to replace Edwin Van Der Sar?
An agreement has been reached by Manchester United and Athletico Madrid as I reported back in April; De Gea knows exactly what Man United are offering but he is still considering it while he listens to what Athletico have offered him in their contract renewal. There has been no decision, that is certain, but there will be one soon.
He’s been a regular this season, at only 20, and has made some of the finest saves this season, which is partly down to the fact Athletico make defensive mistakes regularly. I think he has got enough quality to replaces Van Der Sar but obviously he’s not as good as him at the moment, being only 20.
If he has a good competitive GK next to him, like Lindegaard, then basically he’ll improve and become a great GK for the next 10 years or more but I think he firstly needs to realise what a huge step it would be for him to go to Manchester United.
CTS: Looking towards the final, which United player are Barcelona most scared of?
Well, Rooney is playing fantastically well but I don’t think Barcelona are scared of anyone, when they’re playing well. However, Chicarito has scored 13 goals from 23 shots, in the Premier League, which suggests that if he even gets a quarter of a chance he may score it, so I think he will be the key man in the final.
How to Beat the The Three Musketeers…
CTS: What will be the key clash in the final? Rooney/Pique, Carrick/Iniesta or Vidic/Messi?
One must remember that Carrick isn’t just up against Iniesta in the middle of the park but he will also be up against Xavi, Busquests & Iniesta. Looking back, I think Carrick was one of the failures of the 2009 Final but I also think he has improved since then and has actually been playing quite well in the last few weeks of the season and so I am hoping that he gets help from his team mates this time, so that there is not as much room for Barcelona in midfield as there was last time.
However, it’s not so much players but systems that are clashing. The media typically try to make it Rooney v Pique etc but it is not like that. Instead, Man United are up against a system that Barcelona use which works through the centre but not on the wings- where they struggle- as they hardly ever score from crosses (although rarely they did last week with Keita, who may not play in the final).
CTS: Quite simply, what is the key to beating Barcelona?
Well we’ve touched on it haven’t we, direct football! With Barcelona struggling to score at the moment, there won’t be too many goals and I think that if you score first it will be very, very difficult for Barcelona to turn it round.
Obviously, it is key that you put lots of people around Messi and that you manage to get control of midfield. Once you get the ball, United must be clever and target the space left behind by Alves, the RB, and then the midfield will need to do well with their runs from deep.
It is also key that no-one believes they are much better than the opposition, which is what I felt happened in 2009, when the English media made out that Man United were hugely superior (I don’t know how that conclusion was reached). I think Guardiola has been trying very hard to get this message across to his team, to make sure that no one gets too enthusiastic too quickly.
All things considered, it is a bound to be a fascinating encounter at Wembley, on the 28th May, and I’d like to take this opportunity to thank Guillem for taking the time to do this interview; make sure you check out his site, GuillemBalague.com, and follow him on Twitter!