It’s a little premature to suggest there is a shift in power from Catalonia to Madrid, but for the first time in Pep Guardiola’s reign as manager of Barcelona, are Real Madrid looking the favourites ahead of the first Clasico of the league campaign?
To suggest Barcelona are going through a ‘mini-crisis’ would be wide of the mark, they are still the premier footballing side in Europe. But there could be a few doubts creeping in and we’re seeing the side’s weaknesses come a little more to the fore than in previous years.
It seems to be that the ‘lesser’ teams in Spain have cracked the code in how to repel Barcelona’s wave after wave of attacking threat. Getafe last weekend were not the first team to frustrate Guardiola’s men this season, with Sevilla picking up a much-deserved draw at the Nou Camp thanks to the heroics of Javi Varas, and Athletico Bilbao taking advantage of horrendous playing conditions to also grab a point from the reigning champions.
Teams have become more compact against Barcelona’s style of play, that being the patient, meticulous break-down of their opponents. We’re not accustomed to seeing goals scored from whipped in crosses from the flanks, nor do Barcelona’s frontline use the width of the pitch to great effect, rather relying on the marauding Dani Alves to provide options from wide positions.
On the other hand, Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid are looking unstoppable, and it may be for one very obvious reason: the burden of goal scoring is not placed on one player. Cristiano Ronaldo may be first in line for spot-kicks and all free-kicks within range, but Gonzalo Higuain and Karim Benzema have been in sensational goal scoring form so far this season.
Instead of having the tip of the spear pulling defenders out of position and unsettling the nerves of those at the back as Lionel Messi so effortlessly does, Madrid possess a far more lethal sledgehammer of an attack in which to pick up the win.
It’s not that we should detract from the effect Ronaldo has on this Madrid side, it just appears to be that he can have a night off and Mourinho could still call upon surrounding members of the cast to provide equally devastating, counter-attacking football.
However, take Messi out of the equation at Barcelona and we’re looking at a forward line of an out-of-form David Villa who, despite scoring last week against Rayo Vallecano and Zaragoza a few weeks earlier, has not looked the predatory striker that arrived from Valencia. Playing from the left of the attacking trident will of course harm his numbers in front of goal, but his first season at the Nou Camp saw Spain’s all-time leading goal scorer rack up 23 goals in all competitions. Other areas of the Barcelona attack also seem to be going through a similarly dry spell but the return from injury of Alexis Sanchez is welcome and gives Guardiola another option at the Nou Camp.
At this stage of the season Real Madrid are looking more like their bitter rivals both on and off the pitch. We’re yet to hear of a controversial Mourinho moment since he ‘offended’ the Catalan press following their game against Espanyol and his side are displaying a new-found desire in especially troublesome games, as was the case against Valencia a few weeks ago where Ronaldo’s winning goal late in the game was celebrated by Mourinho jumping on Jose Callejon’s back. The Madrid manager stated that Valencia should not be offended by his actions but rather accept it as a “compliment” that his side were able to overcome such a difficult opponent in Unai Emery’s side.
Barcelona’s formula of playing is not something that has all of a sudden broken, they still play wonderful, attacking football that is easy on the eye and they will continue to win by playing this way. But it’s the poor recent form by their standards which sets them up as second favourites in this tie. Their heads drop now when they go behind, they struggle to find the net when they should be getting a score of five or six and, most importantly, they lack the consistent goal scoring of more than one individual, something which may prove to be a problem over the course of the season.