Barcelona’s Champions League victory against AC Milan last night went from nervous pre-game chatter about the airborne might of ex-Barcelona striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic, spearheading Milan’s attack, to a rout. Barcelona had only managed a draw against Milan last week, but for the second half of the tie, at home at Camp Nou, the Catalans won 3-1, and might have put a few more goals past.
There would inevitably be some debate, since the first two goals, both by Messi, came from penalties. Milan stiffly protested the second in particular, although replays on television showed that it was, indeed, a proper penalty. Milan could not blame the ref. They had managed to silence Barcelona, far and away the best team in football over the past few years, during the first half of the tie. Barcelona was nervous, with some players and manager Pep Guardiola articulating their particular fear of former teammates Ibrahimovic, a man with a score to settle. Ibra is huge, towering above all of the Barcelona players save Gerard Pique. He has the physical width of a basketball center, muscled and lean, but has incredible short-burst speed and agility. Barcelona knows how to deal with the sleight jinkers on Milan’s side, because they are themselves a team of sleight jinkers. Robinho, Kevin-Prince Boateng, and Pato did not frighten them. But Ibra did, so it was imperative that they shut him down, for morale as well as for the scoreboard.
But Barca did not pull themselves inward and play defensive football. Were Milan to score at Barcelona’s stadium (each away goal has added value in the Champions League), then Barca would be obliged to score twice, as a tie would count as a win for the team playing away. Two Messi penalties and an Iniesta shot from close-range were enough to outdo a goal from Milan’s Nocerino.
What was particularly impressive, despite the talk of nerves, is how Guardiola is willing to integrate youth players into the main squad, not just to give them experience here and there, but in the midst of huge, make-or-break games. Thiago Alcantara has featured regularly, but is in his first year with the main Barcelona team. He missed a golden chance after a diamond-plated pass from Messi, but he played well during the game. The biggest surprise was that Isaac Cuenca started. In the Champions League. In a must-win game. Cuenca is a promising player but has hardly played this season, and is fresh from the youth league. Instead of installing a tried-and-true player like Adriano, Guardiola threw a youngster, relatively inexperienced, into perhaps the biggest game of the season. Why?
Guardiola is particularly good at doing what many managers fear to—integrating youth. Perhaps he can get away with this, because Barcelona is so dominant. 9 regulars plus 2 youngsters can and does work out for them. But many managers would be nervous to do so. Had Barcelona lost, the manager would have been blamed for integrating those very players.
But Barcelona’s player development is the envy of world football. They produce so many top-level youth players that they can sell off even highly promising ones without feeling the pinch. Oriol Romeu, their leading defensive midfielder in the Sergio Busquets role, was sold to Chelsea. Bojan Krkic, who would be a starting forward on just about any team in the world, was loaned for two years to Roma with an option to buy (although as I’m a huge Roma fan, I’m not complaining). Jeffren was likewise shipped off.
And yet they are left with plenty to call on. Thiago Alcantara is a powerhouse in the midfield, with solid defensive acumen and great offensive skills and vision. He has played most often for the regular team. Isaac Cuenca can play as a wing midfielder or fullback, and proved himself up to the standard in yesterday’s match. But perhaps the most explosive youngster is Christian Tello. He is absolutely electric on the pitch, with the sort of ball-handling moves that leave defenders flat out on the ground. He recalls a young Ronaldinho, and whips in off the left wing with blistering pace. Sometimes it is hard to distinguish players when the level on the pitch is so high. Messi of course is an obvious exception, as is Cristiano Ronaldo. But the relative merits of, say, James Milner vs Adam Johnson are not always evident to the inexpert eye. Tello, by contrast, lights up the field. He has missed some golden goal chances he has created. Those will come with time. But for now he provides a great treat for spectators, when introduced.
Hats off to Guardiola for having the cojones to play two youngsters in the biggest game of the season so far, and to come out ahead. Guardiola’s integration of youth is more akin to Major League Baseball, where promising Triple-A level minor leaguers can make the starting lineup with a good spring training. Other clubs would do well to emulate Barcelona’s youth movement.