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Guest Blog: Graham Hunter

  • 16 February 2014 09:41
  • Posted by @BumperGraham

Ahead of the eagerly-awaited Champions League clash with Barcelona, Graham Hunter - Spanish football expert and author of Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World - shares his thoughts...

Even though they never managed the feat of retaining the trophy, FC Barcelona have been the dominant club of the entire Champions League history.

Over the last 21 years Barça have twice been beaten quarter finalists, eleven times semi finalists or better, been to five finals and won the thing four times.

Between 2006 and now their record reads - winners, second round, semi finalists, winners, semi finalists, winners, semi finalists, semi finalists. Not too shabby.

Now they face the changing of the guard. This is City's first taste of the top table and nobody around the Camp Nou doubts that they have the table manners or the breeding.

In fact there's an awareness in Catalunya that there's a double changing of the guard going on right now.

Even though Borussia Dortmund have had an injury-plagued season they, plus Manchester City, Paris St Germain and to the greatest extent of all Bayern Munich represent a brand of football which is totally recognizable to those who thrilled to Pep Guardiola's Barça - but still more robust, more athletic, bigger, stronger... Power to the big man who's comfortable on the ball, not just the wee guy.

The new breed is here and already winning.

And while these sides breathe down Barça's neck, or blow them over as Bayern did last season, there's another changing of the guard - one with a greater sense of inevitability.

If he follows his self-declared intentions, Victor Valdés' won't ever play this stage of the Champions League for Barcelona again, won't ever face Manchester City for the Blaugrana again.

Carles Puyol is back, recuperated from what feels like an endless series of knee ops... but he's close to turning 36 and his coruscating enthusiasm for the fray is no longer a trademark of this team.

Xavi, too, is edging from the Autumn of his career towards winter and, inevitably, that cold weather exacerbates the aches and pains in the elderly. His achilles and calf pains have been extremely debilitating to his athleticism.

Since last Spring Leo Messi has had the most soul-wrecking series of injuries, robbing him of months in action plus the Ballon D'Or for the first time in four years while Andres Iniesta, who should still be in the peak of his career, has been nudged onto the bench more regularly than in a decade by first-season coach Gerardo 'Tata' Martino.

Great names have already moved on - Thierry Henry, Seydou Keita, Yaya Touré, David Villa, Samuel Eto'o, Zlatan, all iconic parts of the Guardiola era.

In line to join them in the near distance... Valdés, Puyol, Xavi.

Good though Barça can still be on their day the Golden Age has gone.

All of which is why, when the Champions League draw paired City with the Spanish title holders so many people said: 'Worst draw for Barça other than Bayern'.

Well, I disagree. Perhaps City win this tie. Perhaps time has moved on such that the old 'Guardiola' template of football needs updating and it's now imperative for every top team to have taller, stronger technical footballers. That's fine.

But Barcelona still have some of the planet's great stylists. Players who love the ball and use it with genius. If City are at near full strength and on form then we are all guaranteed 180 minutes of premium football.

More, there's something which is rarely talked about but which nonetheless runs through this squad like traceable DNA.

They are steely competitors. Players like Valdes, Xavi, Iniesta, Piqué, Cesc Fabregas, Pedro... they all know that the world is gunning for them.

Cut them down at club level, cut them down this summer at international level when Spain defend the World Cup.

However they are proud, defiant, dogged men. They react to a challenge like a great fighter reacts to the sound of '...seconds away' followed by the bell.

Up, on their feet, passing, jabbing, weaving, guard up... looking for the point scoring punch.

To some extent this pairing was just the stimulus their tired, burned-out minds and bodies needed.

City may well deserve their status as favourites. But they are still the young pretender in the ring with the Champ. If they want the crown they'll need to earn it. 


Graham Hunter previews City v Barcelona

On Monday, Graham Hunter, Sky Sports Spanish football expert and author of Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World, will be previewing the big match, looking forward to the World Cup, taking your questions and signing copies of his books.

The session takes place at 18.30 in Waterstones' Deansgate store in Manchester.

Tickets are £5 and can be purchased in store, by tweeting @WaterstonesMCR or by calling 0161 837 000.

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