Writer Sid Lowe audaciously claimed two years ago that Lionel Messi and Dani Alves are the world's two greatest footballers. (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
One of the unique privileges of being associated with SB Nation is the network of blogs that we have. Barca Blaugranes, the FC Barcelona site on the network, were kind enough to do a Q&A exchange with us ahead of Saturday's UEFA Champions League final between Manchester United and FC Barcelona. They have a vast team of writers on their site and I believe most of them contributed in terrificly answering the questions that our readers provided. A special thanks to Adi-Oula Sebastian and Arron Duckling, both of whom were tremendously helpful in organizing this Q&A exchange. Without further ado, here are your questions and the answers to them:
* Do you feel that Lionel Messi is the best ever player?
Arron Duckling: Give him a few more years, and almost certainly.
Shehryar Khan: I do! He's been instrumental in Barcelona's last three seasons and has repeatedly shown form and brilliance. I know he hasn't done much for the International side but I think he's still young and would have an opportunity come his way. At the moment, the best footballer by far!
* Do you believe FC Barcelona are the best team ever, as some people believe?
Arron Duckling: Win the Champions League, and we talk, until then, they cannot be regarded as the best ever.
Adi-Oula Sebastian: I think this question is kind of obsolete. Asking a group of die-hard Culés that will only lead to one answer yes. It might be because the current side has a legitimate claim or blatant bias on our part. Either way we like to believe Pep’s team is the finest in football, period.
* Does it worry you that the final will be at Wembley, with massive support expected for us?
Jose A.: It's a CL final so even though it's England, the players will be motivated to strike the upset. Guardiola probably has fond memories of Wembly, he will transmit this same feeling of comfort to his side. There are no favorites in one game, so even though Man Utd have more support, it doesn't mean that it can or will defeat Barcelona based on overwhelming support of country and home crowd. Football is independent of the crowd, the fans can't go into the field and play against Barcelona. Only Man Utd can be on the field with it's 11 vs Barcelona's 11 and at the end of the day luck and sheer will, prevail over all.
* What do you believe is the weakest part of your team? And where do you believe is our main threat (apart from Rooney)?
Bostjan Cernensek: When the team is healthy there aren't' really any big weaknesses, but as soon as somebody picks up an injury it expose Barça's biggest weakness: lack of depth. The rather small bench also results in a lot of playing time for the first team players, meaning some of them might be tired this late in the season.
The biggest threat from Manchester is obvousily Rooney, but if I can't pick him I'm going to the wingers. May it be Nani or Valencia, both of them could have a field day against Barcelona's offensive minded full backs, especially on the right side maned by Dani Alves. If Park plays I don't see him as such an offensive threat, despite his terrific passing, mainly because he might be forced to cover Alves all day.
Arron Duckling: The weakest part of the Barcelona team? Only because of the uber-talent available upfront, it has to be defence. However, statistically they are the best defence in Europe. Make of that what you will.
I disagree that Rooney is the main threat, but apart from him it is Valencia for me. His delivery is top-class and he plays like a good old-fashioned winger. No silky skills or any of that, just plain old good wing play. Remember the season where Rooney scored over 30? Well, Valencia assisted most of those.
* What is the status of Abidal's fitness?
Arron Duckling: Abidal is a weird one. He wasn’t expected to be back this season, let alone ready to start the Champions League final. Personally, I don’t think he is at 100%, but I have no doubt that he will start. Whether he completes the 90 minutes is another thing, but if he cannot, there is Maxwell or Adriano to fill the gap, and both have proved to be solid defenders when called upon.
* Barca has been receiving (heck, earning) enormous hype as one of the best ever teams. But they went down in the Copa del Rey, and if they lose this game, will that tarnish legacy for them?
Sabrina Dessipe: Losing the CL will be a much bigger deal than the Copa loss and the end of what was a super streak (of winning in general). Winning just one trophy this season won’t look good, considering our reputation. Not winning everything would take some getting used to. The legacy of this squad is already great and we want it to continue we don’t want the dominance to cease anytime soon. Not winning this may raise some doubts about Barca’s ability to maintain their dominance. No doubt some will throw around the words fluke or luck or cry conspiracy (por que?) in reference to Barca’s recent European
* The problem with dominant teams is often holding them together. Players age, or teams elsewhere start offering enormous fortunes for them, or they start getting inflated egos; there are a lot of forces that create churt to work against dynasties. Are you really worried about any of these with Barca?
Arron Duckling: Not at all. Each of the best players in our squad are home-grown. They have Barca in their DNA. Look at Cesc. He is in London, and all the talk is around him moving back to Barca. These players get paid a lot of money anyway, and Manchester City are the only team who could improve their salary. Would you want to move to Manchester from Barcelona? I doubt it.
The only thing I am worried about is Guardiola. His contract expires next year, and all signs point to it being his last. He has made a difference at this club, and I am unsure as to whether any other manager could replace him.
* How do you feel about your antics (and Real's for that matter) in the semi's? Do you ever over react to physical encounters? Or to put it bluntly, are you guilty, in your opinion, of simulation?
Jose A.: Well I don't think any rivalry in the EPL is as great as Barcelona vs Real. It's a fight between the Spanish nation state and the nation that is the Catalan people. Short of actual hostilities, this is as close to battle as it gets. Setting the precedent then, you can understand that a regular classico is an encountered of a heated nature, even more so when a passage to the CL final is at stake. It was a game that neither side wanted to loose and in which each side would try and win at all cost. It was never going to be a football spectacle because neither side would allow for football to take place. Each side strove to stake an advantage ,any claim, and to exploit it for benefit. On that night Barcelona took advantage of all the right conditions and achieved the edge over real. Simulation and gamesmanship is part of the game, if you don't posses all the tricks then you aren't a total footballer. I thought the Germans taught the English during the WC that fairness and sportsmanship doesn't matter when national honor is at stake, no one cares about the event's except the losers. Put yourself in such a position of elimination as the Germans or Barcelona, now can you honestly say you would have confessed to the goal or gamesmanship? Hardly.
