Barcelona 5-1 Panathinaikos: the away side take the lead, but eventually crumble

September 17, 2010

The starting line-ups

Barcelona had another scare, but hit back to record a convincing victory.

The home side weren’t taking any chances after their shock weekend defeat to another Greek big name, Hercules. Pep Guardiola named his strongest side, bringing back Carles Puyol, Daniel Alves, Xavi Hernandez, Pedro Rodriguez and Sergio Busquets, playing a vague 4-3-3 system.

Nikos Nioplias’ intention was to ‘match’ Barcelona’s formation, so he too played a 4-3-3 formation that, of course, was more often 4-5-1 as the wingers Sidney Govou and Sebastian Leto spent most of their time behind the ball, tracking the Barcelona full-backs. Panathinaikos’ centre of midfield was overwhelmingly functional with no Sotiris Ninis or Giorgos Karagounis, as Simao played ahead of the defence, and Gilberto Silva and Kostas Katsouranis rarely looked to break forward.

The centre of midfield was Panathinaikos’ first problem – those three players are all talented defensively, but when Panathinaios won the ball back, the three of them were offering the same option for a pass, generally within ten metres of each other, and Barcelona were able to cut off the potential pass easily. Therefore, Panathinaikos weren’t able to keep the ball in order to slow the tempo of the game.

False nine

Barcelona often appeared to be playing with no striker, with David Villa on the left, Pedro on the right, and Lionel Messi dropping into deep positions in the central area. His drifts into the midfield meant Panathinaikos were outnumbered in that zone 3 v 4 – Jean-Alain Boumsong and Cedric Kante were reluctant to leave their defensive line and follow him, and so all too often Messi was allowed too much time and space on the ball. And whilst Barcelona may have had no striker, a variety of players made late runs into the box to get into goalscoring positions – Xavi should have scored in the opening five minutes, but hit a shot straight at Alexandros Tzorvas.

Another threat from Barcelona came from the flanks, particularly down the right-hand side, where Alves constantly popped up in advanced positions on the overlap. The main problem here was Leto, who too often got dragged into the midfield battle in the centre of the pitch, trying to win the ball back, and instead let Alves motor into a huge open space on the wing.

Panathinaikos lead

Panathinaikos took the lead with a simple goal – Tzorvas’ long ball was flicked on by Djibril Cisse towards Govou, who finished well. The contrast with Barcelona’s short passing game was remarkable, and from the Greek side’s first venture into the Barcelona third, they were ahead.

Unfortunately, the lead lasted just one minute, and it was from a run from that right-hand side that Barcelona had looked so dangerous from. This time, Loukas Vyntra got himself into a poor position, making a run towards Messi out on the right, when Messi was looking to charge towards goal. This meant that Messi darted towards Xavi’s chipped through ball, but Vyntra was moving in the wrong direction, and couldn’t get back to tackle Messi, who finished nearly. Vyntra, a right-back by trade, didn’t look comfortable at left-back – he defended too narrow, and was poor bringing the ball out from defence.

The second goal was completely preventable – it was a needless corner conceded by Stergos Marinos, as Tzorvas was in control of the situation, about to catch the cross. But equally, it was poor marking that directly resulted in David Villa’s goal, both at the near post and at the bar. Cisse was supposed to be patrolling the near post area, but hasn’t quite completed his jog back from his striking role, and didn’t seem to be set to prevent Busquets’ flick-on. Villa was given too much space, and with no-one on the far post, it was a simple finish. Panathinaikos had far more players than Barcelona in the penalty area, but were organised awfully.

Messi magic

Sometimes, though, tactics don’t come into it – you just have to admit that a goal was almost impossible to prevent. That’s what happened when Messi scored the third – his quick feet playing two neat one-twos before calmly passing the ball past Tzorvas. Panathinaikos looked static, but in truth it was simply a moment of genius from the world’s best player.

Panathinaikos had continued to use their route one approach, with Tzorvas hitting long balls towards Cisse to challenge for. Although he battled bravely and won a couple of free-kicks from Puyol that meant Panathinaikos could shuffle up the pitch, more often than not, Tzorvas’ balls were unsuccessful, Barcelona won the ball back, and Panathinaikos were under attack once more. This constant concession of possession made for some very tired legs and minds, and the second half was always going to be very difficult for Panathinaikos to compete in.

Trailing to Barcelona is not a good situation when you’ve started with a defensive-minded game. The natural inclination is to push forward and try to score and get back in the game, but this only creates more space in behind the defence, and behind the defence and midfield, which is exactly what Barcelona want. Therefore, Nioplias was probably right not to go all-out-attack and persevere with his initial approach, although Katsouranis played in a slightly more advanced role.

Second half

In the second half, Panathinaikos simply couldn’t deal with Messi, especially when he drifted into slightly wider zones near the byline. He won a penalty from this position that he promptly missed, before he assisted Barcelona’s fourth in slightly fortunate fashion, when Pedro tapped in from on the goalline after a Messi shot hit both posts.

Credit should go to Panathinaikos’ wide players for showing some promise when they got the ball – Leto went on a couple of mazy runs down the left but was unable to provide an end product, whilst Govou caused Abidal some problems throughout the game. But Panathinaikos’ approach was simply too basic, and they missed a real midfield playmaker with vision and creativity. Their tactics were slightly too basic and predictable when going forward, and they struggled to create a genuine chance in the second half.

Luis Garcia, Giorgious Karagounis and Sotiris Ninis were all brought on to provide some excitement in the Barcelona half, but realistically it was too late for them to make an impact. The final goal came simply as Panthinaikos were tired – no-one could keep up with Alves’ typical powerful run into the box, and his header over Tzorvas was perfect, and completed the thrashing.


Nioplias’ gameplan was clear – play a 4-5-1, get men behind the ball, and attack quickly by hitting long balls for Cisse. The approach was not that different to the tactics favoured by Hercules on Saturday, but they played with something more like a diamond midfield, giving them an extra player in that zone, and were happy enough to leave one full-back (generally Maxwell, who was at left-back) free instead.

The away side should also been more compact – Cisse could have dropped in on Busquets when he didn’t have the ball, making it more difficult for Barcelona to retain possession. A more defensive-minded player than Leto on the left might also have helped, for he struggled with Alves, and this further exposed Vyntra’s weakness at left-back.

Panathinaikos gave it a go – their frustration will be that they went ahead, and only kept the lead for a minute. A combination of poor individual defending and a simple inability to stop Messi put them 3-1 down at half-time, and that was game over.

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