Six hours before Barcelona met the Russian champions Rubin Kazan last week, I received a message from a friend. "I'm with someone who you'd like to meet," he texted, "come for a coffee."
Half of the battle is won in the mind
Six hours before Barcelona met the Russian champions Rubin Kazan last week, I received a message from a friend. "I'm with someone who you'd like to meet," he texted, "come for a coffee." The person was an international footballer with a career path as unusual as his name. Macbeth Sibaya is a South African midfielder with 53 caps to his credit and fully expects to play in the 2010 World Cup. Born in Durban, his professional career started in Hungary, before he played for two years with Jomo Cosmos in South Africa. He signed for Rubin in 2003 after a spell with Rosenborg in Norway and has since played more than 150 times for the Russian title winners.
In 2007, he was banned for three games by Uefa. As Rubin did not play in European competition, that ban only became effective this season. The third and final game was against Barcelona away. What should have been a career highlight was laced with frustration and rather than prepare for a game, he was instead having a coffee with a journalist. The trip was not wasted, though. Macbeth was in awe of the 98,600-capacity Camp Nou and loved Barcelona.
"I trained with the team last night and I was first off the coach," he said like an excited child. "I ran up the tunnel and on to the pitch with my camera. I was nervous at the size of the stadium so imagine how my teammates who play tonight felt." The insinuation was clear - he did not expect Rubin to win, the mighty Barca were not to be tamed. Macbeth was charming and honest, but he was wrong. Perhaps he should have put more faith in his manager Kurban Berdyev who he had praised so much for being a football obsessive who paid attention to every detail - usually by spending five hours a day watching football videos from his office sofa.
Rubin Kazan came to Camp Nou with a solid game plan. They knew that their collection of Russians, Turks, Argentinians and Georgians could not compete with Andres Iniesta, Lionel Messi and Zlatan Ibrahimovic for talent, so they played a physical game, with key players man-marked and a six man defence the default formation when Barca had possession. Which as for most of the match. The Russians were exceptionally fit, though even they look stunned when they took the lead with a stunning strike after two minutes.
The expected Barca onslaught never materialised and while Ibrahimovic did level with another fine individual strike, Rubin won the game with goal from a counter attack. Barca would beat Rubin nine times out of 10, but the uncertainty and results like last week are what make football so appealing. Teams can learn from Rubin or Almeria, who limited Barca to a 1-0 victory three weeks ago with a man marking policy so rigidly aggressive that an exasperated Xavi was followed even when he took a corner. Harsh, but almost effective.
Many teams come to Barca expecting to be destroyed - because they usually are. Macbeth's manager at Rubin had succeeded in drilling enough confidence into his players on match day to overcome Barca, but what of the more gifted Zaragoza side, who were beaten 6-1 by vengeful Barca on Sunday night? Paul Ince said that the great Manchester United team of the 1990s often won games in the tunnel before the game, such was their belief and strength of character in the team. It did not help Zaragoza that Messi found form again with an impudent chip, Seydou Keita scored a hat-trick or Ibrahimovic another delightful brace, but Zaragoza appeared to be defeated in the tunnel.