When one takes some time to think about it, it truly is remarkable - and that might be understating it. Other appropriate adjectives might include unprecedented, incredible, historic, epic, unrepeatable, etc.
What makes it all the more praiseworthy is the fact that such a seemingly impossible feat was accomplished in the modern age of football, a larger, faster, and more physical time in which the most talented footballers can be fished from every corner of the world by teams, some of which have budgets that rival entire countries.
We, of course, are speaking of Barcelona’s six consecutive titles claimed in 2009. The combination of talent, strategic coaching, and the good fortune in avoiding serious injuries that it takes to win one title, let alone three in the span of a single season and then to continue those successes into the next season to win every single trophy possible during the course of a year, is absolutely astounding. The monumental amount of dedication, concentration, fortitude, and (simply put) hard work that it takes to enjoy the success the Pep Team enjoyed last year is something that many of us will only see once in our lifetime.
All the more impressive is the fact that all those trophies were won beautifully with a soundtrack of 'Olés'. The mark of a fantastic performer, whether he be a musician, dancer, or athlete is to make the terribly complex seem as easy as duck soup and in the free-flowing, silky-smooth, one-touch football that saw Barca create chance after chance after chance against even some of the most stalwart defences in Europe (all the while dominating matches with a vice-like grip on possession), Guardiola’s men set a new standard for how football should be played - a brand to which the rest of the world can only aspire to mimic.
Of course, all things must eventually come to an end. Just as a stretch of two consecutive trophy-less seasons under Frank Rijkaard eventually passed, so too will the unsurpassable success of the Pep Team someday draw to a close. A dynasty, no matter how mighty is simply unsustainable over the long run.
Already, a few chinks in Barca’s armour have shown themselves. Barca lost their first competition of 2010 by failing to surpass Sevilla in the Copa del Rey. Two weeks ago, taking advantage of a combination of injuries and suspensions, Atletico Madrid were able to hand Barca their first defeat of the Liga season as Los Colchoneros unwittingly did their cross-town rivals a favour by shaving the Blaugrana's lead in the table over Real Madrid down to two points. But where some would simply chalk the Barca defeat at the Vicente Calderon up to a decimated back line, good coaches at great clubs refuse to settle for such an easy scapegoat.
In analyzing Barcelona’s errors after the Atletico match, Guardiola curiously did not speak of his crippled rearguard in which he had to field an unpolished left winger in the young Jeffren Suarez as a right back. In a club like Barcelona, the theory is that the quality in the squad can overcome any injury to any position.
Instead, Guardiola spoke of his team’s lack of accuracy in their passing, resulting in the Blaugrana giving possession away too quickly and allowing Atletico to mount a break on the counterattack. After all, Jose Antonio Reyes’ pass to Diego Forlan through the back line for Los Colchoneros’ first goal only came after the Sevillano had recovered the ball in the Barca midfield and woven past Iniesta and Busquets.
Some cules would have drawn consolation from this past weekend as the Catalans calmly dispatched a Racing Santander side that, for much of the match, were barely on the pitch. But in such cases, a 4-0 scoreline can be terribly deceiving - a fact that was duly pointed out by Barca legend Johan Cruyff after the Dutchman called the Racing win, “Barca’s worst performance under Guardiola”.
In his analysis of the match, Cruyff argued that of the four goals, only Rafa Marquez’s free kick was deserved. As for the rest, the Dutchman reasoned that the first one (scored by Iniesta) was a dreadful gaffe by the Racing defence, the second was an error by the Racing defence - again - in closing the wall for Thierry Henry's free kick, and that the last goal only nestled into the back of the net after Thiago’s shot took a deflection.
Cruyff even went so far with his criticism as to accuse Barca of complacency. "Coming off a loss in the Vicente Calderon and making the errors they made yesterday [against Racing], it doesn't appear as if the team learned a thing. I saw the same errors, the same against Racing that I saw against Atletico Madrid. The difference is in the quality of players between the rivals. Barca was the same. Again, a lot of lost possession."
In his pre-match press conference ahead of Barca’s Champions League fixture against Stuttgart, Guardiola gave Cruyff’s harsh criticism credence by stating that “if we continue to play at the same level that we have in the last few matches, we will not be in the quarter-finals”.
Strong words indeed from a man whose mouth barely knows the taste of defeat.
In 100 matches as Barcelona’s coach, Guardiola has won 71 times. Even more impressively, his team has earned draws in 19 of the remaining 29 matches, leaving just 10 occasions that Pep has lost on the Camp Nou dugout. With just a 10% failure rate of picking up any points, the odds do not favour a Barca collapse. Stuttgart midfielder Aliaksandr Hleb acknowledged just as much as he declared that his side had just a 10% chance of succeeding against the Blaugrana.
But as Barcelona prepare to face a Stuttgart side that receive the Catalans having scored five goals at the weekend in the Bundesliga, Guardiola must surely be taking his players back to the fundamentals of his brand of stylish football. For while some players may take solace in the four goals that cleaned up Racing, such errors in defence like those committed by the Cantabrians are rarely if ever committed in European competition.
As the theme very clearly advertises along with the UEFA Champions League logo, “These are the Champions!” and inaccurate passes are punished without mercy. Earlier this season, Atletico Madrid were involved in Champions League play and one saw what a capable team can do if Barca lose their focus.
Barca may not have lost a single opportunity at silverware last year, but with this year already seeing the Copa del Rey slip from the Camp Nou trophy case, Guardiola would do best to have his team forget about the historical triumphs of last year. As Real Madrid have found, all the trophies in the world mean nothing in matches played tomorrow.
Championships are always earned by way of focus, concentration, and hard work. As a master strategist and obsessive perfectionist, one would be hard pressed to believe Guardiola will have his team showing anything less tonight.