Living away from Galway has many disadvantages, but up there among the most disadventageous of them all is not being able to watch RTE's coverage of the Champions League. I have grown up watching football through the fading eyesight of John Giles, Liam Brady, and Eamon Dunphy. Their pre-match, half-time, and post-match analysis is as important to me as the match itself. Indeed the two cannot properly be distinguished. There is no match without this trio to analyse it. Whether there is a trio without the match is another question. So when Man Utd put in a shocking first half display, I would be giddy with anticipation, waiting for Dunphy to put the boot in. And if the second half didn't get any better for them, I was treated to what can only be described as 15 minutes of analytic heaven, without the analysis: instead, it was simply three men who loved football making as many conclusions and accusations as they possibly good before Bill sent the program to a law-suit-avoiding commercial break. Choice memories from these moments include:
"Steven Gerrard: found out tonight. A nothing player." (This was after Liverpool having knocked Barcelona out of the competition)
"Ronaldo is a disgrace." (After Man Utd getting a very credible draw at the Nou Camp)
Of course Dunphy would later go on to recant from these heretical positions, adopting a far more rational stance regarding the merits of Gerrard and Ronaldo (the latter has become, in Dunmphy's eyes, a "great player"*). But in these instinctive, a-rational, emotional outbursts I always felt like I was getting nearer to the truth.
I mention all of this because I have just purchased the Irish Star. It is my way of keeping in touch with my roots, since every Monday Dunphy "writes" a column about football. This week I was hoping for this take on the upcoming Man City v Barcelona game. He didn't disappoint. The headline is "Barca are there for the taking." Dunphy, a great believer in the Catalan club over the last 5 years, has lost faith. But what exactly is his pre-match take on things? Analysing a Dunphy article for its argumentation is like critiquing the theology of The God Delusion or the science of Genesis 1-3. But here is what the analyst-poet has to say:
Yes, Barcelona look good at the moment (they just beat Rayo Vallecano 6-0), but don't read anything into their form. La Liga, according to the "student of the Spanish game," is in rag order. "What did Barcelona learn from this cruise to victory? Nothing." Inequality has rendered the result irrelevant. If you want a relevant result, Dunphy takes us to a different game on Saturday - Man City's victory over Chelsea.
Problem #1 - Barcelona have played four games against Europe's best this season: three against Atletico Madrid and one against Real Madrid. They are yet to lose. Their game against Vallecano is not an indication that they are back to their best, but they have been tested this season and the results are good. Moreover, while Man City did beat Chelsea in the cup, they have lost to Chelsea twice in the league. If any team has shown weakness against quality opposition, it is not Barcelona. Furthermore, it is arguable that it is in fact Man City who have not been tested to the same extent that the Catalans have been. I don't think Chelsea are at the level of Atletico or Real Madrid, and apart from Chelsea who is there to test Man City? Arsenal? Man Utd? Liverpool? Only the latter appear to be a serious team, and they should have beaten Man City at the Etihad. In short, Dunphy's argument actually works better going the other direction.
Dunphy then talks of Barcelona's decline. He is not wrong. Barcelona are not at the same level as they once were under Guardiola. Their players are older, perhaps less motivated and disciplined on a football pitch. Though he doesn't mention him in his article, Xavi is now the symbol of decline as much as he once was the symbol of the Barca way. Tata Martino didn't play him against Vallecano, probably in order to rest him for Tuesday. But there is a strong case in favour of leaving him out of the first eleven. He simply is not able to get around the pitch like he once was, and he is a defensive liability.
Dunphy also brings up the experience that Pelligrini has of playing against Barcelona. What Dunphy doesn't mention, however, is that Pellegrini has a terrible record against Barcelona. He may know how they play, but he has by no means proven that he knows how to stop them. Also omitted from Dunphy's argument is the lack of experience that this City team has in the knock-out stages of the Champions League. Barcelona may be affected by last year's heavy loss to Bayern Munich, but they remain vastly experienced at playing football at the highest level. True, their coach is a novice when it comes to managing a team in the European Cup, but then so was Guardiola.
Finally we get some classic Dunphy: "You can't depend on Toure." There's that telling-it-like-it-isn't truth that I know and love, and with which I am in agreement. Toure has the potential to be explosive going forward. But he is tactically deficient. The result may well depend on which of these aspects of his game comes to the fore.
Personally, I am not sure what to think about this game. Guardiola usually kept things tight away from home in the knock-out stages. His Barcelona team never beat English opposition on English soil. I would be surprised if that changed under Martino. If Martino was to be pragmatic, he would play Busquets and Song in midfield, with Xavi ahead of them, and Iniesta on the left. If he was overly shrewd, he would play Messi on the right, pitting the Argentine against the defensively suspect Kolorov/Clichy, and severely curtailing any attacking ambitions David Silva might have. In fact Martino did something like this against Real Madrid, and it worked very well. This would leave either Fabregas/Neymar Alexis leading the line. That is a team I would trust not to lose, and also to score. City don't have the same tactical flexibility, but (cliche alert) they will be dangerous from set-pieces. I wouldn't be surprised if Milner is used as a second full-back on one of the wings, with Navas's speed kept in reserve for when it will be most useful. Or perhaps both Navas and Milner will start, with Silva playing instead of either Dzeko or Negredo. That would probably be the most conservative option. Indeed, if both managers go conservative we could be in for something of a disappoint, albeit an understandable one.
* For a rigorous description of what constitutes a great player, see the discussion on Riquelme after the Argentina-Holland match at World Cup 2006. Giles's verdict was that "Riquelme is a good player, but he's not a great player." History has, of course, proved him right.