FOX Soccer Exclusive
Is Barcelona's season falling apart?
Everything has changed.
Yesterday, it looked like Real Madrid had everything to lose in Saturday’s La Liga clasico, where defeat could deliver a season ending blow for Jose Mourinho’s side - and end his reign as club coach. Now, it is Barcelona who have everything to lose at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu, as its season has suddenly started careering right off the rails.
Eight days ago Barca’s captain, Carlos Puyol, was talking up its chances of a La Liga, Copa del Rey and Champions League treble. Lionel Messi was in record-breaking form. Puyol’s team was being touted as maybe the best ever.
Now Barca, despite its 12-point lead in the table, is close to crisis. Tuesday’s devastating 3-1 home defeat to Madrid means the Copa is gone, the shocking 0-2 loss in Milan the previous week dealt a possibly fatal blow to their European hopes, and the possibility of it blowing its league lead is raising fears of historic embarrassment in Catalonia.
The last week has brought a huge turnaround at Madrid too, but for the better. Madrid was rocking from yet another internal row between Mourinho and defender Sergio Ramos, key midfielder Xabi Alonso was injured and its team was apparently falling apart at the seams.
Now everything is coming up Jose. His press conference on Monday titled the mental balance his team’s way and his side’s superb tactical and physical performance at the Camp Nou was the best show of his three seasons in charge.
Cristiano Ronaldo, once again, was the star. His clinically taken double wrote his name into Spanish football history as the first player to score in six successive clasicos. But the new, mature Ronaldo did not dwell on that achievement afterwards, instead telling journalists he was already focused on making it seven on Saturday.
“We have adapted to their style of play,” he said. “We played better than Barca. There is always great motivation to beat them. [Now] we are at home and have to keep this going.”
Messi avoided the cameras on Tuesday night, matching his low-profile appearance during the game itself. He then missed training the next morning after complaining of feeling unwell.
Andres Iniesta was there - and suggested to reporters afterwards that the wrong lineups had taken the field against Madrid and Milan.
“When things go badly, we should look at ourselves and make changes,” Iniesta said. “For this we have the coaches and we trust in them. I must perform at my best wherever I play, but my natural position is as a playmaking midfielder.”
Iniesta, who has been starting on the left-wing, hedged his words with the usual talk of respecting the coach’s decisions. But his words highlighted maybe the biggest issue at Barca right now – who is really in charge?
On Wednesday morning club president Sandro Rosell and sporting director Andoni Zubizarreta flew to New York to meet head coach Tito Vilanova, who is receiving medical treatment there, for a long-planned discussion. That Vilanova is currently managing the team by proxy - communicating via text message and Skype with stand-in Jordi Roura - was surely discussed.
Messi is expected back at training on Friday morning, when Roura and/or Vilanova will decide Saturday's starting XI. As Iniesta suggested, David Villa must start in place of Cesc Fabregas in a reshuffle. Carles Puyol, so powerless against Ronaldo and Angel Di Maria on Tuesday, looks another candidate for the axe, even if Javier Mascherano is an unconvincing option to come in.
Mourinho also has decisions to make, with Tuesday’s huge Champions League final 16 second leg at Manchester United looming. Angel Di Maria is suspended so Kaka should come in, and Alonso may be rested, but elsewhere the Special One should be wary of changing a winning formula.
Because at this stage of the soccer season, with the big games coming thick and fast, it can all swing so quickly. Saturday's 90 minutes could see the tables turned yet again, for both teams. That's what happens when a whole season is on the line.
Barcelona’s – and Messi's - need for a result, as well as a performance with some zip and energy, is now huge. Should the Blaugrana get a first win in five games against Madrid, it'll be back on track again, and ready to launch a comeback against Milan in a week's time. Madrid would then be under pressure during the three day turnaround before their trip to Old Trafford.
But should Mourinho's men win again, Iniesta's questions will ring even louder. And Messi and Rosell will have to explain why a season which promised so much is ending so badly.
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