Barcelona are the best club in Spain.
Wait, that was more than two weeks ago. Since then, Barcelona have lost twice in quick succession to Real Madrid and AC Milan have put two past them in the first leg of the Champions League Round of 16.
Yes, they did win against Deportivo La Coruna in the La Liga, but that won’t be pretty high on their list of achievements.
Fact is, until 2010-11, Futbol Club Barcelona were the best team in the world. But Real Madrid romped to the league title last year and they were dumped by Chelsea in Europe.
What Chelsea did in 2012 was cut off Barcelona’s lines of supply.
It was the same strategy that Jose Mourinho employed when his side came away with a brilliant 3-1 win at the Nou Camp, dumping the Blaugrana out of the Spanish Cup.
What followed was a field day for the newspapers. AS said ‘Toma, toma, toma’: take that and that and that, while Sport called it a ‘painful knockout’. La Vanguardia called the match a debacle and titled Barcelona impotent and ‘Checkmate’ was the ticker in El Pais.
Had Real Madrid eliminated any other team, life would have gone on as it normally does in Spain. But this being El Clasico, the aftershocks of Real’s double scalp over Barcelona are still being felt as they were extensively documented the world over.
What was needed was an immediate response. Turning the tables on the Los Merengues at the Santiago Bernabeu in the Spanish capital would have been a shot in the arm.
It didn’t happen.
Resting key players Cristiano Ronaldo and Mesut Ozil ahead of the capital outfit’s tantalising Champions League encounter against Manchester United (which they won), Real cut the gap between the league leaders and themselves to thirteen points.
It was Alvaro Morata who occupied Ronaldo’s usual wide man berth and judging by his performance on the right wing, the Portuguese superstar was not missed in the first half. Once again, the Special One stuck to his tactics, and despite Lionel Messi grabbing an equaliser, as Rafael Varane had done twice against the Catalans, Sergio Ramos thumped home an 82nd minute winner to send the home side into raptures.
That loss means that Barcelona have endured a horrible fifteen or so days, with their wins over Sevilla and Deportivo being the only positives.
A dip in form such as this one will only be a fillip for any other team, but Barcelona being Barcelona, every wrong turn, every faux-pas is analysed and re-analysed, scrutinised and re-scrutinised.
Worryingly enough for Barca, it’s not they have been defeated, but the manner in which they have been defeated. That they are losing games via a method of attrition where they are allowed to keep the ball but not do anything with it is cause for concern.
And some might say it is only skin-deep, but it seems to be getting to the players: vice-captain Xavi was quoted in the Spanish press as saying after their exit from the Cup:
“We have lost the least important of the [three] titles.”
What he says may well be right, but that loss to Madrid showed a very different to the Barcelona who scored goals through subtlety and style, not power and brute force. That loss seemed to lift the lid on an outfit that looked short of confidence.
That was only precipitated by Victor Valdes’ sending-off at the end of the league game in Madrid. He looked livid as he approached referee Miguel Angel Lasa, arguing over a penalty that Sergio Ramos looked guilty of conceding.
Worse, they seemed woefully short of ideas. That is something football journalists and pundits have been crowing about every time Barcelona have lost a game. Some might laugh at them, finding it funny.
But it’s funny because it’s true. Despite having 63% of possession in the Cup and 72% in the league, Barcelona failed to find a way past the Real defenders. In addition, they have kept just one cleansheet in 14 games.
There is no Plan B for Barcelona. These are not the times of Ronaldinho, who could pull a rabbit out the proverbial hat to conjure a win for his team, nor is there the little and large combination of Ludovic Giuly and Samuel Eto’o. There is no brute force of Zlatan Ibrahimovic or the predatory skills of Henrik Larsson or the assassin’s mark of Thierry Henry.
Lionel Messi is his team’s main attacking outlet, but remove him from the equation and the Argentine’s teammates look positively forlorn. He is their fulcrum, but when he is robbed of space and time, is blotted out like the sun behind the clouds, the four-time Ballon d’Or winner can look ordinary.
David Villa is Spain’s best player in terms of goals scored, but he has had to sacrifice much, being deprived of the front-man role he coveted at Valencia. Rumour has it that Arsenal were looking to sign him last winter, but Barcelona put paid to that. Villa has a predatory instinct that no one at Barcelona has, since no one there is a striker by trade.
The Super Cup defeat aside, if one were to analyse Barcelona’s losses this season, the number of shots that have actually perturbed opposition keepers are scanty. Barcelona have lost to Real Sociedad (3-2) and Celtic (2-1), in addition to the aforementioned games.
In those five games, they have mustered a total of 61 shots, but only 17 of them were on target. That’s a little more than a quarter of all attempts. If you were to take out the Celtic game from that equation, only two efforts per game have been directed towards goal.
Their last draw was against Valencia, where only a solitary attempt on goal was recorded. The win against Sevilla had just two shots on goal to give them a 2-1 win, and there were no more efforts directed at goal.
Clubs are now wise to Barcelona’s game of keep-ball, and while they may not always win when they face Barcelona, they know what has to be done to lessen the odds of a loss. And as ESPN journalist Andy West says, there are talks of a crisis situation at the Camp Nou.
It doesn’t help matters that Barcelona have lost Tito Vilanova when his aid matters most. Having being diagnosed with parotid gland cancer, the La Masia graduate is now recuperating in New York.
Assistant coach Jordi Roura has come in to plug the gap, but he is no oratory expert. All he can do in these circumstances is continue to drill the Barcelona players in an attempt to play to their strengths.
If the objective of hiring Mou – according to Juanma Treba of AS – was to defeat Barcelona and “slay the dragon” then he has been a success at the Bernabeu.
But if one were to look past that, this could mean Jose Mourinho could stay on to lead the White Revolution at Real Madrid, fomenting the plan to derail the Barcelona express. He has delivered on his promise to beat Barcelona. This season, Real Madrid have won three and drawn two of the six Clasicos the two sides have played.
Clasicos have often been hailed as games which herald the end of an era, but with Barcelona sitting pretty on top of La Liga, that seems unlikely. What this could precipitate is Barcelona’s willingness to spend on a couple of powerful, dominating centre-forwards in the summer and formulate a Plan B.
That knight in shining armour could come in the form of Edinson Cavani, Radamel Falcao or even Neymar.
But even that may not be enough, because what clubs have done is challenge the principles with which Barcelona play football, and there will surely be some self-doubt creeping into Xavi, Puyol and Co.
And maybe that was Mourinho’s plan after all: to see his greatest rivals implode from within.
[All Newspaper quotes from The Guardian]