Messi looks knackered, key players are struggling with injuries and Real Madrid are ten points clear in the league. What's going on?
It’s a question that has to be asked after Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona fell 10 points behind Real Madrid in the BBVA Primera Liga last weekend.
The temptation is to say ‘yes’, after all 10 points is virtually the end of the line domestically for the Catalans, especially given that Madrid have dropped just 8 all season.
Jose Mourinho has moulded a side that (depending on how you like your football) is just as impressive as Barca. They are solid in defense, increasingly creative in midfield and lethal in attack. It’s hard to argue with Ronaldo’s 27 goals, ably supplemented by 14 from Higuain and 10 from an ever-improving Benzema.
Basically Madrid are going out and steamrollering their rivals and show no sign of stopping. Saying that, after 22 games, they have only 2 points more than last season (58 as opposed to 56)… That implies the problem is elsewhere: with Barca.
It should be pointed out that Barca’s 3-2 defeat on an icy, bumpy pitch in Pamplona was only their second defeat of the season.
It’s the draws that are costing them the league and five of them have come away from home. Most of the points have flown in difficult grounds, such as Mestalla, San Mames and Cornella El-Prat. These are places where dropping points used to come into the equation, its just that with La Liga turning into a two horse race, they are places where Barca won in recent seasons.
It’s hard not to look at physical issues: Barca have a short squad and a long term injury list including David Villa, Fontas and Affelay, while Andres Iniesta has been in and out of the treatment room, along with Cesc, Pique and Alexis Sanchez.
Meanwhile Keita has been away in the African Cup of nations. You can question how much Affelay and especially, Fontas, would have helped, but Villa is a major loss, despite his poor form before his injury.
Saturday saw Barca kick off with Cesc, Xavi and Iniesta on the bench, while Busquets was also out injured (honest!) with a deep cut in his shin. Cesc and Xavi had run themselves into the ground – part of the problem of Copa del Rey success is that it means Barca have played 12 games since the turn of the year, including 2 against Real Madrid and two against Valencia.
Both of Barca’s defeats (Getafe and Osasuna) came on Saturday nights after a game the previous Wednesday left them struggling, clearly not having the depth of squad Madrid have is a factor in this. In Pamplona Guardiola opted to paper the cracks with youngsters, but good though Sergio Roberto and Thiago clearly are, El Sadar against a hyped up Osasuna on an icy pitch was not the correct platform for them to add to burgeoning reputations.
And then there is Leo Messi, whose form has also dropped of late. Leo just looks knackered
Madrid fans must at times feel jealous that the Barca youth system produces the goods and Sergio Roberto, Tello, Cuenca, Thiago and also Montoya all promise for the future. But playing them all at the same time is asking for trouble, especially away from home and that is what happened at the weekend, mainly because there were not that many alternatives.
There are players who are below their best. Anyone who saw Gerard Pique ‘defend’ on Saturday will doubt he is the same defender who has been so dominant in recent seasons. He was dreadful and he has been poor all season: has success and a famous girlfriend gone to his head? Is losing motivation? Time will tell.
And then there is Leo Messi, whose form has also dropped of late. Leo just looks knackered, which is hardly surprising when you think he plays nearly every game, that he played Copa America last summer, World Cup in summer 2010, Copa America..etc. Why are there no photos of Messi in a swimsuit? Cos he’s hardly had a holiday, that’s why! Add to that transatlantic flights and the pressure of being the main man and its not surprising that he has gone off the boil. The surprise is that he has lasted so long.
There is another factor that has to be taken into account: Guardiola’s assistant Tito Vilanova needed an operation to remove a tumor in his salivary glands at the end of November. Vilanova is Pep’s friend and right hand man and anyone who remembers Guardiola’s words for him at the Balon D’or ceremony, will realise how close they are.
Losing Vilanova , hopefully just for the short term, is important, both on the training ground and in the dugout and his importance should not be underestimated.
And yet, as they showed again against Madrid (when Vilanova travelled with the team) in the quarter final of the Copa del Rey and Valencia in the semis, Barca showed that when the chips are down they can turn it on.
So with players injured, players tired and Madrid storming ahead Guardiola is cherry picking his games. The league has gone, but it could still be another incredible season. Barca have already won the European and Spanish Supercups and December saw them crowned World Club Champions. They are into the final of the Copa del Rey and should beat Bayer Leverkusen to reach the last eight of the Champions League. They could still finish the campaign with 5 titles!
Guardiola knows that too and recent tactics show that he believes the league is gone and so he is resting key men for the Champions League. Win that and win it by beating Madrid yet again and they are still top dogs.
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