Man United and Barcelona are a class apart


As the club football season in Europe draws to a close, the domestic titles in the ‘big’ leagues of Germany, Spain, Italy, France and England are all but awarded. AC Milan claimed the Scudetto, Barcelona wrapped up the Spanish title, and Manchester United set the record for most English top flight titles, eclipsing Liverpool’s longstanding total of 18. That 12 of United’s 19 titles have come in the Premier League era, starting less than two decades ago, is testament to the indomitable will and vision of Sir Alex Ferguson, and his ability to mould title winning teams time and again. Borussia Dortmund won the German league title by the proverbial country mile – the youngest (average age) team to do so – and in France, Lille Metropole are on course to become champions.
AC Milan have finally managed to dent the dominance of Inter Milan by winning their first league title in seven years, and this is something most people, if not everyone, saw coming a good distance away. Inter have been a shadow of the side that romped to a collection of titles last year, winning the treble and then the quadruple, having added the FIFA Club World Cup title this season; a pale imitation of the all-conquering force marshalled by Jose Mourinho. Still credit should be given where it is due, and AC Milan are worthy winners indeed. As with any deserving champion over the course of a season, it was a solid spine to the side that is responsible for their lifting of the Scudetto.
This starts with an outstanding keeper in Abbiatti, who kept a clean sheet in half of the games he played. Playing in front of the keeper at the centre of defence were the yet-to-disappoint Nesta and the outstanding Thiago Silva, whose consistency has allowed Nesta to reshape his own game and stay effective. Playing in front of the defence in a defensive shield role, Flamini and Gattuso typified the industry that is required of a title winning side, and allowed for Seedorf and Boateng to conduct play up the pitch.
Of course, the front line did a remarkable job of bringing in the goals, as Robinho, Pato and Ibrahimovich combined to wreak havoc all season. Questions were asked when Ronaldinho was unceremoniously shown the door, but the two young Brazilians and the giant Swede – who has now won domestic league titles eight seasons in a row with five different clubs – put paid to any doubts of Milan’s capability in the final third as they outclassed their title rivals en route to victory.
Barcelona are again flying in the face of all the questions and allegations aimed at their perceived lack of depth and their insistence on a ‘plan A’ without a convincing ‘plan B’. Their dominance in Spain and Europe is set to unravel with the resurgence of Real Madrid. Of course, for all the flare and skill that oozes from this side, Messi still stands head and shoulders above everyone else for what he has managed to achieve in another record breaking season of individual performances.
Racking up goal after goal and a swathe of assists, the diminutive Argentinean has set a new record for most goals in a season by a Barcelona player, and, despite Cristiano Ronaldo’s flurry of goals in the past week, is odds on to win the ‘Pichichi’ title of leading goal scorer in Spain, having already crossed the 50 goal mark. Messi’s continued magnificence has meant that Bojan has been given less and less of a chance to display his skills, while the opposite is true for Pedro, who has thrived in a season of continued improvement.
Another product of the Barcelona youth system, the winger looks more and more comfortable on the ball and industrious off it. This year saw another title campaign orchestrated on the field by Xavi, who continued to dominate the charts for passing and playmaking in the absence of Iniesta, who, largely because of niggling injuries, remained a peripheral figure. His position on the left flank was ably covered by David Villa, but Barcelona proved that they have what it takes to win, regardless of the competition.
Still, there are signs that Barcelona lack suitable replacements for first team players in some positions. A case in point is the back four, where absence of any one of the first team players makes for awkward out-of-position replacements. While the youth academy is churning out attacking players, there appears to be no defender who has earned Guardiola’s trust as yet. With age catching up to Puyol, and Abidal as the only available replacement, further back up is needed to avoid having to play Busquets and Mascherano in a centre back role.
While any serious errors have been avoided, the two have never looked comfortable playing out of position, and this area needs to be addressed. Another possible problem area, and one with a less simple answer, is who the next leader for Barcelona will be, to deputise for Puyol when the captain is unavailable. It was evident on a few occasions that nobody could fill the leadership void created by his absence. This resulted in a difficult game and, more often than not, defeat for Barcelona.
Sure enough, Barcelona ply a system drawing from the strength of the whole side rather than individual players, but the fact remains that at the core of your side, you need a leader who will rally the troops and keep them alert, more so when things are going your way than when they are not. Still, now is a time of celebration for Barcelona, but this cannot be sustained if new recruits are not added to key sections of the ranks.