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Bet against Barcelona at your peril
For once, the white noise is silence. Stop. Listen. Take it in. What separates this Clásico from the others in recent memory is the ominous hush about the Real Madrid camp. It’s eerie. Aspersions aren’t being cast on Barcelona’s coaches, players or the match officials. It’s strange. Indeed, the strategy of tension previously employed by José Mourinho has been replaced with a quiet self-assurance that speaks volumes.
“Right now we feel more confident,” Mourinho said on Wednesday, “and we are a better team than last season.”
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That conviction comes from a remarkable run of form. Real Madrid have won each of their last 15 games in all competitions and have equaled a club record set by Miguel Muñoz half a century ago. Its timing could hardly be any more poignant. Who better to break it against than this Barcelona?
The narrative of this, the greatest of football rivalries, has taken yet another twist. With a three-point lead on Barcelona at the top of La Liga and a game in hand, too, Real Madrid are in a position of strength like never before under Mourinho.
It’s an eye-catching turn of events given some in the media rather prematurely thought that they had already blown it and lost too much ground on Barcelona after a shock 1-0 defeat at Levante was followed by 0-0 draw to Racing Santander in mid-September.
Life’s a game of inches in La Liga, and considering Real Madrid had accumulated more than 90 points in each of their last two campaigns and still not managed to overhaul Barcelona, it was perhaps an understandable frame of mind. Since then, however, the roles have been reversed.
For the first time since Pep Guardiola assumed control of Barcelona, he now has to walk in Real Madrid’s shoes. The chased has to do the chasing, or risk being left behind. So what, dare we ask, has gone wrong with arguably the best team of all-time?
First, a little perspective is needed. Barcelona have lost once this season. That’s all. Just once. There is no crisis, far from it. If anything, Barcelona are being judged on the impeccably high standards that they have set, standards which Real Madrid appear to have finally risen to under Mourinho.
So let’s attempt to find out where the Spanish and European champions have slipped up?
At this stage of the season in each of Guardiola’s first three campaigns in charge of Barcelona, his team had 35, 36 and 37 points respectively. They now have 31. Essentially, the difference can be found in their lackluster away form.
Barcelona have won two, drawn three and suffered one defeat on their travels. It’s the fourth best record in Spain behind those of Real Madrid, Valencia and Levante.
The going has been much tougher than usual. Ask Lionel Messi. Of his 17 goals in La Liga this season, only one has come outside of the Camp Nou while all seven of the goals Barcelona have conceded have been away from home. It seems they’re vulnerable on the road.
But why is that? How is it possible that they have already dropped 11 points this season when they let slip just 14 throughout all of last season. And can it really be said that they have been figured out by their peers?
To an extent, perhaps it can. Sure, not every team knows how to beat them, but there is certainly a growing understanding of how it’s possible not to lose to them. “Barcelona’s opponents have had three years to dissect their play,” Arrigo Sacchi told L’Équipe on Friday. “They have realized that it’s useless to go head to head with them in wanting the ball, that certain spaces are dangerous and that it’s best to fill them, and that they will always get a better result if they put pressure on the angle of the pass rather than on the player.”
Of course, Guardiola knew that this might happen, that Barcelona’s competitors might one day fathom the depths of their tactics. He has tried to preempt them by reviving the 3-1-3-3 system, a formation that’s synonymous with Johan Cruyff’s Dream Team.
But while it has brought new solutions, such as allowing for the integration of new signing Cesc Fàbregas, which in turn gives Barcelona an extra-man in the midfield zone to help break down opponents who sit behind the ball, it has also created new problems.
There is a sense that Guardiola has perhaps been too clever for his own good, that, although he was only trying to keep Barcelona one-step ahead of their opponents, the team wasn’t broken and didn’t need fixing. Even so, he can point his critics to the fact that in five outings the 3-1-3-3 has yielded four wins and a draw. Not bad, eh?
Still, one can’t deny that, at times, Barcelona have stuttered this season. Their rhythm has been flatter. Their pace slower. Can it not be explained by their difficult and congested fixture list, which has already taken them to Valencia and Bilbao, a fixture list that has been notably tougher than Real Madrid’s thus far. Can it not be put down to Guardiola’s experimenting and tinkering? After all, he has named a different starting XI in every one of Barcelona’s games this season. But then again, he’s had little option but to change things, hasn't he, what with 17 injuries in three months?
Andrés Iniesta has often been restricted to the sidelines. So too has Alexis Sanchez, whilst Gerard Piqué and Carles Puyol have made just five starts each this season. Their importance can’t be underestimated, even if Piqué’s attitude and his capacity to adapt to a three-man backline have come under scrutiny. As a partnership, they have lost only one of the 64 league games in which they have played together. Yet despite their frequent absences, Barcelona’s defense is still the best in La Liga.
Real Madrid might be the bookies’ favorites to win Saturday’s game, and if they do, it will be a giant step toward a 32nd La Liga title. But let’s not forget that they are the ones still with something to prove, and it won’t be easy. Guardiola has never lost at El Bernabéu during his time as coach of Barcelona. Messi has scored 13 goals in 15 Clásicos. And so, with that in mind, it’d still take a brave man to bet against them.
James Horncastle is a European soccer writer with articles published in The Blizzard, Champions magazine and FourFourTwo.
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