My Nou Camp debut
APRIL 7 — If you read my last article you’ll recall that this week I have relocated with my family to live in Barcelona, and I’m pleased to report it was a successful drive down — with the exception of forgetting that practically everything closes on Sundays in France and consequently nearly running out of petrol.
I arrived in the Catalan capital at midday on Tuesday and, thanks to the outrageous good fortune of meeting a man with a spare ticket that he was happy to sell at face value, eight hours later I found myself sitting in seat 23, row W, block 419 at the Nou Camp, as FC Barcelona took on AC Milan in the second leg of their Champions League quarter-final.
Although the game was unremarkable, from a personal point of view it was an evening I will always remember for a number of reasons and the perfect way to conclude my first day in the city.
Firstly, it was my Champions League debut. I’ve been to plenty of big games before — international games, Cup finals, top-flight league football in various countries — but this was the first time I’d witnessed a fixture from the best competition in the world “live” and direct.
And what an occasion! If you could pick any two teams in the world to go head to head in the knockout stages of a major competition, Barcelona and AC Milan would have to be near the top of the list: two of the most famous, successful and glamorous sporting organisations on the planet.
Then there was the venue; the majestic Nou Camp (or Camp Nou, as the locals call it). One word suffices: wow. Nearly 100,000 people packed into steeply angled grandstands that sit right next to the pitch, creating an amphitheatre feel with the crowd looming over the action in an almost menacing manner.
The Nou Camp might not the loudest stadium I’ve been to — the lack of roofing over three sides of the pitch allowed too much of the crowd noise to escape into the night air — but there was still something special about the atmosphere. When the home fans greeted the teams before kick off by launching into the traditional Barca anthem, the place was crackling and fizzing with electric anticipation.
As the game got under way, I quickly realised that Barcelona’s style of play was like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Of course, I’ve seen them on television plenty of times, but being in the stadium simply provides a much wider view of the bigger picture — the shape of the teams, the flow of the action — that just isn’t possible on the box.
Barca started out with a back three of Carles Puyol, Javier Mascherano and Gerard Pique, with Sergio Busquets sitting just in front to offer protection. Dani Alves pushed forward down the right wing, rarely straying from the touchline paint, and Isaac Cuenca fulfilled the same role on the left.
The width provided by Alves and Cuenca created plenty space in the middle of the field for Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas and Lionel Messi, and that bewilderingly talented quartet seemed to have licence to roam wherever they wished.
Messi largely operated as the furthest player forward, but his role was far removed from the traditional “No. 9” frontman with the Argentine genius often dropping deep into midfield to receive possession and run towards goal with the ball glued to his left foot.
All this flexibility meant that Milan’s four defenders, arranged in a traditional straight line across the field, were left with nobody to mark. While Alessandro Nesta and Co stood guard on the edge of their penalty area, Barca built their attacks from deep, stretching the play by keeping Alves and Cuenca wide on the touchlines and patiently passing their way towards their opponents’ goal, seeking to gradually pull the Milan defence out of shape.
It was a fascinatingly fluid formation that defied easy description: 3-1-2-4? 3-3-2-2? 3-1-4-2-0? I’m English and am therefore used to a solid, reliable 4-4-2, so this was a completely new method of play to encounter.
Milan, however, seemed fully prepared and the ice-cool Nesta kept his defence well organised. How galling for the visitors, then, that two uncharacteristically sloppy pieces of play gave Barca the half-time advantage through a pair of penalties from Messi.
In between those goals, Milan had levelled the score with a calmly taken low shot by midfielder Antonio Nocerino, who had been beautifully released by Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s inch-perfect pass.
And even though the Italians were trailing 2-1 at half-time, the threat posed by Ibrahimovic, the dynamic Kevin Prince-Boateng and the fleet-footed Robinho meant they were still very much in the tie.
Perhaps sensing this, Pep Guardiola changed his team’s formation in the second half, pulling Alves back into a conventional right-back position to create a more defensively solid back four.
Iniesta moved to the left wing with Cuenca swapping over to the right, and within 10 minutes of the restart that move paid dividends as Iniesta pounced on deflected shot by Messi and — as always — stayed calm and composed to steer a well-controlled shot past the helpless Christian Abbiati.
The rest of the second half was pretty much a stalemate, with Barca happy to sit on their two-goal lead and Milan lacking the penetration to trouble the home team’s defence — especially after the previously dangerous Ibrahimovic was withdrawn (or perhaps withdrew himself) into a deeper creative role.
And so it was with relative comfort that Barca secured their route into the semi-finals, where they will face Chelsea later this month. Hopefully, I’ll be there too.
* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.