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Why Barcelona are favourites to win the Champions League
By Tom Wellman
Another season has begun in similar fashion for Barcelona as records tumble and they head the table undefeated after 8 games. They’ve won a trophy already and look set to dominate Spain for another year. A football novice could have predicted Barcelona’s near identical start to last season when they won 7 successive games with a new coach as they are once again among the favourites for the Champions League.
Despite losing in the semi-finals for the past two seasons, Barcelona have the quality to ensure they step up to collect the trophy for the fourth time in eight years. In some ways they are a stronger force than last season, most notably with the signing of Neymar, but also with Alexis Sanchez and Cesc Fabregas’ rise in form. There are plenty of reasons to assume that Barcelona can go all the way this season but some potential problems are easy to forecast.
Lionel Messi has struggled with injury during 2013 which is an alarming sign for Barcelona. It wasn’t until the game against PSG in the quarter-finals last year that they realised the impact Messi has on this side as Tito Vilanova brought the Argentine on at 1-0 down when he could barely walk. Barca were poor that evening but it changed with Messi’s arrival. The team inhaled confidence instantly through none of Messi’s doing and eventually progressed on away goals. Messi gives the team and fans so much extra by just being present that it has enabled Barcelona to be near-invincible for so long.
Injuries are becoming more frequent for Messi which could easily have the same effect as last season even though Tata Martino has been more active in giving his star a rest. The team aren’t the same without him and Neymar was only bought to play alongside Messi, not to replace him. There is enough quality to win without Messi but his impact is like having 12 men on their side.
For Barca to win the Champions League they must somehow eliminate Bayern Munich, now managed by Pep Guardiola. It was clear from their game against Manchester City that Bayern are comfortably alongside Barca as one of Europe’s best sides and Guardiola has arguably made them stronger. There are similarities between Guardiola’s Bayern and Barcelona in that they like to keep the ball and put plenty of emphasis on the midfield, but he gives Bayern something extra.
With Guardiola now working against Barca, Bayern have vital information on the way their greatest rivals for the Champions League play. It is now down to Barca to adapt to that or change to minimalise the inside knowledge Bayern now have. After the way they were trounced 7-0 on aggregate last season, Barcelona know they have to alter something to avoid a repeat of that embarrassment again.
Since that loss, Barcelona have strengthened their attacking department but have failed to add to their wayward defence. Captain Carlos Puyol remains out injured and is unlikely to be as consistent as he once was whilst Gerard Pique and Javier Mascherano have been caught out for their defensive attributes in the past. Efforts were made to sign David Luiz and Thiago Silva during the summer but after neither could be lured no one else was added. The problem at the back is startling and already the club have conceded three goals from corner kicks this season. Being forced to rely on Marc Bartra or Adriano at centre-back is unwise if Barca do face Bayern at some point this season.
As much as the race for La Liga has been between themselves and Real Madrid in recent seasons, Barcelona face a similar challenge with Bayern Munich in Europe. There is no other team who can give Barca a beating similar to the ones they dish out on their La Liga opponents. If they lose to another team before the final, the likelihood that it will because of failing to strengthen their obvious defensive frailty and nurse Messi back to his former self is massive. They are their own biggest obstacle and Guardiola probably knows it too.