It took second half goals from David Villa and Lionel Messi but eventually Barcelona got back to winning ways on Saturday night. The win comes at the end of a rare week for the Catalan club, one in which they not only lost a match but thoroughly deserved to as well. The midweek defeat against AC Milan not only leaves them with a mountain to climb if they are to progress through to the Champions League quarter finals but it leaves bigger questions about the direction of the club and their dominance of European football.
While not at their best against Sevilla, Barcelona did prove they are still capable of some beautiful football and digging out results when it’s needed most. Defeat would have signalled that their struggles in Milan weren’t a once off. Despite the win however, things are not much rosier than they were before the game. While the title is in the bag, the trophy they want above all others is much further away from their grasp than many expected before the trip to Italy. While Barcelona’s record in the league has been impressive all season long, their general level of play is down on that of a couple seasons ago. Sanchez has had the worst form of his career over the last few months and Barca’s reliance on Messi has gone to a level now where they wouldn’t just score less goals without him, they might struggle to score at all. And their defence has appeared far weaker this season than their massive points total in the league would suggest. In short, something isn’t right.
So are Barcelona missing a leading presence behind the scenes? Was their defeat to Milan down to complacence, luck or was it down to the absence of their head coach Tito Vilanova? It is sometimes thought that great teams like Barcelona are easy to deal with and can almost manage themselves. And sometimes from the outside it can appear that way. But if you asked the Barcelona players why they have been so successful over the last few seasons, they would point to the influence and drive of Pep Gaurdiola. Of course having Messi and co on your team doesn’t hurt either, but having a man at the top that the players respect and respond to is something that should not be overlooked. And with Pep gone, now is the time when Tito should have been showing us and his squad just how good a manager he is. This was his time to show if he could step up and fill the shoes of Pep and lead the club back to European and domestic success. And while signs early on in the season were good, it’s now at the crunch end of the season where a manager really shows what he can do. Now is the time when the success of one training session, team talk or tactical change can be the difference between the greatest of successes and the lowest of the lows. Unfortunately due to ill health Vilanova is missing when his team need him the most and we can only hope that he gets better soon and makes a full recovery.
Barcelona will be without a head coach for the return leg against Milan at the Nou Camp. It’s impossible to say what kind of impact this will have on the Barcelona players or on the tie overall. But Barcelona will not just need a big win against the Italian giants if they are to progress, they will need a defining performance. One that shows that there time at the top of the tree is not over and they are not a fading force in football’s elite club competition. Barcelona need to beat Milan not just for the sake of this year’s Champions League and their ambitions in it, but also to help shape the narrative as a club in the years to come. With the rise of German football and Bayern Munich’s emergence one more as a powerhouse, Barcelona need a show of strength once again. They need Messi to be the greatest player in the world and for Xavi and Iniesta to control a game like they used to in years gone by. They need the defence to play together as one and to keep Milan out for the full 90 minutes. But maybe most of all they need leadership and focus. Whether that comes from on the field or off it. There can be no mistakes in the return leg. Barcelona used all theirs up in the first leg.