It seems inevitable that it is now the end of an era for the Blaugrana

So the dust has settled on what was one of the greatest games in Champions League history. It was true theatre and from start to finish was a joy to behold. It may be now the end of an era for Blaugrana

Before the game I believed that Barcelona would qualify, I felt they were the better side, at home and also believed that the most important trophy this season for Guardiola was retaining the Champions League, which meant they would give their all and play their best in order to reach the final. No side has won it back to back and I am positive that Guardiola wanted to end his managerial career at Camp Nou by making history. Yet, it was not to be and Barcelona really only have themselves to blame. 

This was not like the Inter semi final, where Inter had no interest in scoring or even going near Barca’s goal. A two goal cushion was more secure than the one that Chelsea went in with; meaning Chelsea needed to devise a tactic to enable them to score, while being organised defensively to not concede many. And yet, there were so many similarities to that previous semi final; Barca being behind from the first leg, the away side going down to 10 men and a battle between total football and catenaccio. There was something of de ja vu to this game.

The final was there for the taking

The reason Barcelona lost has a lot to do with what they did, or importantly didn’t do, last week at Stamford Bridge. The amount of chances which were wasted was pure sacrilege, they were gifted with the opportunity to be leading from the first leg, and yet they threw their chance away.

Yet, the final was still open for them. They rested players for the Clasico in order to be ready for the second leg, clearly indicating that the focus was not the league. How much that loss against Madrid had on the players and on their feelings of invincibility is unknown; perhaps they doubted theirselves, yet I would imagine that they were told that the key was Chelsea, that making the final was the only priority, everything else paling in insignificance.

People have questioned the tactics deployed in each of the past three games, questioning Guardiola really for the first time in these big games. He opted last night for a back three, in my opinion to bring out the height of Pique defensively and also in his attacking play. As Guardiola shows, his priority is in attack andthe key to last night was Pique’s role. In the past two games Barcelona lacked defenders driving into midfield, breaking the lines, in order to gain territorial advantage and to overload midfield areas. Last night the instruction was clear, Pique was the libero, he was there was to bring out the ball from defence and drive into midfield, in his short time on the pitch he did this numerous times and the tactic could be seen to be advantageous to Barca's success. His concussion was a major blow to the tactic, a tactic which I am sure Pep convinced his players was the key to qualifying; just look at Puyol’s reaction when Pique came off, he knew that was a major blow to the game plan and perhaps a turning point in the game.

However, the arrival of Alves seemed to improve affairs for the home side, and his run to set up the pass to Cuenca who assisted Busquets appeared a major relief to everyone. And Messi’s best work came with his assist to Iniesta and the game at that moment was over.

Of course, sandwiched between these goals was John Terry’s ridiculous and selfish action which let his side down and fans down, and which realistically should have killed the game. At the time it happened it appeared that was game over, especially after losing Cahill to injury. The drama was immense. The thing which annoyed more than anything was that the focus, if Barca had gone through, would have been again on decisions and not on the game. As it happens, the game has been the focus and Terry has been made to look more of a fool because of it.

Incidents which changed the game

The most important incidents of the match happened before and after half time. Frank Lampard, who in these two legs has been remarkably disciplined in his role, tactically excellent and has assisted two goals, put through Ramires, who with Lampard has been tremendous and with a finish befitting of Messi, planted seeds of doubt into the minds of the Barca players. Chelsea had their vital goal, one which would prove to be very important.

Personally I felt that goal would actually reinvigorate Barca, would give Pep ammo to tell his players that this tie is not over and that they need to continue their high level performance. I did not think that Ramires’ goal would be such a blow to Barca’s mentality, I did not believe that they had the weak mentality which became apparent. Yet, they did. That goal effectively knocked that belief out of them. Amazingly, I predicted 5-1 to Barca and believe that I would have been proven correct if not for the little maestro falling to his kryptonite.

Choking under pressure

Messi deserves his accolade as the world’s best, he has dominated world football in the past four years like no one else; scoring vital goals at vital times and taking this side to the top of world football. Yet, everyone, even the world’s best, struggles against someone. And it would appear that Chelsea take Messi out of his comfort zone. He has had chances which he would normally take with ease, yet in the first half Messi forced a shot wide with his right without his normal composure and later when he was through one on one he lacked the clincality which he is famous for; no chip, no pass, no confidence, he forced his chance. And so the penalty didn’t seem right, he was too uptight, not loose enough to take this responsibility on in a game where he hadn’t been his flowing self. You could see it in his eyes before he took it, he was not confident. That miss was the turning point, it garnered belief in Chelsea that this could be their night and when you look at the reaction of Barca, it was almost like, without Messi, we cannot win.

