The last time Barcelona were in a Champions League final against Manchester United heads were scratched as to how a team without equal in Spain could be stopped in Rome.
First came the scouting reports detailing their apparent weakness in the air, urging Manchester United to pepper their 2009 final opponents' penalty area with high balls to expose the flaw. Then came that Leo Messi header, the 5ft 7in Argentine leaping several feet to head past an aghast Edwin van der Sar – Barça having done to United what they were expected to do to them ... another myth exploded.
Too weak for a battle, too reliant on Messi, generally poor in the air and with a dodgy goalkeeper – Barcelona's frailties have all been listed and then delisted as they keep on winning.
But despite their march towards another league title this season, they have been beaten twice in the league, both home and away, and on both occasions by struggling opposition. They also lost their first final of the season, against Real Madrid in the Spanish Cup, where they were outplayed in the first half, failed to score in 120 minutes and conceded in extra time. Jose Mourinho; Real Sociedad manager Martin Lasarte; and since-sacked Hercules coach Esteban Vigo have all outmanoeuvred Pep Guardiola at least once.
The first team to beat Barça were Hercules last September. They had just been promoted and were given no chance in Guardiola's side's first home game of the campaign. "We tried to force them inside at every opportunity and make the pitch as small as possible," Vigo said. "We did our best to put them under pressure but without losing our shape. We played two up front and it was the job of two forwards to make sure their central defenders were not comfortable. We played two banks of four and tried to leave very little space between the two lines."
Reducing the wide open spaces of Wembley and not allowing Gerard Pique and company time to play out from the back will be two aims of Barcelona's rivals in the final, butVigo also pointed to less subtle plans. "You spend large periods of the game without the ball so staying focused is very important," he said. "We only conceded eight fouls in the whole match – that's practically a miracle against Barcelona."
Mourinho would vouch for that. In his last six games against Barça he has finished with 11 men on his side only once. No team in the world is better set up to punish an opponent playing with a man fewer. "Mission impossible" was how he described it. "They get you on that carousel and they make you dizzy with their passing," was the image Sir Alex Ferguson conjured before the 2009 final.
Vigo is the first to admit his victory owed something to a Barcelona off-day, and Real Sociedad benefited similarly from playing them just as they were between clasico semi-final legs.
The defeat with the most merit remains Real's conquest of Barcelona in Valencia on 20 April to win the Spanish Cup. "I don't have the magic potion to beat Barça," Mourinho said after that game but he knows he came as close as anyone to striking kryptonite that evening.
Real Madrid mirrored Barcelona's formation at the Mestalla with their own 4-3-3. They tried to double up on exposed full-backs Dani Alves and Adriano as often as possible. The plan was also to target the pair on crosses. Pepe rose above Alves in the first half to head on to the bar and Ronaldo beat Adriano in the air for his extra-time winner.
Another tactic used that night and strangely deployed less effectively in the semi-final first leg was the use of a defensive midfielder as a search-and-destroy ball winner. Could Anderson do for Manchester United what Pepe did for Real Madrid in the Copa del Rey final?
A controlled physical approach gives Barcelona's opponents a fighting chance but it should not be forgotten how well they stand up for themselves either by giving as good as they get or by exaggerating injuries and surrounding officials.
"Barcelona don't like it up 'em" is now as redundant an attitude as planning to neutralise Messi. "There is no point man-marking him. You man-mark him, then you have to man-mark Xavi, and [David] Villa and Iniesta and Pedro," said Vigo. And he makes one last, very obvious point: "You have to score, because you know they will."Reuse content