You’d be forgiven for thinking Barcelona winning the Champions League is more than a safe bet. Odds are at time of writing 7/4 for Pep Guardiola’s side to retain their title, with Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid second favourites on 9/2.
Guardiola’s team have gone from strength to strength since his tenure as manager began in 2008. His career as a manager started with FC Barcelona B, the reserve side of the Catalan club that are fixed in the league below them (obviously a conflict of interests would develop if they were allowed in the same division). Here he oversaw the development of his own tactics using players that he would later use in the first team such as Sergio Busquets, Pedro, Gerard Pique, Jeffren and Bojan with the same roles in mind.
Once in the spotlight following the dismissal of Frank Rijkaard as manager, Guardiola utilized a similar formation to his predecessor, but picked players better suited to his own style of management. His refusal to utilize the talent available to him in the form of Ronaldinho, Deco and Samuel Eto’o (although he stayed due to his commitment to the team) seemed highly questionable at the time. Use of the 4-3-3 formation with extremely disciplined passing and possession has proved hard to beat, with pressing high up the pitch and a high offside line deployed by Gerard Pique and Carlos Puyol.
Despite the apparent lack of goals that Barcalona concede, their defence does have its frailties and weaknesses. The ever willing Daniel Alves statistically spends more of his time in the opposing half attacking the flanks than defending, meaning Busquets, Mascherano or Pique have to cover his area as well as their own. The use of a constant high pressing line also means that when shown a clear turn of pace (as demonstrated by Alexandre Pato) or a quick counter attack, the Catalan giants are vulnerable.
In addition, as demonstrated by Brighton striker Craig Mackail Smith in the Scotland vs. Spain EURO qualifier (with Pique and Puyol in defence for Spain), persistence is key to breaking their resilience. His non-stop running and constant pressure on both centre backs made both liable to mistakes. Thiago Silva proved in the previous Champions League qualifier with AC Milan that even one of the (arguably) greatest teams in the world are liable to switching off and making mistakes deep into stoppage time.
Whether they will be beaten to the title this season remains to be seen. They are regarded as one of the greatest sides in the world for a reason. Any team would do well to beat them and they’d need a certain amount of luck on their side. Is it impossible? Not quite, but to defeat the Catalan giants takes a huge effort.