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End Of A Dream-But Not An Era

Thursday 26th April 2012
Even before Fernando Torres officially sealed Chelsea's place in the Champions League Final, there was a sense of impending doom around the Nou Camp. A sense that had carried over from Saturday's defeat to Real Madrid. From the moment Lionel Messi not so much smashed as gently stroked the ball onto Petr Cech's crossbar Barcelona looked a team out of ideas.

The Nou Camp for once did not look like a special place. It looked like a massive congregation of fed up Catalans rather than those lucky enough to witness the best team in the world at work. When the final whistle blew the fact was confirmed that Barcelona's dream died; they would not become the first team to retain the Champions League trophy in its current format.

Chelsea had pulled off the most magnificent achievement of the Abramovic era. Given the limitations of the current side this surpasses winning the Premier League on any of their three previous victories. But for Barcelona the talk is that of the magnificent era coming to an end.

The theory is that this defeat will have a similar effect on Barcelona that losing to Milan in 1994 had on the Dream team. In some ways the pitfalls remain from that hammering in Athens; Cruyff was gone in 1996 taking his total football with him, now Guardiola's future is still in doubt after delaying to sign a contract.

That final followed a World Cup in which Stoichkov and Romario, the instigators of Barcelona's attacking threat, shone. The physical tole that took on the players meant that Barcelona never really reached the heights that they touched between 1992 and 1994 and as a result the Dream Team quickly disbanded.

This Summer the European Championships will include players such as Xavi, Iniesta, Pique, Fabregas, Busquets etc. who will all undoubtedly progress into the latter stages of the tournament adding that extra physical toll on Barcelona's attempts to regroup in the 2012/2013. There are some omens hanging over this  defeat to Chelsea yet there is one saving grace to this.

Chelsea's victory, while undoubtedly as special and surprising as the margin of A.C Milan's win in Athens, was not nearly as emphatic as the defeat the Barcelona suffered in 94. Aside from the incredible 4-0 win and the almost perfectionist performance from Milan making the Dream Team look weak and Total Football look a flawed concept, psychologically speaking this defeat was perhaps the most damaging in Barcelona's history. The sense of arrogance and entitlement that Barcelona entered the Olympic Stadium in Athens with meant that defeat was simply not a possibility that Cruyff, or his team could consider.

Barcelona went to Athens to collect the trophy, not to compete for it. While Milan were champions of Italy, it was built on the back of an astonishing defensive record and pitiful attack. Barcelona, by contrast, boasted the best attack in Europe, potentially the World. It was unfeasible that Barcelona could lose full stop.

To lose in the manner they did was beyond belief, beyond logic and now the team was beyond repair. They fell away after the World Cup, the Dream Team becoming something that would be remembered for its spectacular collapse rather than those 2 years of magic.

The manner in which Chelsea won last night was simply unfathomable for Barcelona's fans. The manner in which this season has suddenly imploded in up itself has been almost painful to watch. A week ago the Nou Camp appeared to be Barca's ace in the games against Real Madrid and Chelsea. Now it has looked like it's biggest hindrance.

The Copa Del Rey is all that remains against what is, when it chooses to be, a fine Athletic Bilbao side and could yet be a defeat that means the Barcelona would end the season trophy-less. For as inferior as the Dream Team looked in Greece they were still champions of Spain albeit through a ridiculous slice of good fortune from Deportivo missing a penalty in the final minute of the final day.

This side, which many would still argue is the best in the world and potentially the best club side in the history of football could yet end a season without winning anything. Would that title still hold? Would Lionel Messi still be the best player in the world if Cristiano Ronaldo goes on to win a league and Champions League double? For Barcelona the danger of falling down in almost eerily identical fashion is there.

But Barcelona now are not entering the end of an era yet. It took 2 years for Cruyff to leave after Athens and in that time they still managed a defeat over Manchester United so bad it prompted one player to say he would never set foot in the Nou Camp again. Barcelona are not suddenly about to drop off the face of the earth as much as it would seem likely after these two defeats. Their flaws have become almost blatantly obvious if not beyond repair. They are indeed fixable and have not fallen over themselves in the almost comical fashion the Dream team did.

Confidence is one thing. Barcelona displayed plenty of that in the run in to this game and rightly so. They are still the reigning champions of Spain and Europe. Yet the arrogance of the Dream Team did as much damage to them as the humbling scoreline did. Barcelona do not have those shortcomings. Guardiola is not being lauded as a fool in the wake of this defeat as Cruyff was. Xavi, Iniesta and Messi appear as harmonious as ever and there seems to be no signs of any  potential fall out similar to that of Stoichkov and Romario and even lesser still of a fall out between the players and Guardiola as Stoichkov did with Cruyff.

What this defeat serves to do rather than crush Guardiola's Barcelona, it should merely strengthen them. In some ways this defeat could come as a blessing. It may force Barcelona to develop something that for the majority of the game against Madrid and from the penalty miss on against Chelsea was both needed and missing; A plan B.

As brilliant as Barcelona are to watch it has become all to predictable. It is almost impossible to imagine a move that Barcelona created which did not involve sending the ball out to Dani Alves. In each case Dani Alves got the ball he tucked back inside and the Barcelona played around with it 20 yards out from the goal.

Barring a wonder goal like Iniesta's against Chelsea in 2009, there seemed to be no way in. There was no target for Barcelona to aim at. Chelsea very quickly became aware of what Barcelona were going to do and managed to snuff it out before any real threat developed. For the first time in Guardiola's reign as manager Barcelona looked blunt in attack. They did not look threatening at all. They looked like Arsenal in 2007. Barcelona had become Barcelona lite.

The lack of a target man is an issue. Messi is not a striker and so should not be played down the middle. The presence of Eto'o, Villa or even Zlatan Ibrahimovic would have made areal difference to Barcelona in both games. A new No.9 is needed, a move for Robin van Persie looks most likely and would fit Barcelona's style the best. The inclusion of Cesc Fabregas is also an issue. The signing of Fabregas has become almost identical to the signing of Juan Sebastian Veron.

Guardiola has had to disrupt his winning midfield formula of Busquets, Xavi and Iniesta to include his big signing. But Barcelona are not a team on the brink of destruction. Having an extra world class player should not cause them to completely implode although Guardiola must refrain from messing with a team to include one player. Signing a new striker should not be difficult with their financial power and undoubted pulling power. The dream of retaining the Champions League is over however the era of Barcelona is not.
Shane O'Mahony

Total articles: 5

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