The game seemed to fly after that and although Messi had a great chance late on, Cech appeared to deflect anything his way. The efforts from Chelsea must be applauded, they got by on some luck for sure, yet it was the combined efforts of the whole team which got them through, a truly heroic effort which only ever happens once a season. Di Matteo got his tactics, substitutions and motivation right. Players like Ramires, Meireles, Ivanovic played their own finals, knowing (some of them) that they wouldn’t get the chance to play in Munich. Performances resembling that of Roy Keane against Juve. And it seemed like the fairytale really was destined when Torres finished the game off in the dying minutes. Messi’s reaction said it all, head in his hands, he had choked when it mattered and he had cost his side the chance to retain their crown. The accolades and acclaim of being the world's best provide many riches and fame, yet the the daggers and judgements will be out when you don't achieve what's expected of you.

A time of change and reflection

There has been much talk of Madrid taking over the mantle of Spain’ best, and I could not say who will make it through to face Chelsea. Yet what is becoming evident is that Barcelona are at the end of an era. It has been an amazing one, which has seen them dominate football like no other team in the past twenty years, which has seen them inspire and enliven imaginations of children and adults alike. Yet, like all good things, they must come to an end.

There is no one way to play football, in the senior game the only thing that matters is the result. Pep Guardiola attempted to take this Barcelona side to another level this season, he aimed to achieve what Michels and Cryuff had wished decades ago, the pinnacle of total football, the 3-4-3. Michels, called the formation “spectacular but risky”. And there have been times this season when the formation has produced amazing results, 5-0 against Villareal for instance. Yet it has resulted in disappointing results too, too many draws and perhaps a deluded belief that his style was the only way to win things and Barcelona could just turn up and win games. 

The new style consists of too much possession and not enough penetration, Guardiola’s dream is a team of midfielders, and in some games, it shows. They have taken possession football to another level, yet at the same time have appeared to neglect the most important factor in football, scoring goals.  In my opinion, last season they were the best, by a long way. The defeats of Madrid and United were spectacular and they appeared unbeatable, in the big games especially. You can argue that they have scored 170 goals this season, that Messi has scored 63 goals himself, yet there is something about this side which has lost the feeling of invincibility.

So what has changed? Firstly the change of formation, the ultimate dream of the 3-4-3 has not been as beneficial to the side as was wished. Secondly, Guardiola needed to buy a defender last summer. Instead he brought Fabregas, it was more of a symbol than a requirement. It was like he wanted to bring all the pieces back together to complete the family, yet was Cesc needed? In my opinion he could have waited a couple more seasons. What was key was a central defender. And that has been their downfall.

If you want to play attacking football and overload in attacking areas then you will always be vulnerable to counter attacks and being exposed. Last season Pique and Puyol were focused and fit. This season one has lost his way in the world of celebrity and the other has been caught up with age. As good as Mascherano has been as central defender, he will never be a world class and he his vulnerabilities have caught him out. The goal of Ramires, Ronaldo and Drogba’s last week  all came because the defence was too slow, it was exposed and couldn’t recover.

These goals also highlight what has been lost with Barcelona this season, their ability to press and deny counter attack opportunities. In the past several seasons their work rate in attacking areas has been the key for their success, and it is no surprise that as results have turned for the worse, the work rate and high pressing game has been slower and less effective. Some reasons for this can be pointed at the fact that Barca have not been able to rest effectively in the past several seasons. A big problem of last summer was the lack of pre season, which was more of a marketing operation than a season preparation. For this reason, it is no surprise that Barcelona look jaded now.

The end of an era

The unfortunate truth about their elimination is that this was the last chance for this squad to win the Champions League; Pep talks about cycles, about teams having to be evolved and coaches having to move on in order to maintain high standards and keep players focused. Players like Puyol and Xavi worked harder than anyone else last night because they knew this was their last chance, that they have been on the brink of ending their elite careers. It is a shame to say it but we may have seen the last of them for Barcelona in the Champions League. What an amazing four years for them, Barcelona and Spain. They have won it all and done it with style.

I am certain that it is the end for Guardiola too, he is a truly world class coach who has shown he is the best in the world right now, however he has spoken of the need to change managers in Spain every three to four years and of his want to spend more time with his family, as he hasn't signed a new contract, a year sabbatical seems the likely option. Expect to see him in England next, with my belief that Old Trafford is his best option. 

It is never pleasing to see something so great come to an end, yet I believe that is the case with Barcelona now. They will be still be one of the best teams around, yet I believe that their era of domination and invincibility is over. They have been brought back from the stars back to Earth. 

There is a rich history to FC Barcelona and they have an excellent academy which is developing players each season, the future is bright. However, for this current squad, it seems like an obituary; I am proud to have witnessed seeing this side dominate football and appreciate everything they have given the sport of football in the past four years especially with their visionary coach Guardiola. The world of football may not get to see this brilliance again, yet football is a better place with their influence, teams have improved in order to emulate and compete with this side and we have many things to be grateful for in this Barcelona era.