By Ben Hayward | Spanish Football Writer
Barcelona had been here before, although not for some time. Prior to Wednesday night's Champions League clash at Celtic, only Real Madrid had beaten the Catalans this term. Indeed, every other rival apart from Jose Mourinho's men had been put to the sword by Tito Vilanova's team. Including the Glaswegians.
The Scottish side had come closer than most, however, as they were edged out in the most cruel and dramatic of finales at Camp Nou in late October, conceding deep into added time as Adriano and Jordi Alba combined to break Bhoys hearts. On Wednesday, though, it was the Hoops ending on top in an identical scoreline - a fairytale for Celtic, but a familiar story for Barca.
The Catalans' last European defeat had also come on British soil, a 1-0 reverse at Stamford Bridge in the semi-final first leg last season, which was followed by a disappointing draw in the return which saw the holders eliminated in Pep Guardiola's final Champions League clash as coach.
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One common criticism of Guardiola's brilliant Barca side was the absence of an attacking alternative when things were not going his side's way. The signings of Alexis Sanchez and Cesc Fabregas were supposed to offer the Catalans a new dimension in tricky fixtures like last night, but the problems remain.
A gradual change in tactics last year and even more so this term under Vilanova has seen Barca adopt a more direct style, particularly away from home. Players have been instructed to ship the ball forward more quickly, to use the width of the pitch, shoot from distance and deliver long corners instead of short ones. For the sake of efficiency, some of the pretty passing has gone.
Results have been mostly positive. Only one loss (to Madrid in the Spanish Supercopa), one draw (against the same opponents in La Liga), and 14 wins in their other games have been testament to that.
Tito's team have struggled defensively at times, however, with a number of key absences, and were fortunate to avoid defeat against a Sevilla side who had harried and pressed them superbly until Gary Medel's dismissal allowed a Catalan comeback in the dying minutes and Barca won 3-2 in September at the Sanchez Pizjuan.
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Messi tried harder than anyone to make things happen for Barca and came close as he rattled the bar with a long-range effort. Barca mixed it up when they could, with Alexis Sanchez also heading against a post, and several others shooting from distance.
Villa later came on, too, and Pedro had his moments, but still Barca lack the diversity they enjoyed in attack in Guardiola's first season, when Messi, Samuel Eto'o and Thierry were the front three - a trio with height, physicality and strength, as well as pace and fantastic finishing ability to go with it.
Even that side came within a whisker of a European exit at Chelsea before Andres Iniesta's last-minute strike in the semi-finals en route to the trophy 2008-09, while Barca were undone by an ultra-defensive, 10-man Inter at Camp Nou a year on in the last four, with Zlatan Ibrahimovic in their side, before last term's damaging defeat to the Blues.
The Catalans are now likely to face more similar systems later in the competition and somehow, perhaps by restoring Villa, moving Messi or even a change in system, Tito's team simply must find a way through the wall of defenders. If not, Wembley - scene of their 1992 and 2011 triumphs in this competition - may not be hosting another famous Blaugrana victory this time around.
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