In the month leading up to Sunday’s second El Clasico of the season, Barcelona have shown up quite a bit in the headlines of late and rarely for the right reasons. Throughout the past month, you were more likely to read to about the palace intrigue surrounding the storied Catalan club as opposed to their work on the pitch. The free sports picks are not telling us good things about Barca right now.
To quickly recap, Barcelona bungled the decision to part ways with their former coach in mid-season (a first in 17 seasons), fired their coach but did not bring in club legend Xavi, who had been widely expected to take over and quite openly approached. In the chaos that followed, current member of the board Eric Abidal got into a public spat with Lionel Messi, a squabble that can only have one winner. That marked the first time that Messi showed any ill-will to the club, a significant change for a guy not known to tip his cards on a psychological level. To add injury to the insult, Barcelona also lost their principal scorer (at the time) Luis Suarez for the season due to a lingering knee injury. To say that all this did not make for an auspicious start to the meatier part of the Champions League and La Liga campaigns would be a massive understatement. But yet again Florence and the Machine have the right thought – It is always darkest before the dawn. The Blaugrana’s fortunes started to change just as it seemed the season was doomed and the football bookmakers responded in kind.
First, it was a marginal, yet noticeable improvement within their style of play. Less meaningless horizontal passing typical of the latter part of the Ernesto Valverde era, more purpose in possession with an emphasis on vertical passing to divide the lines. Strangely enough, not using a proper number 9 in the lineup allowed new manager Quique Setien the license to become more inventive with his very best XI. Antoine Griezmann and Lionel Messi were allowed more freedom to roam inside taking up the areas earlier occupied by Suarez, and drift. Messi has flourished in the new system, scoring six goals in the previous four La Liga games and producing some classic Messi moments in the process. Through an obscure La Liga rule, Barcelona were permitted to signal a replacement player for Ousmane Dembele who will be out for this season. Swiftly, the Blaugrana raided lowly Leganes for Danish striker Martin Braithwaite who provides them a makeshift forward in the more classical mould. The rich continue to get richer to the detriment of the remaining clubs.
The last matchday saw La Liga leaders Real Madrid go down 1-0 at Levante, to signal still another change in the story before El Clasico. It was their first loss in four weeks, which saw them fall two points back. Real’s fortunes took another turn for the worse after losing 2-1 at the Bernabeu to Manchester City in the Champions League round of 16, in midweek. By comparison, Barcelona came away with a 1-1 draw away at Napoli and therefore are favourites to progress in the Champions League. The narrative is clear going into El Clasico; this is a story of two teams whose fortunes have reversed and that appear headed in opposite directions. Arguably, Real Madrid have it all to play for in this particular one, with La Liga being their principal focus because their Champions League campaign looks doomed. To keep their relative dominance over Madrid in the Bernabeu (Barca has won 8 of their past 11 at Madrid) Setien and Co. will need to overcome some significant injury setbacks, particularly on the defensive side. Jordi Alba and Sergi Roberto are out and Gerard Pique is listed as questionable. Pique’s presence will be crucial, as a backline which has already shown weakness, devoid of two main stalwarts may be the kiss of death against the firepower upfront of Real Madrid. Hard to believe but it has been 11 years since that 6-2 drubbing administered by Barcelona at the Bernabeu, which indicated the start of Catalan domination in La Liga. Even though it’s beginning to feel this era is nearing its end, given the present respective forms of those two clubs, and Messi’s continued ability to pick a game on his own, this El Clasico does not project to be the bookend that marks the final phase of this era.