It has been said that the mighty Barcelona's undoing could come from a more physical side. Could Stoke City rise to this challenge?
We’ve all done it at some stage. Pose a hypothetical and often incomprehensible scenario to our fellow co-workers or a friend down the pub in order to back-up an already suspect football related argument. Compared a team of the past to one of the present, constructed a parallel universe where all shots hitting crossbar and posts go in, removed a key player from a club and modified their future results accordingly or, in Andy Gray’s case, cherry picked teams of vastly different stature and speculated on the outcome.
Last year, amidst the usual Barcelona hype came the gruff sound of a Scotsman questioning whether Messi and his band of nimble pass-master midgets could ever withstand the brutal, neanderthal-like tactics that occur on any given day at the Britannia Stadium against Stoke City. Granted his main point was that he would like to see how Barcelona would do in a whole season of the premier league, but the implication was there. He suggested that the Spanish giants’ style of play might not do quite as well in the English league.
In these past few weeks we have seen some curious things going on with the Catalan club. They have fluctuated between dominating performances and uncharacteristic slip-ups, beating Villarreal 5-0 one week, but then grabbing draws against Real Sociedad and AC Milan the next, only to respond with an 8-0 trouncing of Osasuna and confident 5-0 against Athletico Madrid. But the draw against Valencia and slim 1-0 win against a bottom of the table Sporting Gijon that followed show that Barcelona are not without their faults.
Now the obvious points still remain. Barcelona are unbeaten in their Champions League and La Liga campaigns this season and bar the Milan result, the draws occurred while playing away from home, one of which was against a very strong Valencia side. However, even taking this into account, question marks remain as to how Barcelona would do against some of the teams England has to offer, with Stoke putting forward a surprisingly compelling case.
We’ve seen the top English teams perform against Barcelona, but to watch a mid-table side who would have a completely different way of playing would be refreshing
One of the most enjoyable features of football as a sport is the possibility of an upset. A team can have eighty percent of possession and create dozens of chances throughout the ninety minutes but all it takes is one misplaced pass to put a striker through on goal and give him the chance to put a game to bed. Now, when talking about giving away possession, Barcelona naturally come fairly low down the list and Stoke most likely rank fairly high but in this scenario that is irrelevant. Stoke are destructive by nature, with Pulis having crafted a side who are masters at breaking up play even if that skill sometimes stretches as far as their own build up. In his five years in charge he has done a superb job building a solid team who are good at what they do, even though it goes against everything purists of the beautiful game like to see in a match. Keeping the ball does not seem to be a must for Stoke, with this season’s game against Norwich being the first time they recorded more than 50% possession in a Premier League fixture.
Instead, they use their physical presence to defend the often frequent attacks seen in their fixtures and then capitalise on set pieces and the aerial advantage they possess as a team. This is a stark contrast to Guardiola’s side, who pride themselves on the accuracy of their passes and the intricate one-twos that come before every meandering run Messi makes.
Picture the scene, A dark and rainy night at the Britannia Stadium. Woodgate clambers back to his feet and collects the miniature sized lump that is Pedro and sends him on his way after one of many last ditch tackles. Pulis’ men have seen hardly any of the ball and spent the majority of the match sliding around in the mud and chasing shadows when suddenly on the eighty-ninth minute a tired Eric Abidal concedes a throw in. Delap swiftly towels off the ball and hurls it into the box where Peter Crouch and Kenwyne Jones tower over their opposition. Valdes comes out to collect but Jones connects with the ball and sends it flying into Barca’s net.
Some would argue this would be an undeserved victory - Barcelona playing beautiful football only to be undone by a last minute scuffle in the box. But who said winning had to be pretty? Arsenal have played arguably some of the best looking football in recent seasons and what do they have to show for it? Meanwhile Mourinho’s 2010 Inter Milan side won the Champions League, beating Barcelona in the semi-final with a strategy that focused on not playing a beautiful passing game, instead taking the seldom chances on offer while defending exceptionally well. Stoke did exactly that in their recent league match against Manchester United and it paid off with a draw at Old Trafford. Meanwhile, Barcelona showed just how vulnerable they might be to Stoke’s set pieces when they conceded a late header from a corner in their Champions League game against Milan.
Until recently there was a greater chance of Andy Gray making a return to Sky Sports than Barcelona lining up next to Stoke on a football pitch. Now though, there is the possibility of the two teams meeting for the first time in a competitive game. Barcelona are the favourites to win this year’s Champions League and the Potters are progressing well in the Europa league and if both were to win their tournaments they would meet in next year’s UEFA Super Cup. We’ve seen the top English teams perform against Barcelona, but to watch a mid-table side who would be underdogs in every sense of the word and have a completely different way of playing would be refreshing. A team like Stoke would go about the game in a completely different manner to a Manchester United or Arsenal side and would recognise that sometimes beating the best requires playing ugly and doing whatever it takes to get the job done. It might even turn out that the key to halting Barcelona’s dominance is to take a leaf or two out of Stoke’s book.
While nothing can be taken away from what Barcelona have achieved in the sport’s history, La Liga does lack the quality that is needed to really test the ability of the Catalan club. Valencia, Malaga and Levante have all made good starts to the season but there is still little doubt in people’s minds that Barcelona and their fierce rivals Real Madrid will ultimately secure the top two positions by the summer. We only truly see Barcelona under pressure in the Champions League, which is one of the reasons we love the competition so much. Everyone enjoys watching a clear favourite struggle or even fall from grace. Perhaps Stoke are not the team for the job and maybe Barcelona’s class would lead to a thrashing but regardless of the outcome, it would definitely be a game not to miss.
Click here for more Football and Sport stories
Click here to follow Sabotage Times on Twitter
Click here to follow Sabotage Times on Facebook