Even as he dwelt proudly on Al-Sadd’s quarter-final triumph, Jorge Fossati knew the question was coming. And the assembled journalists didn’t disappoint. “So, Jorge... just how are you going to stop Barcelona?”
If the query was inevitable, the answer was anything but. “Well, I’ve got a plan,” he fired back. “If they’ll agree to my request that Al-Sadd are allowed 15 or 16 players on the field, I think we have a chance!”
The affable Uruguayan was speaking in jest needless to say, and he went on to point out that Getafe had lived up to adidas’s ‘impossible is nothing’ slogan in a recent league encounter. No-one here in Japan, though, and certainly not Fossati, is in any doubt that Barça are no ordinary team. This, after all, is a side being discussed not only as the greatest around, but as the greatest ever.
The European champions are certainly proving to be the star attraction at this year’s FIFA Club World Cup, and opposing players and coaches seem almost as awestruck as local fans. Even Neymar, whose Santos side are regarded as Barça’s likeliest challengers, admits to being a fully-fledged member of their fan club. “Who doesn’t admire Barcelona?” he asked in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com. “They deserve all the praise they get for the joy they’ve given to the fans and to people who like to see good football, which includes me.”
Messi and Barça are on another planet. It's possible to guess what Messi is going to do, but actually stopping him from doing it is another matter.
What gives pleasure to fans brings only pain to opponents, of course, and plenty of the game’s most brilliant tactical minds have come up short in their bid to halt this mesmerising Catalan carousel. For many, those failures have made predicting a winner at Japan 2011 the simplest of tasks. “If Manchester United can’t live with Barcelona, how can anyone else?” reflected Auckland City goalkeeper Jacob Spoonley. “It has to be Barça. They’re the best in the world.”
Aside from their awesome collective strength, Barcelona also possess an individual widely regarded as the best footballer of his generation. “Lionel Messi amazes me every day,” said Monterrey’s Ricardo Osorio. “I love the way he’s so intelligent and always thinking a couple of moves ahead even before receiving the ball.”
The players who know Messi best are even more effusive in their praise, with Xavi unequivocal about his colleague’s place in football’s pantheon. "He’s the best player of all time - better than Pele, Maradona or Cruyff,” enthused the Spain star. “Without him, we would not be what we are."
Al-Sadd are the next to face the unenviable task of subduing Barça’s No10, and Nadir Belhadj – a key component of the Asian champions’ defence - is under no illusions about the scale of that challenge. “Messi and Barça are on another planet,” the Algerian told FIFA.com. “It’s possible to guess what Messi is going to do, but actually stopping him from doing it is another matter.”
Therein lies the problem, and not merely with Messi. And so we return to that central question put to Fossati in his entertaining press conference. At the time, the Al-Sadd coach preached the importance enjoying the occasion, while Neymar has spoken of his desire to see Santos “go toe-to-toe” with Barça and “play our own game” should the two sides meet.
He’s the best player of all time - better than Pele, Maradona or Cruyff.
But the Brazilians’ coach, Muricy Ramalho, takes a different view. The key, he suggests, is to accept that imposing your game on Barcelona is impossible, and to avoid becoming frustrated by their monopolising of possession. He said: “We Brazilians don’t like not having the ball, but we’ll just have to wait for the right time to get hold of it and then play our game.
“If you freeze the screen when Barcelona are playing, you never see anyone up front. You only see the opposing centre-halves standing on their own, and you ask yourself, ‘How the heck is this team going to score?’ Their penetration’s the key, the patience they’ve got when they’re on the ball. Opposition centre-halves start to want to chase the ball and it’s when they move out of position that someone nips in behind them.”
And at the other end? “Well, we have gamble on some things happening: a through-ball from Ganso or Elano, or a stroke of genius from Neymar.”
Muricy’s strategy may yet see Santos succeed where countless others have failed, although his outstanding No11 perhaps came up with the most honest appraisal of all. “I don’t think there’s any particular tactics you can use against Barcelona," reflected Neymar. "You just have to pray, ask for God’s help and give it your best shot!”