How to stop the Barcelona carousel leaving you dizzy

Narrow the pitch, press the full-backs – and don't forget to score
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The Independent Online

The last 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. A Xavi Hernandez cross had the 5ft 7in Argentine leaping several feet off the ground 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, with a 100-point haul still possible, 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 Barcelona were cash-strapped Hercules last September. They had just been promoted and were given no chance in Guardiola's side's first home game of the new campaign. "We tried to force them inside at every opportunity and make the pitch as small as possible," Esteban 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 come out playing from the back will be two aims of Barcelona's rivals in the final, but Esteban also points to less subtle game plans. "You spend large periods of the game without the ball so staying focused is very important," he says. "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.

Esteban is the first to admit his victory owed something to a Barcelona off-day as much as anything his former side did, and Real Sociedad benefited similarly from playing the Spanish Champions just as they were between clasico semi-final legs.

The defeat with the most merit remains Real Madrid's conquest of Barcelona in Valencia on 20 April to claim 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. It may not be true that they are weak in the air as a team. Pique, Carles Puyol, Sergio Busquets and even Messi can use their heads but Alves is not picked for his clearance ratios, much less for his ability to head away danger.

Another tactic used that night and strangely deployed less effectively in the semi-final first leg was the use of a defensive midfielder as an aggressive search-and-destroy ball winner. Could Anderson do for Manchester United what Pepe did for Real Madrid in the Copa del Rey final?

Lassana Diarra did a similar job for Mourinho on Tuesday with Pepe suspended. He was so outstanding in the role the heavily biased Barcelona-supporting paper Sport moaned the following day: "Diarra did nothing other than kick people. It is a shame such players exist."

A controlled physical approach gives Barcelona's opponents a fighting chance but to lean too heavily on the theory that they can be bullied out of possession is to forget how well they stand up for themselves either by giving as good as they receive or by exaggerating injuries and surrounding match officials. Streetwise players such as Busquets are capable of doing all three things in the same game.

"Barcelona don't like it up 'em" is now as redundant an attitude as planning to neutralise Messi. As brilliant as he was in the first leg, others picked up the baton in the second game. "There is no point man-marking him. You man-mark him, then you have to man-mark Xavi, and Villa and Iniesta and Pedro," Esteban says, name-checking the two players who combined brilliantly for Barcelona's equaliser on Tuesday.

And cutting through all the science he also makes one last very obvious point: "You have to score, because you know they will.

"You can talk about the various ways of trying to stop them from scoring but in all likelihood they will still score. So although it sounds obvious, you have to make sure you do, too." Something Mourinho's Madrid failed to do at the Santiago Bernabeu last week, costing them a place in the final.

Rare reverses: Barça's defeats this season

Barcelona 0-2 Hercules

11 Sept 2010, La Liga

Pep Guardiola omitted Xavi, Dani Alves and Pedro as Nelson Valdez's goals ens-ured an away win for the promoted side.

Real Betis 3-1 Barcelona

19 Jan 2011, Copa del Rey quarter-final

Having led 5-0 from the first leg over Second Division opposition, a largely second-string Barcelona looked complacent.

Arsenal 2-1 Barcelona

16 Feb 2011, Champions League last 16

Despite dominating possession and with Lionel Messi having a host of chances, two late goals from Robin van Persie and Andrei Arshavin gave Arsenal the edge.

Barcelona 0-1 Real Madrid

20 Apr 2011, Copa del Rey final

Carles Puyol's absence was clearly felt as Real recorded their first victory over their rivals in three years. Cristiano Ronaldo scored the winner with an extra-time header at the Mestalla.

Real Sociedad 2-1 Barcelona

30 Apr 2011, La Liga

Fielded a weakened team ahead of their Champions League semi-final. Despite taking the lead, inexperience told as they conceded a late penalty.

Michael Butler

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