Chelsea coach Andre Vilas Boas is right. Someday all good things must come to an end and as he said during the week, that means that FC Barcelona will probably be knocked off their perch as the best side in Spain, Europe and the world sooner or later.
The good news for Pep Guardiola and the Camp Nou faithful is that so far the signs are that it will be later rather than sooner.
Barcelona are unbeaten on top of the BBVA Primera Liga with 17 points from seven games and only draws away to Real Sociedad and Valencia to blot their copy book.
Wednesday saw another typical Barca display as they beat Viktoria Plzen 2-0 in the Champions League. A game which should have ended up four or 5-0 and in which Barca showed most of their virtues, except their usually clinical finishing.
They are top scorers in Spain with 26 goals from seven matches and have the second tightest defence in the BBVA with just four goals conceded (two in each of their draws) so far. That means they haven’t conceded in five out of their seven games, an impressive statistic, but even more so bearing in mind that many consider the Barca defence to be their weak point.
The problem is that in order to attack the Barca defence, you need to have the ball and most teams simply don’t get the ball against Barcelona. If anything has defined Barca over the past three and a half years, it has been the control their midfield impose over their rivals. Barca habitually end games with around 75-80% of possession. Last year they had over 65% against Arsenal – the English side that seems happiest on the ball in the Premier League.
It has been their style and it continues to be so this year. Xavi Hernandez is the metronome that makes them tick, but Sergio Busquets’ work shouldn’t be underrated in that field. Andres Iniesta provides the magic and although he has suffered and will probably continue to suffer injury problems, the club has shown this season they have the players to replace him – Thiago Alcantara has stepped up magnificently from the B-team and although he may not play in the very big games, he has shown he is at home among the exalted company of his team-mates.
Once they get the ball it’s Chuckle Brothers football… ‘to you, to me, to you, to him, to me……etc’
And then of course there is Cesc….. back at home and looking as if he had never left. Until a muscle injury (no surprise there) pulled him up three weeks ago, Cesc was in outstanding form and why shouldn’t he have been? The Catalan probably watched every one of Barca’s games over the past 8 years on Sky, he knows the players from the Spain national team and his style needed no adaptation (unlike for example Javier Mascherano).
Cesc looks like a child who has rediscovered an old box of beloved toys in the attic and his adaptability has given Guardiola the option to slightly change Barca’s style, playing two strikers with Cesc in an advanced midfield role, allowing Barca to press their rivals even more ferociously than before.
Guardiola has also shown he is able to make other subtle adaptations, such as playing Dani Alves in an advanced role in some games. He’s able to do that, partly because Busquets is intelligent enough to provide cover when needed.
Guardiola blotted his copy book earlier in the campaign by defending the record of former club President Joan Laporta, the bete noire of the current Barca strongman Sandro Rosell.
Alexis Sanchez was the other new arrival over the summer, but it’s hard to draw too many conclusions given that he tore a hamstring in the second game of the season. But in that game Alexis had given signs that his pace will be an important factor in offering a different attacking option on the left.
It has to be said as well than many outfits appear to go into matches against Barcelona like puppies arriving at River Cottage; Racing Santander’s 3-0 loss in the Camp Nou last weekend and Sporting Gijon’s sterling defence of a 1-0 home defeat provide the evidence for the prosecution. It will be interesting to see how Sevilla line up this weekend, given that their President Jose Maria del Nido has spent all summer saying the TV revenues mean his side have no chance to complete.
Oh, and Leo Messi is simply unstoppable, but so much has been written about Messi that you know about him already….
So things look good, although we should also take a look at a few possible banana skins, starting with their dreadful injury record this season. Alexis, Cesc, Iniesta, Pique (twice) and Adriano have all suffered muscle injuries, while Afellay is out for the season following a knee operation and Puyol also kicked off late due to knee problems.
If Puyol and Pique struggle with injuries again, then Barca lack a central defender. Although they have youngster Andreu Fontas in the squad and Abidal and Mascherano have shown they can fill in admirably, the lack of power in the air did cost them against AC Milan in the Champions League and also in San Sebastian.
Given that Barca are likely to go a long way in Europe and also the Copa del Rey, Guardiola will keep his fingers crossed this run of injuries literally doesn’t hamstring his side’s chances.
You could also argue that the lack of a big striker (such as mad Zlatan) means they don’t have a plan B if things do go wrong (they still rely on the short corner), but Guardiola would say that with the players they have, his side doesn’t often need to rely on route 1 football, while adding that a big man simply doesn’t fit in.
Other ‘problems’ are open to debate: personally I don’t like David Villa on the left of the attack, he’s more effective in a central striking role, but that is now the territory of Leo Messi and when Alexis is fit, Villa may have to settle for a place on the bench. It seems harsh to criticise Villa, who will almost certainly end with over 20 goals a season, but at times he seems to slow down Barca’s attacks.
There is one dark cloud hanging over the horizon: Pep Guardiola himself. Every year the Barca coach agrees to sign a one-year contract and every year the same question comes up – Will Pep renew his deal? Normally that arises (and the Madrid based press are happy to raise it) around January or February, this year the question has already been asked and Pep (as usual) evaded it elegantly.
He blotted his copy book earlier in the campaign by defending the record of former (and much maligned) club President Joan Laporta, who is the bete noir of the current Barca strongman Sandro Rosell. Rosell and Pep hugged an made up in front of the cameras soon afterwards, but a nagging doubt remains that all may not be as rosy between the two as Barca fans would hope and there will be a few sleepless nights until Pep signs on the dotted line.
Overall, however, the start of this season has given Barca fans more reasons to feel confident about the future than to worry that the walls are about to come crumbling down any time soon. Of course Real Madrid also look to have improved, so have Manchester United, City and Chelsea … and if Pep says he’s leaving???
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