By Manuel Traquete
After 10 league matches, two Super Cup matches, one Copa Del Rey match and four Champions League matches, it’s time to analyse Barcelona’s performance so far this season and also to predict what the rest of the season may bring.
The blaugrana season started in the usual glorious way, with the addition of another trophy: the club collected their ninthSpanish Super Cup and their eighth trophy in the past 18 months by beating Sevilla 5-3 on aggregate.
In La Liga, Barcelona have 25 points from 10 matches, the exact same amount of points they had at this point in the glorious 2008/2009 season. The problem is that, under Mourinho, Real Madrid has started very strong and currently lead the table with 26 points.
Quite surprisingly, Barcelona lost all five points at Camp Nou: on matchday 2, newly-promoted side Hercules shocked the blaugrana by winning 2-0 at their own backyard. Barcelona played terribly, created very few chances and Hercules won fair and square.
On matchday 6, Barcelona dominated Mallorca and created several chances but their wastefulness cost them a 1-1 draw. This poor home form at the start is the reason why Barcelona are not in first place by now. To put things in perspective, last season Barcelona only lost two points at home in 19 matches.
On the road, Barcelona have been unstoppable—five matches, five wins. Thirteen goals scored, only three conceded. This includes victories at Atletico Madrid and Athletico Bilbao, two stadiums where Real Madrid will certainly struggle.
All in all, despite a shaky start (especially at home), Barcelona still have their three-peat aspirations intact. Unless Real Madrid drops points at Sporting Gijon or against Athletico Bilbao at home, Barcelona will trail before the first Classico, just like last season, but beating Real Madrid will put them in first place.
Before thinking of the Classico, though, Barcelona must focus on Villareal and Almeria; in a league where the top teams lose so few points, any slip-up can be compromising. After a false start, Barcelona can’t afford many more bumps in the road.
As for the Champions League, Barcelona started brilliantly by trouncing Panathinaikos 5-1 at Camp Nou with a fabulous performance. After that, though, Barcelona have been far from impressive, beating Copenhagen 2-0 at home and drawing 1-1 at both Rubin Kazan and Copenhagen.
Once again, wasting chances was the main problem. Still, a place in the knockout stages is pretty much guaranteed and the first place in the group shouldn’t escape either. Barcelona’s objective in this competition is pretty simple: lifting the trophy at Wembley on May 28.
In the Copa del Rey, Barcelona’s reserves won 2-0 at Ceuta and only a miracle will prevent them from advancing to the next round.
It is widely speculated that Barcelona’s not-so-devastating start is due to Guardiola trying to rebuild his players’ fitness levels in order for them to be in full force until the end of the season. The backbone of the team won the World Cup with Spain, which meant that these players didn’t have a preseason, making this theory a very valid and sensible one.
If it is indeed true, it’s great news for the Barcelona fans; the team is still a top contender in every competition, and with the players back to full fitness the balugrana supporters have every reason to expect more major silverware by the end of the season. The 5-0 demolition of Sevilla was a great sign of what this squad can do when they are in top form.
As expected, Lionel Messi has been the undisputed star of the show. In 14 matches (12 starts), the prodigious Argentine has scored 16 goals (eight in the league, five in the Champions League and three in the Spanish Super Cup) and assisted six. This is even more impressing considering that Messi was injured after that horrendous Ujfalusi challenge.
Putting Messi’s season start in perspective: without having hit his top form yet, and despite injury, he outscores AC Milan’s over-hyped attacking foursome (14 goals between the four) and has more goals and assists in less matches than Cristiano Ronaldo, the Real Madrid starter who’s supposedly in the form of his life.
Xavi hasn’t had the most fortunate start this season. He has been dealing with an annoying Achilles injury, which made him miss some matches, namely those where Barcelona dropped points in Liga. In the past few matches, Guardiola has been managing Xavi’s minutes carefully, in order not to jeopardize his full recovery.
Whenever The Maestro is on the pitch, Barcelona’s tiki-taka game becomes a lot more fluid and functional. His full recovery will be fundamental for Barcelona’s aspirations in the league and in the Champions League. At 30, Xavi is still the leader of Barcelona.
The World Cup hero, Andrés Iniesta, has been oozing his class on the field as usual. His stats could indicate otherwise, but they really don’t reflect Don Andrés’s class and influence in Barcelona’s game.
David Villa, Barcelona’s new star, has already scored seven goals and assisted four. Plus, his chemistry with Lionel Messi has been getting better. Villa’s work rate on the pitch has been extraordinary, playing both in the centre and wide, and his numbers aren’t bad either.
However, there’s a feeling among Barcelona fans that El Guaje can and will do much better. Since the start of the season, Spain’s all-time leading scorer has hit the woodwork on nine (!) occasions. This “jinx” will certainly end soon, and Villa will become an even more important player for Barcelona.
Pedro hasn’t hit top form yet, but he has been performing at a very acceptable level, while Bojanhasn’t yet found the same kind of form that made him bench Zlatan Ibrahimovic at the end of last season. Jeffren and Nolito have been given some minutes in the Mallorca match and in the Copa del Rey. They’ve both shown great promise but still have a long way to go before becoming first team regulars.
Sergio Busquets keeps silencing his critics and his work has been impeccable, making him the first choice defensive midfielder, ahead of new signing Javier Mascherano. The Argentine captain had a slow start but he has steadily been adapting to Barcelona’s playing style, and he doesn’t look lost on the pitch anymore. With time, Mascherano has everything to become a very important player for Barcelona.
Seydou Keita has been the same generous, reliant, but uncreative player he has always been. He might not the most brilliant player around, but his usefulness is unquestionable. Meanwhile,Thiago Alcantara is being progressively integrated in the first team and, at 19, he shows some glimpses that lead Barcelona fans to believe that he might be Xavi’s heir at Camp Nou.
Barcelona’s defense hasn’t been as sharp as last season, except when Puyol and Piqué are on the pitch at the same time. Saying that Gabriel Milito‘s performances haven’t been inspiring a lot of confidence would be an understatement. Carles Puyol has been spotless, while Gerard Piqué has been great, despite some unusual minor mistakes. Spain’s centre-back duo is a guarantee of safety. The only problem is the alarming lack of alternatives.
Daniel Alves, arguably the best right back in the world, has been fantastic as ever, even if his crosses haven’t been as accurate and dangerous as one might expect. The left-back position is still Barcelona’s weakest point: Abidal, Maxwell and Adriano are all decent, but not great (certainly not up to Alves’s standards on the right). Still, at least their performances have been relatively mistake-free.
Victor Valdés keeps getting better and he’s an extremely reliable goalkeeper, while Pinto stepped up to the occasion when he was called to play.
After 17 official matches, Barcelona have already won a trophy and are still contenders in every competition. José Mourinho will do everything in his power to crush Barcelona’s three-peat aspirations and there are many great European teams chasing the continent’s most coveted trophy.
It’s up to Pep Guardiola and his players to show the same kind of form and orgasmic football that led them to an unprecedented sextuple in 2009, to prove that they’re still the best and help make a case for Pep’s Dream Team as arguably the best club team in history.