All teams have a shelf life. Football, and for that matter all sports, has a cyclical nature in that a team is able to generate fabulous form, superior play, and exceptional results for a limited period of time before falling back into the fray. It is a simple principle of sport: one can only be the best for so long until age, complacency, and injuries eventually catch up with said team and someone else rises to become, well, the best. It seems someone forgot to tell Barcelona.
Since taking over the reigns from Frank Rijkaard, Pep Guardiola’s Barca just keep winning, taking home the 'triplete' last season and winning both the UEFA and Spanish Supercopas this campaign (an astounding five consecutive titles), all the while showing off some of the most attractive football the modern age of the game has ever seen.
Barcelona have developed a patented style of play, a stifling Hydra attack in which any one of the team’s dangerous heads can deliver a fatal strike and usually after the first venomous bite has been delivered, it isn’t long until the rest of the heads sink their fangs in; last season especially, opposing teams found themselves lucky to escape having only conceded three goals.
Now, in the hot Abu Dhabi sun, Barca have the opportunity to take their hegemony to yet another level and this time the title in question is the FIFA Club World Cup. For Guardiola’s squad to complete their sextet of silverware, they must first win their semi-final (UEFA champions automatically earn a bye to the semi-final round) tie against Mexican side Atlante and then dispute the final against either South Korea’s Pohang Steelers or Argentina’s Copa Libertadores champions, Estudiantes, who similarly earned a bye into the final four.
Playing on the world stage is far different from playing in Spain or even in Europe. The style of play varies substantially from country to country as some leagues specialize in scoring their goals through set plays while others prefer a concentrated effort on the wings. Still, others favour isolating players against the opposition’s back line while some prefer peppering the goal and testing the opposing goalkeeper from a variety of ranges.
In terms of technique, there is little doubt that Barcelona will be the far superior team as five players on the side are starters on the number one ranked Spanish national squad: Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta, Sergi Busquets, Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique. They also have one of arguably the world’s best right-back (Dani Alves), another is a world-class striker (Zlatan Ibrahimovic), and the talisman is the current Ballon d’Or holder. Must his name really be mentioned?
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But victories in football are not always earned through better technique. Raw skills such as speed, strength, and height can change the style of play dramatically and it will be interesting to see how Barca adapt to cope with a variety of opposition styles.
Or perhaps it will not matter one wit and Barca will simply impose their own philosophy of football on the proceedings as they have in Spain and Europe beyond. What remains particularly questionable is if Barca will be able to sustain their form in the wake of the Club World Cup.
Despite all the evidence to the contrary, there have been glimpses that Guardiola’s side is subject to mortality. One has seen a few chinks in the armor this season as the Blaugrana made a dramatic finish out of their Champions League group (eventually, but fortunately, finishing top) and have also dropped points in a fair number of La Liga matches, matches from which they would have emerged as victors last season.
As players like Thierry Henry and Puyol age, squad depth has become a question mark and there are rumors that the winter transfer window could bring a few new faces to the Catalan capital.
Ibrahimovic, Maxwell and Dmytro Chygrynskiy turned out well as summer signings, but how will new blood impact the squad halfway through the season? The month of January also raises some questions with respect to the Barca midfield as both Yaya Toure and Seydou Keita will not be in the squad, obliged to serve their respective countries (Ivory Coast and Mali, respectively) in the African Cup of Nations.
How will the loss of these two iron-men impact the team’s midfield muscle? The truth is that while the media may laud Barca, these questions and many more are constantly, almost obsessively, asked by Pep and his staff. The coach is a master at keeping his squad motivated and humble, always demanding more from his meticulously groomed team of already-exceptional players.
One only wins five titles through painstaking attention to detail and a perfectionist’s tenacity. So while all empires must eventually crumble, Guardiola is doing an exemplary job to make sure the foundation of his team’s rule remains strong.
Until the time of reckoning comes and they finally reach their eventual date of expiration, Barcelona have well and truly earned the reputation as the best club in world football. Now, in pole position to claim the one trophy the club have never won (they most recently disputed it in 2006 when they lost to Brazilian side Internacional), Barca have the chance to formally claim the title of ‘Best Club in the World’.
Should that title be won, it likely won’t be touted by Guardiola and his fearsome Hydra, but will be well and truly deserved.
Cyrus C. Malek, Goal.comWho is the Very Best? Just the coolest world music group right now. They talk about their love of football--Henrik Larsson!--in the DEC/JAN issue of Goal.com Magazine.