Pep lets his guard drop: Ice-cool Barca boss shows he’s feeling the heat after hard week
23:36 GMT, 23 April 2012
If a bad week points to something more serious, if Barcelona are on the brink of collapse, there was not a huge amount of evidence here on Monday.
Beaten twice and in danger of losing their manager as well as a place in a Champions League final that was considered theirs before they even met Chelsea, Barcelona have appeared chastened and vulnerable in the past six days.
Feeling the strain: Guardiola used the F-word during his pre-match press conference
They lost at Stamford Bridge. They lost again to Real Madrid – a 2-1 defeat, their first at the Nou Camp since September 2010, that probably cost them La Liga.
And last night, even more rarely, Pep Guardiola lost his rag. It was unusual, his sudden use of the F-word – in response to the criticism he received for playing 20-year-old Cristian Tello on Saturday – certainly enough to create some excitement and intrigue among seasoned Barcelona watchers.
But was this the Catalan equivalent of squeaky bum time or was that limited to Lionel Messi and a gastric problem that prevented him from training on Sunday
Centre of attention: Chelsea arrive in Spain with a slender advantage in their semi-final clash
In Gerard Pique, world and European champion, double Champions League winner and other half of Shakira, there was no great sense of crisis.
While facing the inevitable questions about his appearance on the bench for the last two games, he managed to maintain an aura of invincibility that suggested Guardiola and his players remain extremely confident about meeting Chelsea again this evening despite the manager's outburst.
It was an impressive display by the former Manchester United centre half, particularly on the subject of Didier Drogba.
Under pressure: Barcelona have tasted back-to-back defeats against Chelsea and Real Madrid
Drogba's time-wasting incensed the Catalans last week but Pique, who expects to be back in the Barca defence tonight, was surprisingly generous towards the Chelsea striker, dismissing the idea he was 'diving and cheating' to slow down the game.
'I believe in Drogba,' he said. 'I believe in his honesty.' Any hint of irony was well hidden, as were any concerns he might have in the wake of those back-to-back defeats.
Pique dismissed the idea that Barcelona's time is almost up; that they have been sussed out; that, like all the great teams, they can only remain at the top for so long.
Drog on: Pique appeared to back the under-fire Chelsea star
'In this country people talk very easily about a change of cycle,' he said. 'But things don't just change after one defeat. A team that has won 13 trophies in three-and-a-half years deserves more credit than that.'
It does indeed, but it is also what makes the second leg of this Champions League semi-final so interesting.
All smiles: Pique was in good spirits on Monday
Three of the four trophies that have eluded Barcelona over the period Pique refers to have been won by Jose Mourinho and that has to be of some encouragement to Chelsea when Mourinho was their creator.
Their record against the Catalans is also far from shabby. Last week Chelsea extended an unbeaten run against Barcelona to six matches, with Lionel Messi now having failed to score against them in seven.
'They are hard to play against because they are really strong, really competitive,' said Pique.
'They have players like Drogba and Lampard; players with a lot of games in their legs.'
Old legs might find life that much more difficult on a pitch said to be 239 square metres larger than the playing surface at Stamford Bridge, even if Petr Cech argued last night it should not make a difference. But old heads and old habits need to be central to the approach Roberto Di Matteo employs.
Barcelona will dominate possession. They have done so for 243 consecutive matches over four years, and Chelsea are sure to let them have the ball again.
But Chelsea need to focus on what they do well – fast counter-attacks, well executed set-pieces – because it is from there the goal Di Matteo certainly thinks they will need could come.
Of the 43 Barcelona have conceded this season, more than 25 per cent have been from set-pieces.
Joker in the pack: Chelsea stopper Petr Cech
Cech brought the house down last night when he responded to the question of whether Mourinho had been of any assistance by jokingly revealing they had enjoyed a tactical meeting with their former manager a few hours earlier.
But Wigan manager Roberto Martinez is a Catalan who gives an insight into where this tie could be won and lost.
He said: 'At Stamford Bridge you saw the biggest difference between the Premier League and La Liga; it's in the transitional play, as soon as you lose the ball, that period of three seconds. In England they kill you in those three seconds. In the first leg Messi gives the ball away to Lampard and three seconds later it is in the back of the net.
'The difference is what a team does when it first regains possession. In Spain they like to keep the ball, relieve the pressure and then start to attack. Here the first pass on regaining possession is forward. The Barcelona midfield could not cope with the speed of that transition. They could not get back into the box in time to stop Ramires and Drogba and it was started by a great ball from Lampard.'
Martinez thinks the bigger pitch could prove significant, increasing the pressure on Chelsea to make it count when they secure a set-piece advantage or can suddenly break forward. But he sees it as an intriguing clash of styles that is hard to call.
A clash that is complicated further by Chelsea having five players a booking away from missing the final in Munich, including David Luiz, who is unlikely to play. Barcelona have only two.
The desire is nevertheless strong in Chelsea. As Cech said, many of the players have been waiting eight years to lift the European Cup. But then the desire is strong in Barcelona, too, particularly when some dare suggest they are past it.
'We are ready to fight against them,' said Guardiola. Some fight it promises to be.