In a recent TV3 interview, Barcelona’s world-class right-back, Dani Alves, stressed the importance of the next seven days in Barcelona’s season, going so far to proclaim that the Blaugrana’s next week will shape their entire campaign.
And the Brazilian couldn’t be more right - what a seven days it will be.
Without a doubt, Barcelona will face their most trying of tests in their unbelievable season as they face Chelsea in the first leg of the Champions League semi-final at the Camp Nou, travel to the Spanish capital on Saturday to face a Real Madrid side that have been snapping at Barca’s heels since the New Year and finish with a trip to Stamford Bridge next week to face the Blues again in the second leg of the Champions League semi-final.
While Barcelona have been absolutely phenomenal this year, breaking La Liga records and playing scintillating football in the process of doing so, the matches against Chelsea, along with the Clasico sandwiched in between, could not come at a more critical time for the Catalunyan giants.
Despite claims by Blaugrana fans that La Liga was signed, sealed, and delivered back in December when Barca had opened up a 12-point gap between themselves and Real Madrid, even the most ardent of Cule supporters must now be harbouring a few unsettling reservations.
In a remarkable display of resilience and motivation, Real Madrid have won 17 matches and drawn just one on their way to halving the December deficit to six points, and after this past weekend’s results of Liga play, just four. Los Blancos are licking their chops at the prospect of hosting beautiful Barca and regaining their honour after the 2-0 defeat at the Camp Nou in the winter — Madrid’s last loss in La Liga.
While taking away three points from Barca and cutting the Blaugrana’s lead to one point will be no small task, especially because some key players like Pepe, Sneijder and Robben will be ruled out of the match through suspension and injury, this weekend’s El Clasico could force Barca coach Pep Guardiola into some very difficult decisions with respect to the squad he fields — decisions that could effectively come down to choosing either La Liga or the Champions League.
A little over a week ago, I coined Barcelona’s multifaceted attack akin to the dreaded beast in Greek mythology, the nine-headed Hydra. With the level of skill and danger Barcelona’s squad carries at each position on the pitch, to neutralise the threat of one of the Hydra’s heads is to be left at the mercy of the others that spring up in its place. In examining the Barcelona team, the Blaugrana have one of the deepest and most dynamic squads in world football.
But what will come of the Blaugrana beast when not just one or two heads are burdened with the heavy load of fatigue that comes with playing multiple matches at the highest level, but the entire Hydra is forced to dig deep and compete against unrelenting pressure? Can Barcelona somehow come out of three matches against the most difficult of opponents, all of which will require the Blaugrana to play in top form?
Against Valencia at La Mestalla, while dominating for some spells of the match, Barcelona were severely tested and Pep Guardiola was forced to look to his bench for a spark in attack - this came in the form of Thierry Henry. The Frenchman seemed to be exactly what the doctor ordered as ‘Titi’ would fortuitously latch on to a loose ball in the area and loft it over a helpless Cesar, leaving the Valencia goalkeeper as a spectator to the match’s tying goal. This strike was crucial as it gives Barcelona a one-point advantage should the Blaugrana falter at the Santiago Bernabeu. But one couldn’t help but notice Pep Guardiola’s nervous body language during periods of the Valencia match - one of the first times we have seen the Barca manager look slightly insecure.
With this next stretch of matches, one has to wonder whether or not even the Cule Hydra will be able to withstand the storm of competition they are about to face. One can only speculate how Pep Guardiola will play his cards in the face of the Chelsea/Real Madrid examinations — keeping in mind that in over-committing his roster to one competition or the other, he could effectively rule out his team’s chances of remaining in contention for both.
Barcelona would do well to take it to Chelsea full throttle today as they did against Bayern Munich in the quarter-final stage. If the Blaugrana are able to crack the Blues defence and chalk up a goleada as they have many times already this season against Europe’s best, they would be able to focus more thoroughly on beating Real Madrid back into submission in front of their own fans. They could then build up a stout defence to take care of business in London the following week.
But if Chelsea come to the Camp Nou with some teeth and make life difficult for Barcelona in the first leg, Guardiola may be hesitant to field his most menacing line-up against los Blancos, possibly giving Madrid a chance at the three points and an opportunity at forging within one point of La Liga. If Barca are then left with work to do at Stamford Bridge, as Liverpool will tell you is a difficult venue to play in, they could find themselves vulnerable when Villarreal come to Catalunya the following weekend. The Yellow Submarine are intent on climbing up in the table from their 5th place spot to earn a Champions League berth and La Liga could become far more contentious.
Today’s Champion’s League match at the Camp Nou could effectively show if there is a Heracles waiting in the shadows to slay Barcelona’s multi-headed Hydra. One thing is for certain, between the Chelsea matches and El Clasico, these next seven days will reveal just how good this Barca side really is.
Cyrus C. Malek, Goal.com
To read Cyrus C. Malek's analysis of Barcelona: The Many-Headed Hyrda, click here...