I couldn't be more thrilled to have had my prediction fall flat.
Based on AC Milan's performance in Italy, I didn't think Barcelona could get back three goals, and questioned whether or not they would be able to shut out Milan even if they did. I predicted AC Milan would hang on and Barcelona would be eliminated.
But as a fan of attacking, passing football, I am glad I was wrong.
So what was different about today?
Well, they were at Camp Nou, but that hasn't always made a huge difference between two legs against a resolute defense. No doubt the conditions on the pitch were more suited to Barcelona's quick ball movement.
But tactically there were also some tweaks.
1. Mascherano for Puyol: Carles is still a very good defender, but the 34-year-old may have slowed just enough to be vulnerable against a really good forward in the kind of space a counterattack provides. Mascherano has had his own defensive issues, but at least has a bit more speed, which is valuable against the counter if he keeps his head up. Today, he did. He rose to the occasion and got the job done.
2. Iniesta in the middle: having Villa on the left at forward and Iniesta back in midfield seemed to make the whole attack more comfortable, as many predicted. Everyone was back at home in their natural positions.
3. Spreading the field: one of the faults of the Tiki-Taka system is that compact play on the buildup can be clogged out. To remedy this, the system has to be able to flex into a buildup that puts a lot more space between players. Barcelona restored one of the fundamentals you see from their Dutch counterparts, which uses width and depth to spread out the defense. Against a parked bus, Barca has been stubbornly trying to stick with their compact passing game in the final third and trying to out-finesse the defense and it just hasn't worked. Today they came out with a considerably larger amount of spacing between their attackers and it completely unraveled AC Milan. Barca's passing, even when they had to make (slightly) longer passes or put the ball in the air towards an overlapping winger more often, seemed more far more effective than it was in the first leg, because there was more space for passers to feed the ball between the defenders.
4. Off-the-ball movement: last but NOT least. This is possibly the most important difference, and is also directly tied to their improved ball movement, as mentioned above. I questioned whether the rigidity and lack of flow on offense a couple weeks ago was due to Barcelona being flat on offense, or simply the effectiveness of this kind of defense when well executed, in making their usual passing flow impossible to execute. But espnfc.com's Graham Hunter reported that Xavi recently highliged their lack of movement in the first leg. The post quotes Xavi as saying,"Perhaps you see things more clearly from afar. Against Madrid last week we lacked mobility in attack and intensity in defense. These ideas have won us so many games in the past and we must recuperate them. There has been something lacking. When we've been winning for so long and when other sides have had time to study us over and again perhaps sometimes it's possible to fall into the trap of not producing enough mobility off the ball without realizing it." No shizzle Xavi! So the issue WAS you guys all along! But seriously, Xavi's going to be calling the shots from the Barca sideline one of of these years.
5. A tiny bit more in tactical flexibility: Barcelona still played THEIR game today. Clearly the added space and (slightly) longer passes didn't prevent them from dominating possession and passing the ball quickly and efficiently through a fluid group of attackers. If anything, it made those efforts more effective. But their biggest tactical adjustment came late in the game, after they got the third goal and AC Milan had no choice but to try to take the game back by force. Carles Puyol came on for Mascherano to shore up the backline against Milan's buildup game and Barcelona went into a rare counter-attacking mode. They invited AC Milan to bring the ball forward and try to break down their defense. When they inevitabley got the ball back---BLAM---they sent 3-5 guys bolting forward towards the Milan goal, looking to exploit the space left by all the Milan players pushing forward to try to get a goal back. Eventually they got that goal. Jordi Alba found himself in a one-on-one with Milan's keeper, and was able to calmly slot the ball past him to seal the win.
Most of the tweaks I've mentioned are perfectly acceptable adjustments within the Tiki-Taka system. In fact, the off-the-ball movement is one of the foundations of Tiki-Taka, so that point was really a return to the system they were inadvertently slipping away from.
My last point, however, is the most controversial one. Is it a copout for Barcelona to play with that much tactical flexibility? Is it a betrayal for them to play 20 minutes of counterattacking football at the end of the game to create more space to get that final "nail in the coffin" goal and take the counterattack away from their opposition?
I don't think it should be. Even though Barcelona played a little more to the counter-attack at the end, they did it to protect the lead they had created by dominating the game earlier, and possibly widen it.
And it worked.
Today's result is huge for TWO reasons.
1. It gives Barcelona the confidence that they can still create and finish enough chances against a tough, bunkered defense to not only win, but to dominate.
2. It sends a HUGE message to any other team that wants to pull a Inter, Celtic or Cheslea: "WE know how to unlock you. It's not going to work anymore!"
And for us, as Timbers fans, it's validation that we're not coming in on the tail end of a dying approach to the game. A fluid, possession-based attacking game is STILL capable of unlocking the toughest defensive tactics that exist.