* A cheeky Q... Which one is your favourite Icelandic volcano? :)
Shehryar Khan: The one that took off from Camp Nou, and is expected to explode on Saturday night. Guess what, it din't even originate from Iceland!
Sabrina Dessipe: Hekla is the one I can pronounce.
* In the games that Barcelona have lost this season, what would you say the reason was? Particularly, the loss to Hercules.
Bostjan Cernensek: Well, Barcelona only lost six games this season (they played 61). They lost one each in the Supercopa de España (Sevilla) and Champions League (Arsenal) and two apiece in the league (Hércules, Real Sociedad) and Copa del Rey (Real Betis, Real Madrid). Only in two of those games Barcelona fielded their best eleven (Arsenal and Real Madrid) The other four matches featured reserve players with several B team players, so there is your reason for those. The loss against Hércules was worrisome, especially because it was at the beginning of the season. I don't want to take anything from their win because they completely deserved it, but maybe if Xavi, Alves, Pedro, Busquets play Barcelona don't lose.
Barcelona should have won the game against Arsenal, considering they were the better team, and had more chances, but they didn't take them. In the end it came down to two lapses of concentration that resulted in two goals and the loss. For the loss in the Cup final against Real Madrid I blame Mourinho who outclassed Guardiola with his tactical set-up that Barcelona. Had Barcelona scored a goal from their early chances who knows what would have happen, but they didn't. Case closed
All six games have one thing in common though: Barcelona players were wasteful in front of the net. Most of Barcelona's "struggles" can be attributed to that flaw.
* What're your thoughts on the reports that Macherano, or possibly, Abidal, will line up next to Pique? To further expand, this likely matches up Puyol with an in-form Valencia... thoughts?
Shehryar Khan: I'm just a little worried about Mascherano being at center-back. I'm hoping Abidal is fit enough to play! Macherano is tackle-prone, he can't handle it!
Jose A.: Puyol is Puyol, meaning he is always in form regardless of playing time. Puyol is a defender who has played against some of the best players of the past and present, against legends. Your talking of a man who played against Zidane, Henry, Raul, Figo, Ronaldo El fenomeno, Forlan, Aguero, Higuain, CR7, Torres, Villa, Fabiano. Puyol has seen it all, and unlike some players mentioned he is still around. What Valencia has in form, Puyol has in experience. There is a reason Spain and Barcelona have achieved great things over the last years, and Puyol is definitely one of the reasons why. His ability to plug gaps, read the game, and get physical when necessary are what makes him such a great defender. This hasn't been accomplished recently but has taken more than a decade to have a defender of his caliber.
* A few years back, Xavi was criminally underrated but he's finally getting his just due. Is Busquets next in line for this? The holding midfielder seems brilliant tactically; his positioning is tremendous and his passing prowess is only beginning to be recognized by the masses. How do you rate his importance in comparison to the more recognized stars of Messi, Xavi, Iniesta, etc?
Shehryar Khan: One of the most important players for me! When our Barcelona side attacks in numbers, he's the one sitting at the top of midfield. A great player and a future star.
* Messi's role as a "false-nine" is difficult to solve for most teams, including in the '09 final when United had no clue when he played central and Eto'o played out wide. In your opinion, what's the best tactical ploy to counter Messi's deep positioning? Man-mark with a center-back, or with a holding midfielder, or zonally mark? No has seemingly figured this out.
Bostjan Cernensek: That's a tough one. Coaches get paid big bucks for coming up with a plan to stop Messi, but not many succeeded. Man-marking usually fails miserably, although Real Madrid's Pepe did a good job, but I don't think Manchester has anybody that can play such a physical game against Messi, in my opinion even a healthy Fletcher can't. For some reason I believe Messi struggles the most when he faces a zonal system when defenders (at least two) close down on him while the pass to Messi is still on its way.
* In my humble opinion, Jose Mourinho got his tactics right in the 1st leg of the semi-final tie. I'm of the opinion that Pepe's sending off changed the entire 2-legged tie. Thoughts on Mourinho's approach and on Pepe's sending off?
Jose A.: We'll it was bound to happen. What I mean by this is that if your team is not tactically comfortable defending, and overly relies on shutting out the opposition by pure physical play, then your bound to run into card trouble. Mourinho's attempt at predicting sending offs was simply his way to try and influence the refs to try and achieve some leniency as he knew his side had nothing to defend themselves with against Barcelona, other than overly physical solutions. In Inter Mourinho had experienced players who knew how to tackle, how to read the game, and how to dispossess opponents such as Lucio, Samuel, Zanetti. I dare say Real Madrid has no defender of such caliber and therefore Mourinho's tactic was to lie deep and discourage Barcelona's attacks with rough and rash tackling. He got his tactics wrong in that he though Real Madrid is Inter, and it is not. He also made the mistake of being able to influence the Copa Del Rey refs to show Real leniency for terrible tackling which UEFA referee's simply would not stand for. The fact gamesmanship is brought up to describe what Barcelona did next is hardly an insult. Any team would of taken advantage of Reals stupid and rash defending to gain an advantage because any team would see that besides hits, they can't actually defend as footballers should