Barcelona cannot be despondent for missing Champions League double
In the end it came down to fine margins and for the Catalans, that meant the absence of Andrés Iniesta and the misfiring Zlatan Ibrahimovic
In a perverse kind of way Pep Guardiola has had the hardest job in football this season. How on earth do you follow a treble? Where do you begin to improve a team that smashed record after record into oblivion? The year 2009 finished with an unprecedented sextuple, as domestic, European and intercontinental super cups were stuffed into the trophy cabinet. It was almost getting silly.
Arsène Wenger called it well when he spoke – both admiringly and warily – about Guardiola starting his coaching career with dessert. After an enormous helping of death by chocolate laced with champagne sorbet, how do you easily go back to bread and butter?
It would be madness for Barcelona to feel too despondent about this season, even though two of the three main trophies have slipped away and the third – La Liga – remains as tight as a snare drum with Real Madrid trailing Barcelona by a mere point. The fallout of a Champions League semi-final defeat always feels like the end of the world, but Guardiola surely knows there is not a lot suddenly wrong with this team.
It is all about fine margins. Last season, Andrés Iniesta tilted a semi-final with a thunderbolt as the sands of stoppage time had almost run out. Last night, a clearance whacked Yaya Touré on the hands en route to Bojan Krkic and another theatrical climax changed course. Guardiola may still be relatively new in the coaching game but he has experienced enough top-class football to know that referees, gamesmanship, the particular bounce of a ball, a slice of fortune or an ill wind all play their part.
That is not to say that Barça's exit is just down to how the cards fell. And it does not mean there are not questions that need cool contemplation. The main one probably concerns the expensive acquisition of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, an enigmatic player whose suitability to the Barça style remains dubious. Whatever the political subplots that hastened the departure of Samuel Eto'o, that eye-opening summer swap deal with Inter has shifted the balance that was so unstoppable for the Catalan club last season.
Then, the attacking force of Barça seemed to have more tentacles. With Xavi and Andrés Iniesta pulling the strings behind Leo Messi, Eto'o and Thierry Henry, the threat was divided fairly well between five strands of perpetual footballing motion and forward thought.
The absence of Iniesta has obviously been keenly felt over this semi-final, and that only emphasised how Barça's offensive play was dominated by two players this time – Xavi and Messi. Inter were not terribly worried about Pedro, while Zlatan merely drifted around looking ineffectual.
The statistics, for what they are worth, made this the most one-sided Champions League knockout game in terms of possession that anyone had ever calculated. But what does that actually mean, considering Inter were perfectly comfortable with letting Barcelona play keep ball at a safe distance, knowing they had done most of the damage at San Siro?
Barça's achilles heel has long been teams who come from an ideologically opposing planet. In the last two seasons, their frustrations have been most evident against Chelsea and Inter. If Zlatan was supposed to represent plan B, then perhaps it may be time to consider a plan C for this type of encounter. Either that, or Barça have to accept that even the most talented humans cannot guarantee happy endings all of the time.
Sure, it hurts because they were so looking forward to a final at the Bernabéu. And yes, it's infuriating because they looked like the best bet to achieve that elusive feat of retaining club football's top prize for the first time since Arrigo Sacchi's Milan conquered in 1989 and 1990.
Defending this most beguiling of titles never used to be so onerous. In fact it was the opposite. When the European Cup was just a baby, it was common practice to retain the trophy. Real Madrid won the first five. In the 1960s both Benfica and Inter won in successive seasons. In the 1970s Ajax and Bayern Munich were triple champions, then Liverpool and Nottingham Forest hoisted two in a row.
If we are talking about Bayern or Inter retaining the Champions League this time next year, then Guardiola might be right to have a more serious rethink. But absolutely not before.