Wednesday 28th September: Champions League
Borussia Mönchengladbach v FC Barcelona
When I arrived at work in Brussels on Thursday morning, to teach a class of eleven year-olds, I peered through my insufficiently rested eyes at four boys (out of ten) wearing Barcelona tops. They were proudly wearing their team’s colours in celebration of their victory in relatively nearby Monchengladbach. More than ever, this brought home to me the consumerism that drives modern football.
These boys were about as Catalan as me, hailing from Irish and English families living in Belgium. Not that there is any reason that they should not or cannot support Barcelona: it’s just that previous drivers such as where you live (supporting your local team) and familial loyalty seem almost parochial and quaint to many. They couldn’t understand why I had not wanted to support Barcelona and that I went to the match to support “the German team.” They support Barcelona because “Barcelona are amazing and Neymar is Boss(boss?)”.
So, in a way, a clash between a side from a small, working and dare I say it, unglamorous, city in Western Germany whose fans are nearly all local (relatively speaking) against the international juggernauts from Catalonia was a collision of cultures as well as an intriguing football match. That’s not to say that Borussia don’t exploit their commercial potential – the queue to the club shop is testament to the contrary – but their widespread appeal outwith their geographical catchment is more ‘hipster’ than corporate.
The pre-match food and beverage facilities at Borussia Park on Champions’ League evenings have improved and the local businesses were able to resist the enforcement of a Heineken purge and retain some local beers for the fans’ enjoyment. After a mighty fine sausage, and around twenty minutes of queueing at the Eingang Sud – too many fans going in this way for the other stands – I was in my seat fifteen minutes before kick off.
I don’t know if the fans have been unable to raise the funds or lacked the creativity for a tifo or display but the shredder offcuts of white paper that farted out in front of the Nordkurve was below the usual standard.
Gladbach’s Head Coach Andre Schubert has agreed a new contract extension and, for the most part, has evolved Lucien Favre’s 4-4-2 team into his own. He perhaps lacks the experience or gravitas of his peers and under his stewardship, Gladbach travel as well as unpasteurized Guinness. Borussia Park though, has been seen a point famine for visiting teams since his ascension last September. Their 3-4-1-2 formation against Barcelona’s ‘Barca’ formation (now seen in Manchester) provided tactical intrigue and pontificating pre-match. While Schubert is prone to the occasional brow-furrowing selection, tonight’s starting XI was largely as expected, with Hazard preferred to Hahn, Raffael restored up front and Korb selected ahead of Jantschke and Vestergaard in the back three.
Barcelona selected their strongest, on paper, XI in the absence of Messi with Paco Alcacer his replacement. The uncompromising, cynical, slow yet often brilliant Mascherano partnered Piqué in defence.
By kick off, the fans were energised, excited and perhaps cautiously optimistic in that many felt they had little to lose. Barca’s fans made a little noise, and a few had infiltrated the home seats (perhaps through acquiring tickets from unscrupulous vendors).
Borussia’s pressing and shape unsettled Barcelona – they are clearly not used to teams playing in this way – and prevented them from asserting any meaningful dominance in dangerous territory. Borussia’s passing was slick, short and crisp for the most part.
The most impressive part of Gladbach’s first half display though was the movement off the ball. While some players, like Traore and Wendt, made the runs you would expect (although the latter looked overawed and fearful), the attacking trio of Hazard, Raffael – who was outstanding – and Stindl supported each other by remaining fairly close and their angles had Barcelona’s twisting and turning. They could, and perhaps should, have made more of their first half display but for final-pass profligacy.
Barcelona had their chances too via Suarez and Neymar, with the Uruguayan going very close. Neymar made himself into the ‘boo-boy’ for the home fans with a series of theatrics. It’s such a shame that someone so talented frequently displays that unsporting side to his game.
Gladbach’s 1-0 half-time lead, via Thorgan Hazard’s counter-attacking goal, was not undeserved. And yet, from this point on, belief seemed to sap away from them. This transmitted to the fans, whose boisterous support became increasingly lukewarm and fearful.
Whether or not this was a conscious tactical decision taken by Schubert or the instinctive reflex to guard what you have, Borussia regressed into themselves like testicles plunged into the Arctic Ocean. However, Gladbach are not Chelsea, and have neither the nous nor the skill set to park the bus. Their reluctance to press, coupled with Barcelona’s much higher defensive line, meant that Stindl and Hazard spent most of the second half in Busquets’ pocket inside their own half. It was a tactical blunder of the highest order.
Any rays of sunshine glimmering through the clouds of their second half performance came from aggressive and positive play. Barcelona are great at keeping the ball and score five goals past half of the teams in la Liga because they come and try to cling on. Raffael’s injury was a cruel blow as his direct running was causing all sorts of problems. He was replaced up front by a wing-back in Fabian Johnson. He’s a decent full back or even wide midfielder but he’s never, ever a striker.
There was a sense of inevitability about Barcelona’s goals. They could start being more adventurous and controlling as they weren’t being pressed. Arda Turan strengthened the right hand side of Barca’s attack when he replaced Alcacer, and took his goal very well. The winner came from a corner, outswung to the edge of the box where Busquets struck it well, but straight at Sommer. The Swiss keeper spilled the shot and the ball rolled to Piqué, who poked it home. It was certainly a jammy Swiss roll from Piqués perspective, but all in all Gladbach’s retreat allowed Barcelona to take initiative meaning that they ultimately, disappointingly, got what they deserved.
I’ll be back at Borussia Park for the match against Celtic, which already looks like the Europa League playoff. Another club with global appeal (but with a Football Association limits their growth), yet I suspect I’ll hear less 11 year-olds saying “James Forrest is Boss”.