Diego Forlan: Leicester City, Barcelona and the unique pressures of leading a title race
Diego Forlan writes a weekly column for The National, appearing each Friday. The former Manchester United, Inter Milan and Atletico Madrid striker has been the top scorer in Europe twice and won the Golden Boot at the 2010 World Cup. Forlan’s column is written with the assistance of European football correspondent Andy Mitten.
In Spain and England, the leagues look like they are going down to the wire and the pressure is ramping up on the teams involved. In England, that’s Leicester City and Tottenham Hotspur, two sides with no experience of chasing a title in recent memory. No bad previous experience can go against them, but it helps both that their main rival is in the same situation.
If one of them was up against either Manchester club or Chelsea, they would be at a disadvantage. I was at Manchester United when they were chasing Premier League titles. It was considered normal, what was expected.
The team was full of players who had been in the same situation several times. They knew not to talk about what they were going to do, not to talk ill of their rivals as it could motivate them. They knew how to switch off with a game of golf or a trip to see a film. They were focused and intense individuals, but they took it in their stride, even if they sometimes encountered setbacks. You can’t win every football game, it just doesn’t happen.
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But I watched Leicester play West Ham United last the weekend. Most people in South America had barely heard of them before this season, now they are watching the incredible story of the little team chasing their first ever top-tier title.
On Sunday, they went a goal up and then 2-1 down. There were controversial refereeing decisions, but while they were under pressure as they are now considered title favourites, Leicester didn’t change the way they play. They didn’t panic and hit long balls, they played as normal in a manner which has served them so well all season and they got a late equaliser. That will give them confidence.
They have a wise and experienced manager, too, who has been under more pressure at bigger clubs such as Chelsea and Valencia; Claudio Ranieri seems very relaxed and exudes confidence. He wouldn’t be if they lost the league, though.
Missing Jamie Vardy for a game or two could unnerve them, trigger a loss of confidence. They have to make sure it doesn’t.
Pressure can be mental and physical. Barcelona’s players are used to winning trophy after trophy, yet they lost four out of five games until they beat Deportivo La Coruna 8-0 on Wednesday.
Why? Several of their best players — Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, Dani Alves and Neymar — are South American and they returned from the recent international break to go straight into huge games against excellent teams.
Then they played Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid, two of the best teams in the world. Barca were not at their best for either. I could see that their players were not 100 per cent, not as sharp as usual or capable of producing their customary magic. I watched closely. Players would take two touches of the ball instead of one. That slowed things down and led to fewer chances. The players didn’t run as much because they were at 80 per cent and not 100 per cent.
Messi would get the ball near the centre of the field, rather than further up where he would be more dangerous. Instead of running at players and beating them, he would pass. Instead of running, he would jog. It’s not the first time he has had a dip; he’s not a robot. No human can produce magical performances for 70 games a season. You can have bad days where you wake up in a bad mood or don’t feel your best, or where you don’t sleep well. Isn’t that like everyone? Messi does better than anyone else — no one can even come close to him even on one of his rare bad days.
Every team goes through a slightly tricky point, too, a bad month when they don’t win for three or four games. It’s a shame for Barca that theirs has happened in April, a vital month, but history has shown that no team can win everything all the time. No team has retained the European Cup since AC Milan in 1990, and Barca won’t be doing it this season. But this can still be a great season for them. Winning the league, Spanish Super Cup and Copa del Rey would be a success.
Plus, Barca are battling against two of the best teams in the world. Unlike Barca, Real Madrid and Atletico have reached the semi-finals of the Uefa Champions League. Spanish teams are still easily outperforming English teams in Europe and the Madrid sides could meet in the final for the second time in three years if they overcome Manchester City and Bayern Munich respectively.
Because Barca are the best, everyone wants to beat them and raises their game, as we have seen with Real Sociedad and Valencia recently. They don’t have the same level as Barcelona’s players, but they still have some very, very good individuals. Valencia won at Camp Nou but were very lucky to survive as Barca dominated. Luck plays a big part in football, but Barca did finally bounce back by hammering Deportivo. That will help their confidence and belief so much.
We are in the final month of the season. The players will be feeling anxious. I feel anxious before every game. If I didn’t then I wouldn’t be fit to be a professional footballer. But I do because I care deeply about what happens on the field. You have to keep that anxiety as a positive, especially when you are on the brink of winning something big.
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Published: April 22, 2016 04:00 AM