The dramatic late ending to Celtic’s heroic, and high quality, performance at the Camp Nou on Tuesday night was heart-wrenching for any non-Barcelona (or Rangers) fan with an iota of emotion. Even after the dust settles, the Scottish champions are likely to feel that the sting of cruelty blocks out the credit earned in a sterling display.
Apologies if ‘heart-wrenching’ seems a little too gushing. However, we must absolutely not use the adjectives ‘unlucky’ or ‘unfortunate’ in the context of a decisive late strike from Barcelona this season. It has already happened far too often to suggest that fate or fortune come into it.
The succession of Pep Guardiola by his erstwhile assistant Tito Vilanova might have dulled our collective instinct to analyse Barcelona’s brilliance. It’s easy to assume that nothing has changed at the club with Vilanova – as the other half of the same brain – simply checking that the ship is continuing to move in the same direction.
That’s not quite true. While Barcelona, much as Spain, had developed the ability to use possession as a measure of control and containment, rather than all-out attack, the desire to do so seems to have diminished under Vilanova. The cavalier streak that has been apparent in the season’s clásicos to date and most recently in Saturday’s thrilling 5-4 win at Deportivo La Coruña was again on display against Celtic.
It is to be expected that Barça poured forward in the second half as they sought to break the deadlock. Yet the abandon with which they sought to do so still elicited a double-take. Neil Lennon’s side had opportunities to rumble their hosts on the break, primarily through Vincent Wanyama and Gary Hooper, which a lack of composure at least partly informed by tiredness prevented them from taking.
For the home side to maintain that high-intensity approach and still be able to summon a little extra to snatch a game at the end is really something. It’s easy to overlook, but Barcelona are physical – as well as technical – titans.
Having run further than any other player on the field during the 94 minutes of the contest, left-back Jordi Alba was the man to steal in at the back post and toe home Adriano’s cross for the winner. The run recalled the zest with which he steamed past Italy’s gasping defenders to smash home the second goal for Spain in the Euro 2012 final.
This was no fluke, but part of a pattern. On September 22nd, Barcelona scored twice in the last three minutes to see off the determined challenge of visiting Granada. Even more impressively they reprised it on the very next weekend, turning around a deficit in the dying minutes to win 3-2 at Sevilla – one of the most robust sides you will see in European league this season.
Premier League watchers have at last been coming away from a previously one-dimensional definition of physical power - it doesn’t necessarily mean players have to measure 6’2’ tall and weigh 13 stone. If the success of Luka Modric, David Silva, Juan Mata and more proves anything, it is that it's no longer necessary to be built like a bison to bring one’s influence to bear, even in central areas of the pitch.
In short, stamina is as much a part of Barcelona’s magic as their style. Their stars may not be beefcakes, but their dramatic late interventions week-on-week are continuing to change our perceptions of what strength on a football pitch is really all about.
Barcelona remain 3.80 favourites to lift this season's Champions League.
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